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2016 Preview: Seattle Mariners

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2016 season. Next up: The Seattle Mariners.

There was certainly a lot of activity at Mariners HQ this offseason. New GM Jerry Dipoto added a new manager in Scott Servais and all sorts of new players including Adam Lind, Nori Aoki, Wade Miley, Joaquin Benoit, Steve Cishek, Leonys Martin, Luis Sardinas, Chris Iannetta, Steve Clevenger and Nate Karns. In a shocking turn he also brought back Hisashi Iwakuma after he was presumed lost to the Dodgers.

Does it amount to a better team than the 2015 model which went 76-84 despite some high(ish) expectations? Possibly. First base has been improved with Lind. Chris Iannetta is a major improvement behind the plate. Aoki is a solid add but Franklin Gutierrez will probably not be as good as he was in limited play last year. Robinson Cano was hampered by injuries last year and seems healthy now but second baseman of his age and caliber have had a somewhat disturbing history of rapid decline, so Mariners fans will understandably hold their breath a bit in the early going. Meanwhile, it’d be unreasonable to expect anything other than at least some decline from Nelson Cruz who was astoundingly good last year. Indeed, people have been predicting a decline from him for a few years now. Leonys Martin was a disaster at the plate last year but his defense is excellent and will allow Cruz to play his natural position of DH this season. In all, it’s a good offense with the chance to be a very good offense, but there is risk.

The rotation starts off wonderfully, at least if you believe that Felix Hernandez‘s second half last year (4.48 ERA in 13 starts) was an aberration. Iwakuma has been a solid number two for a good while now, but the issue between him and the Dodgers regarding his physical sticks in one’s mind. Assuming that was all in the Dodgers’ heads that leaves a rather uncertain back end of the rotation, solidified somewhat by Wade Miley and boosted to the extent you believe that Taijuan Walker will finally emerge as the star he is expected to be. But it’s also full of a lot of question marks from the four and five slots (as well as the three or four guys who may rotate through them via a drive up from Tacoma). The bullpen, meanwhile, has trended sharply downward over the past couple of years and there isn’t a lot of confidence to be had that it’ll be a good crew this year.

Overall, I have a bad feeling here. I worry about the mileage on Cano and Hernandez and I think it’s time for Cruz to fall back a bit. That puts a lot of pressure on the guys who should be the core of the Mariners for some time — Kyle Seager, Walker, and shortstop Ketel Marte. Seager is legit, but if Cano and Cruz fall back, he may need to find another gear to be the offensive star on a playoff-caliber team. Marte is excellent — a candidate to be the new “best guy you haven’t heard of” — but he’s painfully young and may need a bit more time to fully emerge. Maybe Walker makes the leap. But even if that happens there’s that mess of a bullpen and a tough division.

Prediction: I could see them surprising some people and, finishing third. I could more easily see them passing the Athletics into fourth. But I also could see a couple of not-shocking bad things happen and have them wind up in Fifth Place, AL West. Which is the prediction I’m the most uneasy about making of all of the ones I’ve done, but I’m gonna make anyway.

Rob Manfred responds to our report about recent labor negotiations

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Two days ago NBC Sports reported comments Rob Manfred made to players union officials during midterm Collective Bargaining Agreement discussions this past summer. Specifically, sources told NBC Sports that Manfred took an aggressive posture, telling the union that there is “not going to be a deal where we pay you in economics to get labor peace” and “maybe Marvin Miller’s financial system doesn’t work anymore.” Those comments and our report led many to believe that Manfred and baseball’s owners intend to take a hard line with the union between now and when the current CBA expires in December 2021.

Yesterday, at the conclusion of the Owners Meetings, Manfred was asked about our report. Part of his comments were reported in the New York Post last night, but NBC Sports has obtained a full transcript of his entire response:

“One of the things that I never do is talk about what is said in a bargaining room because my experience has been that it usually results in unproductive mischaracterization of the comment. There were four people in that room the day of that conversation: me, [Deputy Commissioner] Dan Halem, Tony Clark and [MLBPA chief negotiator] Bruce Meyer. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that it was not Dan Halem and not me that was the source of that story.

“The comments, the way the conversation actually went, as opposed to the way that it was spun: we invited the MLBPA to come forward with suggestions about midterm modifications that might address some of their concerns. In the meeting, Mr. Meyer suggested a series of changes that would turn the Basic Agreement back 50 years. I mean, essentially give back to the union everything we’ve achieved over the last few decades. I asked, in response to his suggestion, what was in that deal for the clubs? He said, ‘Labor peace.’ The way the conversation actually went is I said to him, ‘Labor peace is a mutual benefit. It’s not something that you trade economics against. It is a mutual benefit it keeps the players working and getting paid and it keeps our business forward.’ That’s how the conversation actually went.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. So let’s unpack.

First off, NBC Sports has no comment of our own about Manfred’s speculation about the sources of our story, as we do not talk about or reveal our confidential sources. As for his comment about “the way it was spun,” we stand by our report, thanks.

As for the substance, Manfred’s comment that the union “suggested a series of changes” that “would turn the Basic Agreement back 50 years” is not consistent with what we were told by our sources. Our sources told us that the union, rather than make any specific proposals, simply laid out its version of where things stand at present between owners and the players financially speaking. Revenue, salaries, free agent signings and things of that nature, while noting their dissatisfaction about that state of affairs. Of course, given that Manfred was actually at the meeting and, given that the MLBPA has declined comment on all of this we’ll leave that go.

But even if Manfred is right and the union made a bunch of proposals, is it really plausible that they were, essentially, retrograde proposals via which the union would seek to “turn back the Basic Agreement 50 years?”

In 1969 the players had no free agency. No arbitration. They were subject to the reserve clause which rendered them utterly powerless in every conceivable way. Going back 50 years — or even 30 years, which was when owners openly colluded against free agents and the minimum salary was still five figures — is surely not a thing the union wants to do. Yes, I presume the union would probably like to see a system more akin to that which existed in the relatively recent past, when free agency worked better for them and they received a higher percentage of league revenues, but Manfred’s characterization of the union’s stance, assuming it was not uncharacteristic hyperbole on his part, is not super plausible.

In contrast, I’ll note that Manfred did not comment on the part of our story where we reported that he said “maybe Marvin Miller’s financial system doesn’t work anymore.” We stand by our report that he did, in fact, say that. And we note that if someone was desirous of wanting a baseball economic system that did not have Marvin Miller’s fingerprints all over it, that system would, by definition, look very much like that which existed 50 years ago. Which leads me to wonder if Manfred is merely projecting when it comes to his characterization of the union’s position.

More important than all of that, though, is the final bit he had to say last night. A bit that, actually, is pretty consistent with our reporting on Wednesday.

Again, from Manfred, offering his own account of what he said to Clark and Meyer in negotiations this past summer:

I asked, in response to his suggestion, what was in that deal for the clubs? He said, ‘Labor peace.’ The way the conversation actually went is I said to him, ‘Labor peace is a mutual benefit. It’s not something that you trade economics against. It is a mutual benefit it keeps the players working and getting paid and it keeps our business forward.’

Even if you assume that, and not the way we reported it on Wednesday, was the exact verbiage, I’m not sure how it makes any difference. At bottom, it’s the exact same position: MLB is communicating that it is unwilling to make economic concessions in the face of a threat of a work stoppage. It’s one party to a negotiation telling the other party to the negotiation that even if it exercises the most drastic power it has at its disposal, it will not back down. Or, alternatively, it’s a demand that the one side disarm itself of its most potent weapon before the other side agrees to anything of substance.

That’s certainly something management can do, but it’s not something that it can do and still portray itself as seeking an amicable resolution to what appears will be a contentious negotiation. That’s, by definition, a hardline position.

Given that the general upshot of our report on Wednesday was that MLB was taking a hardline position in early negotiations, I don’t think anything Manfred had to say last night stands as a rebuttal.