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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.

December 13, 2011 at 10:39 AM

Mariners in Catch-22 when it comes to attracting free agents

safeco.jpg

Here is the Mariners’ latest winter league report.

Ken Rosenthal of FOX had an interesting comment in this piece about the Marlins’ need to trade Hanley Ramirez. In listing the Mariners as a possible destination for Ramirez — mentioning, as I did, Michael Pineda as a trade chip in a potential deal — Rosenthal drops in this:

In the words of one rival executive, the M’s are “starving for offense and can’t get a free agent to sign there.”

It’s a common refrain, one that we have heard for awhile. Certainly, there’s some truth to that sentiment — that many free agents are reluctant to sign with Seattle, unless the Mariners over-pay them to do so, as they were widely perceived to have done with Adrian Beltre — but I firmly believe it is cyclical, not etched in stone. Because when things are going well with Mariner baseball, it’s a coveted destination by open-minded players.

Seattle is a beautiful city, especially in the summer time. Players love to come here for a series — I hear it all the time. Whenever there is a players’ poll of favorite road cities, Seattle invariably ranks in the top two or three. Safeco Field is a great facility, and when the team was winning and the place was full every night, there was a positive vibe here that made this a highly desirable destination.

Yes, there are inherent problems that have to be overcome to attract free agents. One is the location. Many players are reluctant to move to such a remote outpost, where a flight home, for those from the East Coast, or Latin America, can take hours. Not only that, but the Mariners annually travel more miles than any other team, which can be daunting.

Then there is the ballpark, perceived as a cavernous place where power hitters, particularly those from the right side, are doomed to failure. It’s a case where perception is reality, and reality is reality. It’s not a conducive place for righty power hitters, generally, though people kind of overlook that the much-maligned Richie Sexson, a righty slugger who signed a four-year, $50-million contract in December of 2004, hit 21 of his 39 homers in 2005 at Safeco Field, and racked up a .906 OPS at home. The Mariners would weep with joy to have such numbers nowadays. And in his second year here, Sexson hit 17 of his 34 homers at Safeco. Right-handers Edgar Martinez and Bret Boone won RBI titles at Safeco.

But right now, any good hitter is going to look at the Mariners, and Safeco Field, as the black hole of death. What they see is a team that has become renowned for their offensive ineptitude. What they don’t see is the prospect of having decent protection in the lineup they would be joining. Furthermore, they see a team that has six last-place finishes in the past eight years. They see a half-filled ballpark with an atmosphere that doesn’t approach the festive days of the early 2000s. They see a future that frankly looks bleak.

That’s where the Catch 22 comes in. To make this an attractive place for free agents, particularly free-agent hitters, they need to build a winning team that isn’t an offensive disaster — which is hard to do when you can’t attract free-agent hitters. You can accomplish that through the farm system, or through trades (where the incoming player doesn’t have a choice), but the Mariners aren’t moving forward very rapidly in that regard.

One possibility, of course, is to move the fences in at Safeco Field, as the Mets have done at Citi Field for next year. But the Mariners have always rejected that notion, dating back to the A-Rod days.

The hard truth of the matter is that until they build a team that re-establishes Seattle as an attractive destination, they will have a hard time attracting quality free agents through any means other than an over-pay (unless there’s geographic familiarity, which is why I thought Grady Sizemore was a good fit).

That’s one reason I see Prince Fielder as such an enticing target for the Mariners. His presence would give them immense credibility in going after subsequent free agents. Getting him to come here, however, is the hard part — even if the Mariners were genuinely committed to doing so.

(Photo by Associated Press)

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