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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 14, 2011 at 1:51 PM

Would Prince Fielder be the biggest free agent in Seattle sports history?

There have been a couple of recent reports that the Mariners are in on the bidding for Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports had it first, I believe (yes, Heyman has left Sports Illustrated for CBS — big news in my world). The word from MLB Trade rumors is that Cuddyer is seeking three years, $30 million. The Twins were offering 3-25 and ended up instead signing Josh Willingham (another Mariner target) for 3-21. The Rockies are hotly in pursuit of Cuddyer, and the Phillies (according to Yahoo’s Tim Brown) and Reds also have interest.

Cuddyer turns 33 on March 27 — the day before the Mariners open the season in Japan against the A’s — and hits right handed. He’s played outfield, third base, second base and first base in the majors (but only seven career games in left, where presumably he’d be playing in Seattle). Cuddyer hit .284/.346/.459 (.805 OPS) last year for the Twins with 20 homers and 70 RBIs. He has career highs of 32 homers (2009), 109 RBIs (2006) and .867 OPS (2006). He’s considered a great clubhouse and community guy, for what that’s worth. It would be a decent signing — just as long as it isn’t viewed as an “either-or” situation with regards to Prince Fielder. Which brings us back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

And by biggest, I don’t mean girth. There’s no question Fielder would win that award hands down — though, come to think of it, Vin Baker would definitely have given Prince a run for his money when he signed a seven-year, $86-million deal with the Sonics in 1999 — a contract that included a weight clause.

No, by “biggest,” I mean, would he make the biggest impact of any free agent signed by a Seattle sports team? It’s a question I heard broached this morning by Dave Mahler on KJR as I was driving to the office, and it got me thinking of the candidates. When you delve into it, it’s impossible not to conclude that Fielder would be the most significant free agent by a long shot, taking into account the buzz created at the time of the signing.

Ken Griffey Jr.’s return in 2009 was a huge feel-good story, but there was also the understanding that it was mostly nostalgic rather than a real boost for the ballclub. The Seahawks have landed three of the biggest names in NFL history — Franco Harris, Jerry Rice and Warren Moon, Hall of Famers all — but only Moon made a real contribution, and he was well past his prime. The other two were done, but just hadn’t admitted it yet. (Turns out, upon further research, that Rice was traded to the Seahawks, not signed. Cross him off the list).

I consulted with the Seattle Times esteemed Seahawks beat writer, Danny O’Neil, to ask about their top free agent signings. He replied,” LB Chad Brown in 1998 is probably most noteworthy followed by RB Ricky Watters in 1998, DE Grant Wistrom in 1994, LB Julian Peterson in 2006 and DE Patrick Kerney in 2007.”

Nothing there remotely close to the seismic impact a Fielder signing would bring. Nor with other Seahawk signings that I could recall — T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Nate Burleson, T.J. Duckett, Julius Jones, et al., up to and including Robert Gallery, Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson or Zach Miller this past offseason.

Turning to the Sonics (remember them?), all I could come up with was a bunch of stiffs who played center, such as Jim McIlvaine, Jerome James and Calvin Booth. Nothing much to excite the masses. And when Baker re-signed after coming over in a whopper trade that included Shawn Kemp, there was more hand-wringing than hosannas.

The Mariners themselves can point to Ichiro prior to the 2001 season as a signing that yielded tremendous results. But at the time of the deal, there was much skepticism about whether Ichiro’s success in Japan would translate into MLB. The excitement level surrounding Ichiro would reach high levels during his rookie season, which resulted in an MVP award, but at the time of the signing, the reaction was muted.

The dual signings of Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson on back-to-back days in December of 2004 caused a great bit of excitement. But even that cumulative reaction doesn’t match what I foresee as the jubilant response from the majority of Mariner fans if they sign Fielder (and, for the record, I remain highly skeptical that they can pull it off). Nothing else — the free-agent likes of Jarrod Washburn, Chone Figgins, Carlos Silva, Rich Aurilia, Miguel Bautista, Jeff Weaver, Scott Speizio — comes close, even if you can somehow separate the results from the anticipation at the time of the signing. Bret Boone turned in near-MVP number after the Mariners signed him as a free agent prior to the 2001 season. But he was coming off a so-so year in San Diego, and there was little to suggest the production to come.

Thinking outside the box, there’s Kasey Keller signing with the expansion Sounders in 2009, and Sheryl Swoopes joining the Seattle Storm of the WNBA in 2008. Big news for their constituencies, but not Fielderesque.

I’d have to say, in fact, that the three previous “free agent” acquisitions that caused the most excitement in Seattle were all coaches/managers: Mike Holmgren joining the Seahawks in 1999, Lou Piniella hired to manage the Mariners in 1993, and Bill Russell taking over as Sonics coach in 1973.

But those weren’t players. Please let me know if I’ve forgotten anyone, but I don’t see any bigger free-agent signing in the annals of Seattle sports — literally, or figuratively — than Prince would be.

UPDATE 5:20: As many have pointed out, I overlooked Spencer Haywood. I wasn’t around when that happened, so I can’t speak to the impact, but I’m sure it was significant.



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