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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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January 14, 2009 12:24 PM

Washburn hand was misplayed

Posted by Geoff Baker

jarrod.jpg

One month from today, the Mariners' pitchers, catchers and eager beavers will hit the field for their first spring training workout. And lefthanded pitcher Jarrod Washburn, believe it or not, is scheduled to be among those loosening up his arm in Peoria, Ariz.

There has been a lot of good taking place with the team since the implementation of new GM Jack Zduriencik, assistant Tony Blengino and company. But the stench of the old regime remains, symbolized in the fact the 2009 Mariners sit poised to trot out a $10.3 million, fairly-average lefty with only one contract year remaining at a time they have at least two other southpaws trying to crack the rotation.

This really isn't about Washburn at all. I thought he pitched better from about late-May onwards until injuries hampered his performance and sidelined him for good. He'll probably deliver a solid, if unspectacular performance in 2009. The problem is, he should be doing it for another team. The Mariners had two chances to unload him, once at the July non-waiver trade deadline and again a few weeks later when the Twins claimed him off waivers.

I tried to give the Mariners the benefit of the doubt when they failed to get a deal with the Yankees done by July 31. At the time, I reasoned that if the best the M's were going to do was dump Washburn's salary and receive the equivalent of a corpse of a position player from the Yankees in return, they could afford to wait until August.

And that strategy worked, as the Twins came forth with a waiver claim, offering an actual pitcher -- we still don't know exactly who, but it was a living breathing arm -- in addition to absorbing roughly $13 million left on Washburn's contract for 2008 and 2009. Had the Mariners taken that deal, they would have looked mighty shrewd indeed. Their strategy of waiting beyond July 31 would have been rewarded. Had the Twins pulled back on offering a player in return, the M's could still have dumped Washburn's contract on them. Minnesota needed Washburn to place in their rotation, enabling them to move a hard-throwing starter into a porous bullpen. The Twins blew a number of late games after the Washburn deal did not go through. It can be argued that failing to get a Washburn deal done cost Minnesota a playoff berth. There's a reason the Twins were desperate and offering Seattle a deal that really could not be sanely refused.

But the M's balked. At first, I felt they could simply keep dealing with the Twins. I was not aware there was a 30-day waiting period, as per MLB's collective agreement, that barred them from dealing Washburn after he was pulled back off waivers -- effectively killing any remaining hope of dealing him in 2008. Once that became apparent, I was baffled. On my regular KJR 950 AM "Talkin' Baseball'' appearance with host Mitch Levy on Aug. 21, I was asked about Seattle not dealing Washburn.

"I think the Mariners might have overplayed their hand here,'' I told Levy. "Certainly, that's what is being insinuated coming out of Minneapolis. It's what has been insinuated coming out of a lot of different cities when it comes to who the Mariners have been asking for in return for their talent. I just don't understand the logic behind holding on to Washburn at this point and not shedding the $13 million. We talked about this going back to May, June and July. And we were saying 'Hey, if you can get rid of Washburn's money, with even a living, breathing body coming back in return, then the Mariners should be popping champagne corks because that's quite an accomplishment -- offloading that much money for a player who puts up league average numbers at the best of times and really doesn't have a role for a 2009 team that's not going to contend for anything.'

"So, we can't really figure it out. We've been spending the whole week scratching our heads over this one.''

Team president Chuck Armstrong cleared up the mystery a few weeks later, telling me he was the one who blocked a Washburn trade. It wasn't really a mystery to me that Armstrong made the call, since he'd said from the outset he's be looking over the shoulder of interim GM Lee Pelekoudas on all potential deals. But Armstrong's reasoning behind nixing the deal had been a mystery.

Armstrong told me he felt he could get more value back for Washburn at the winter meetings and wanted to give the incoming GM a chance to do that. At the very least, he said, Washburn offered up the potential to deliver quality innings for a rotation where Erik Bedard's health was still uncertain and several young pitchers looked like they would be testing the waters.

Here's what I wrote at the time:

Teams that overestimate potential innings totals and then fall short have been prone to overtaxing young arms in both the rotation and bullpen. It's a legitimate worry. Is it worth keeping Washburn here? I still think he gets dealt. But it's why Armstrong says he wasn't going to deal him strictly to save money. He figures that bringing in another veteran lefty on the free-agent market (which is what he'd have to do if worried the guys here could not produce the innings load required) for a year would cost him close to that $10 million price on Washburn next season.

Anyhow, that's his reasoning. We can argue (and I have, to an extent) that he should have taken the $13 million in remaining Washburn salary through 2008 and 2009 and stockpiled it by dealing him. But in this case, the team isn't going to go out and splurge on free agents. So, in effect, the team would have dumped Washburn for the saved cash and not necessarily rolled it back into the team. For now, he's still here and the money is still being spent on the team. That's how I see it. At least for now.

That was on Sept. 5. It's now Jan. 14 and things have changed. The winter market for Washburn never materialized and he now looks more overpriced than ever. Bedard is healthier and projected to be part of the rotation. That means Ryan Rowland-Smith will be getting the proverbial "shaft'' and denied an opportunity to be a starting pitcher. Teams often hesitate at going with more than two lefty starters because that would mean employing southpaws back-to-back against the same team at points -- which is believed to negate their effectiveness. We can assume the Mariners will not use an additional lefty if Bedard and Washburn are both in the 2009 rotation. This smacks of poor planning by the M's. Rowland-Smith earns less than 1/20th of Washburn's salary and showed for seven weeks towards the end of last season that he can produce results similar to what Washburn offered. How is putting him in the bullpen and using Washburn as a starter a proper use of Seattle's resources? It isn't.

The second part of this two-pronged mess-up is the money aspect. As expected, the Mariners seem to be cutting payroll below $100 million. I have no problem with that and still think the team is being overly generous with salary considering it won't compete for much in 2009. The problem is, the team is now giving the appearance of being somewhat skittish on free agents that are relatively affordable. It's possible Zduriencik and company are holding out for the best value they can get. But there have also been some potential big bat solutions out there who have gone to other teams. Jason Giambi comes to mind as a potential, lower-cost, possibly high reward, solution to the power problem that still plagues this team. Giambi is now gone, off to Oakland.

It's one thing for a team to tell a GM to cap payroll at about $90 million or $95 million. Quite another to do that after the team's president balks at a golden chance to shed a $10.3 million contract that's been made somewhat redundant by another young pitcher on the team. That's the part that irks. Not only will retaining Washburn possibly cause Rowland-Smith's development as a starter to be blocked, but it's an unneccesary expense for a team trying to exercise fiscal prudence. An expense that is possibly preventing the Mariners from taking a chance on someone with decent upside in a buyer's market.

I've said it before. This team doesn't look nearly done. Perhaps there is a trade looming that Washburn will be a part of. Maybe a blockbuster deal with Milwaukee or Minnesota down the road. Right now, that's all hypothetical. Right now, the decision to keep Washburn looks terrible. Armstrong has been a whipping boy for fans going on several years now and I don't want to pile on anymore than I have in the past. I think he's shown a recent willingness to be more flexible by hiring Zduriencik and embarking on a different appraoch to baseball operations.

But this decision he made on Washburn, unfortunately, still lingers. And by Opening Day, it will look worse and worse with each passing week that Washburn is still in the rotation and Rowland-Smith is biding his time in the bullpen.

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