Commentary

Mariners add Smoak, prospects

Now if they would only stick with a plan, commit to player development

Updated: July 10, 2010, 1:06 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Here's what stands out about the Cliff Lee trade. The Seattle Mariners must kick in part of Lee's salary for the rest of the season.

Amazing. The Texas Rangers are getting the best pitcher in the American League and a proven Yankees-killer, plus, they'll get two draft picks if Lee doesn't re-sign with them, and yet the Mariners still have to pay part of his salary to help them win their division. I know the Rangers are in bankruptcy, but couldn't they just write Lee an IOU for the rest?

I suppose this is the best the Mariners could get, but I think they should have taken a page from LeBron James and televised it for the ultimate in reality TV: "The Cliff Lee Deadline Special,'' with general managers from around the majors making various trade offers for the pitcher, very special guest appearances by Tony Bennett and Will.i.Am, some comedy sketches with Darrell Hammond, Amy Poehler and the Moose, and, of course, the Fabulous Mariners Grounds Crew Dancers. They could have aired it every week until the deadline -- building the offers and the TV audience -- when general manager Jack Zduriencik reveals the winning bid by having Lee Corso put on that team's cap.

How will the trade work out for Seattle? Given that the Hitless Wonders are in last place and Lee wasn't going to re-sign with them, there is little downside. The only bad scenario is if the Rangers go on to reach or win their first World Series, strengthening themselves for several years to come and making them a much tougher division rival. The best case is the Rangers' long-term future isn't helped (it probably won't, given that they're in bankruptcy) while Justin Smoak and the prospects deliver the way Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and even John Halama did when the Mariners got them for Randy Johnson in 1998.

[+] EnlargeJustin Smoak
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe switch-hitting Justin Smoak, who made his major league debut on April 23, has eight home runs in 235 at-bats.

At the very least, the Mariners did not help the Yankees, as was the early rumor Friday. Strengthening the best team in baseball, a team you need to get by to reach the World Series someday, never makes much sense. Especially since New York prospects so often are overhyped.

We'll see how the new players work out, but the most important thing is the Mariners added some desperately needed prospects. Most prospects don't pan out and no one can really predict which ones will excel, so the sane approach is to collect as many as you can. (Although pitcher Josh Lueke comes with an ugly backstory you normally would prefer to avoid. )

Zduriencik said he could have made several satisfactory deals but decided the Rangers' deal made the most sense for Seattle. "You have to take a realistic look at where we're at,'' Zduriencik said. "In making this deal we felt it was an opportunity to bring in a high-level group of players. Smoak is switch-hitting first baseman with a history of being [an] outstanding player. … We think he's going to settle in to be a really good major league player.''

Next, the Mariners need to give their kids a chance and see what they can do. They have been awful about this in recent years, and there were painful reminders of this lately. Former first-rounder Matt Thornton, whom the Mariners gave away for essentially nothing, made the All-Star team this week. The Mariners never could make a decision on former first-rounder Brandon Morrow (He's a starter! He's closer! No, he's a starter! No, he's a reliever!) thus retarding his progress, and eventually traded him to Toronto for reliever Brandon League. Morrow has rattled off six quality starts in his past seven outings (one run or less in five of those) while League has blown his past two leads, including Wednesday's when he walked the first two batters he faced and gave up a three-run homer to the next. And oddly, just recently they gave up a couple of prospects for 34-year-old Russell Branyan (with the Smoak addition, I assume Branyan will probably become the DH).

This has to stop. If the Mariners are ever going to develop any players, they have to let them play.

They need to dump the rapidly aging and often hurt Jack Wilson (his two-year extension over the winter was inexplicable). They need to call up Matt Tuiasosopo and give him the rest of the season to play. They need to stick with left fielder Michael Saunders. I don't know if Saunders is going to be a star -- at times he looks overmatched at the plate -- but I like what I've seen. He can run, he can field and he has some power. He's also the only player on the roster besides the extremely disappointing Chone Figgins who fans can realistically expect to improve significantly next season.

Seattle was supposed to contend this year, and the Mariners could have had they managed any offense whatsoever (the Mariners have been held to one or fewer runs in nearly a quarter of their games). "I don't think when we arrived in spring training anyone expected it to turn out the way it has,'' Lee said. "But it is what it is.''

Yes, and what it is isn't pretty. Friday's trade isn't nearly enough on its own and the turnaround isn't going to happen overnight. The Mariners have good pitching, but they desperately need some power hitters. They must find a catcher to replace the worst crew in baseball. They need infield help.

But mostly what they need is a plan they will stick to long enough for players to develop. I mean, all the Ichiro and Ken Griffey Jr. bobbleheads are fine, but it would be nice if the Mariners had another player to put in the mix.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com