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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.

January 24, 2012 at 1:42 PM

For better or worse, M’s putting full faith into rebuilding effort

(Seattle Times staff photo)

The (pipe) dream of the Mariners signing Prince Fielder has ended. As the world knows by now, he’s ending up in Motown, having received a whopping nine-year, $214-million contract from the Detroit Tigers.

To beat that deal, the Mariners would have had to put forth an investment, in both years and dollars, that even the most avid advocate of signing Fielder would have to agree is dangerous territory. And that’s ignoring the essential question of whether Fielder ever even seriously considered coming to Seattle, which now appears dubious. His friendship with Jack Zduriencik, in retrospect, wasn’t going to trump the distance from his Florida home, the pitcher-friendly ballpark, the unproven (and recently non-productive) lineup he would have joined, and the Mariners’ recent history of losing.

I thought the M’s could possibly have overcome those factors if, by some chance, a robust market didn’t develop, but it became more evident over time, with the well-heeled Rangers and Nationals hanging in there, that Fielder was going to get his mega-deal from someone. It turned out that the “someone” was unexpected — the Tigers were barely in the conversation, and not until Victor Martinez went down — but I’ve learned not to under-estimate Scott Boras’s ability to get something very close to the deal he wants. I think $200 million was the magic number for Boras on this one, and sure enough, he soared past it.

Should the Mariners have trumped 9 years and $214 million to grab Fielder’s attention? I can’t advocate that, as much as I think Fielder, teaming with Jesus Montero, would have made the Mariners a formidable ballclub. I think a bold seven- or even eight-year proposal would have been just about the outer limits of acceptable risk. But for the 10 years and, what, $230 million it appears to have required to surpass the Tigers, well, that’s insanity.

But now that leaves the burning question, what is Plan B for the Mariners? As I’ve already pointed out, there aren’t many (or any) dynamic free-agent bats left on the market. Perhaps Zduriencik has another trade up his sleeve. Or, as it’s starting to appear, perhaps Plan B is actually Plan A: Turn over the team almost totally to the kids.

Look at the Mariners’ expenditures so far this winter for new talent — virtual pittances. The big-ticket item so far has been Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, who signed a one-year deal for $1.5 million (with incentives that could reportedly lift the total to $4.9 million). Left-handed reliever George Sherrill came in at $1.1 million. Kevin Millwood gets $1 million if he makes the team. Non-roster players Munenori Kawasaki, Aaron Heilman and Oliver Perez would probably get under $1 million if they make the team. John Jaso, Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi aren’t going to be much above the minimum salary of $480,000. Add it all together, and it’s barely Wilson Betemit.

Right now, I calculate the Mariners’ payroll for a hypothetical 25-man roster based on educated guesses at around $81.1 million for next year — but that doesn’t include the nearly $2 million they owe Danny Hultzen by virtue of the major-league contract he negotiated after being the No. 2 overall draft pick last year. Nor does it include any incentives they may owe, nor any payouts still owed from past bad contracts. It’s not far off from the $86.5 million Opening Day payroll in 2011 that they were listed as having in USA Today’s annual payroll report (though they were listed at $98.067 million in the season-ending payrolls compiled by Associated Press).

If they’re going to have virtually the same payroll as they started with last year — and the M’s have steadfastly declined to comment on their 2012 payroll, leaving us to speculate; we’ll find out definitively on Opening Day, right? — then the Jan. 10 tweet of ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick a few weeks ago that cause a stir (that two agents told him that the Mariners “only have $3-4 million left to spend on the roster this winter”) sounds plausible.

And if that’s the case, then it looks like the Mariners truly are going to go young this year. As it stands now, they have youth at first base (Justin Smoak), second base (Dustin Ackley), third base (Kyle Seager/Alex Liddi), catcher (Jesus Montero), DH (Montero/Mike Carp), left field (Casper Wells/Carp/who knows?), not to mention in the rotation and bullpen.

There still could be a veteran addition in the Mariners’ future, but it’s clear that the core of the team will be extremely young. It’s a gutsy call by the Mariners, because they have to know that there will initially be a backlash if they don’t spend any more than they have so far. And if they sputter, the backlash will turn into a crescendo of wrath. On the other hand, a lot of people criticized them in the past for not going for a total rebuild years ago, instead of throwing money at ill-fitting veterans. They have their wish, more or less.

To a great extent, the development of the Mariners’ youth will be a referendum on Jack Zduriencik’s scouting acumen. Guys like Smoak, Montero and Ackley have to click, or it could get ugly. It’s a risky way to go, but one that could have a high upside if the young players take substantial steps forward this year. The Mariners do have a lot of talent brewing in their farm system, particularly in the pitching department. Yet “patience” is not a word Mariners’ fans particularly want to hear — not with the Angels and Rangers loading up again.

Between now and the opening of spring training in three weeks, we’ll find out exactly how heavily the Mariners plan to rely on their youth movement.

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