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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

November 28, 2011 at 1:13 PM

Will Mariners go for the big strike (ie, Prince Fielder)?

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(Photo by Associated Press)

Sunday’s trade of Josh Lueke for catcher John Jaso was a good move for the Mariners, giving them a young catcher with upside for a relief pitcher with fungible (love that word; it appears in this trade analysis) skills.

But while it very well made the Mariners better in a small way, it’s not the kind of deal that will have the M’s fans frothing at the mouth with excitement. We all know the one transaction this winter that will do that: Signing Prince Fielder. In and of itself, making a trade to appease fans (or media) is a lousy business model. Winning December doesn’t do you much good if it’s by virtue of a flashy yet poorly conceived move that will hurt you in the long-term, and thus ultimately cause even more fan dissatisfaction.

I think of the Giants’ signing of Barry Zito prior to the 2007 season for seven years and $126 million (after the Mariners had made an offer in the $100 million range that was thankfully, from their standpoint, rejected). The Giants received plaudits from their fans for signing the former Cy Young Award winner of their cross-bay rival, who was coming off a 16-win season, even though savvy analysts could see a fall coming for Zito. Sure enough, he has a 43-61 record in five years with the Giants, who rue the day they agreed to pay him so much — including $19 million next year and $20 million in 2013. Yes, the Giants recovered quite nicely and won the World Series in 2010, but that doesn’t mean the Zito contract hasn’t been a huge hindrance.

Yet when a team has seen its attendance drop from 3,540,482 in 2002 to 1,896,936 this past season — a decline of 1,643,546 million in the span of 10 seasons — they have to give due consideration to fan reaction. Yes, ultimately fans will react most favorably to success, whether it is attained via a big, splashy free-agent signing or a series of under-the-radar trades or signings that provide incremental improvement. But if the splashy signing also makes baseball sense, well, that has to be quite enticing, which is why the Mariners, by all accounts, are at least kicking the tires on Prince Fielder.

The latest signal of that comes in this piece from Greg Johns on MLB.com. Even those who don’t think the Mariners should pursue Fielder aren’t saying he wouldn’t help them (at least I don’t think so). Fielder’s skill-set — a left-handed bat with tremendous power, along with a lifetime OBP of .390 — is one that would be tremendously beneficial to a team that has had the most anemic attack in baseball the past couple of years. But those foes of a Fielder pursuit are saying that at the prohibitive cost of his contract — agent Scott Boras will be pushing for eight years and $200 million — he won’t help them enough to justify the likelihood they wouldn’t have enough additional resources to turn the team into a contender.

I happen to fall into the camp that says Fielder is a dynamic enough player that they should pursue him, hard, and see where the market takes them. Jim Bowden of ESPN has predicted that Fielder will get eight years, $192 million, which averages out to $24 million a year. Boras has made a career of forging blockbuster signings, taking the market beyond anyone’s expectations. And as Bowden pointed out, “He is going to make sure Fielder gets north of the eight-year, $180 million deal he negotiated for Mark Teixeira with the Yankees back in 2009.”

That would obviously be a huge, huge risk for the Mariners. It would be huge risk even if the length of contract winds up being six or seven years for, say, $22 million a year. Despite his durability so far (no stints on the DL, no fewer than 157 games played in his six full seasons), and his relative youth (he turns 28 next May), with his girth there have to be questions about how well he’ll age. Yet it would have huge potential upside as well. Beyond what his offense would do for the Mariners, you’ve got to think that Fielder’s presence would help others in the lineup, young players like Justin Smoak who suddenly wouldn’t have to carry the bulk of the power burden. (Smoak’s role would obviously change with Fielder’s addition; to a likely DH). You’ve got to think it would help lure other free agents here down the road. It would, theoretically, put butts in the seats, which would lead to increased revenue which, again theoretically, would allow the M’s to support a higher payroll.

Jack Zduriencik would have to be creative to improve the team in other ways — he could still make some of those incremental improvements. Perhaps it wouldn’t be enough to make the team a division winner this year, or even a contender, but it could, and I feel would, point them in that direction. Remember, Ichiro’s contract could come off the books after this year. That would be a whole lot of potential new money to help subsidize Fielder’s contract and get additional help. The restrictions on international and draft spending inherent in the new CBA should give the Mariners some more millions to work with. And if the Mariners’ farm system is as robust as they’ve been portraying it, a whole lot of help should be on the way.

I understand the argument against Fielder, and if the Mariners can’t stomach a $200 million investment, it would be hard to be too bitter. I also understand that even if they have a sincere desire to sign him, Fielder has to want to come here, which isn’t a slam-dunk. But this is the one guy that should make the Mariners think hard about raising their budget for this season, and going for the big strike.

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