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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 29, 2012 at 1:14 PM

Closer fences will help Mariners with free agents, but money still talks loudest

Among the many benefits cited by the Mariners when they announced that the Safeco fences were moving in, making Seattle a more palatable destination for free agents was relatively high on the list.

We’ll soon get an indication if that will indeed be the case. The signing season is heating up, with B.J. Upton the latest to come off the market after signing with Atlanta (five years, $75 million) on Tuesday. With the winter meetings commencing this weekend in Nashville, it shouldn’t be long until the rest of the names on the list start to make their decisions. Another thing to keep in mind is Friday’s deadline (9 p.m. Pacific time) for teams to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players. The so-called “non-tender” list will provide a new pool of free agents, and allow general managers further clarification of the market place. (The Mariners have five players who must be tendered: John Jaso, Robert Andino, Shawn Kelley, Josh Kinney, Brendan Ryan and Jason Vargas. I’d say the only potential non-tender candidates are Kelley and Kinney).

The Mariners have been linked, for obvious reasons, to most of the offensive players on the market, from catchers like Mike Napoli and Russell Martin to a slew of outfielders, of which there are still many interesting names who remain unsigned.

But there is a key question that goes beyond pinpointing whom the Mariners will target. And that is: Will free agents target them? The Mariners are hoping that the new configuration, which is designed to make Safeco a more forgiving ballpark, particularly for right-handed hitters, will make them a more attractive destination.

Let’s face it — the Mariners haven’t had a lot to offer free agents in recent years, particularly hitters. They’ve been non-contenders, for the most part, and Safeco has earned a warranted reputation as Death Valley for sluggers. This study from the upcoming Bill James Handbook 2013 shows just how hard it has been to hit at Safeco. Since 2010, Safeco Field has been the most pitcher-friendly park in the major leagues (another way to put that is the least hitter-friendly park in the major leagues). It has also yielded the fewest homers in the American League in that span (ranking third in the majors behind the AT&T Park in San Francisco and Marlins Park in Miami). One interesting tidbit uncovered in this study, which should make the Mariners sit up and take notice, is that Citi Park, the Mets’ ballpark, became an even harder place to score runs after moving the fences in last season (even though home runs went up). That’s a topic to explore at another time.

Will the new alignment at Safeco lure free agents? Over the past few weeks, I’ve posed that question to numerous agents. After all, they’re the ones who do the negotiating and have intimate knowledge of the desires, and fears, of their clients. All are prominent names in the industry, but I granted anonymity to ensure the comments were frank.

I asked one agent if he’s ever had a client tell him he didn’t want to play in Seattle because he couldn’t hit home runs there.

“Yes, I have,” he replied. “I hear that about San Diego even more so. It’s way worse than Seattle.”

Every agent I talked to, in fact, confirmed that in the past there has been at least some reluctance — ranging all the way from concern to dismissing the Mariners out of hand — based on the perception that it’s not a good place for hitters.

“They saw what happened to guys like Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson, the frustration they experienced,” said one. “They didn’t want to see their stats shrivel away.”

But one agent added, “At the end of the day, if the Mariners were going to pay the highest contract, their fences could be in Everett. When there are competitive bids, the player is going to look at those factors. I think moving in the fences does make Seattle more appealing for bats, power guys. But at the same time, not so much it is going to detract from the arms that want to come there. I think it’s a good move.”

Another agent said, “They’ve made themselves more competitive with the middle-tier player, who has more options.”

One agent called the ballpark “kind of a minor issue. I don’t think it’s a major issue. I think the atmospher eis a more important factor versus moving in the fences, truthfully. They have some exciting young players, and there’s a feeling, at least among my clients, that they’re putting something together that’s going to make them successful soon. That’s more of an appeal than the fences.”

Still another: “Players look at all of those factors, but in the end, it still comes down to where they can get the best contract. And it always will.”

Jack Zduriencik seems to recognizes that factor. In a conference call today to talk about the winter meetings, I asked what he’s been hearing about the new fences as he talks to free agents and their reps.

“It gets their attention,” he said. “They brought it up to me is the best way to put it. I’ve said all along, it always comes down to contract and dollars. It seems that’s how it is. But it has gotten their attention. The biggest purpose in bringing in the fences was to create a fair park, and put us in the middle of the pack with how other parks play. It does come up. But in the end it comes down to (contract), and how a player envisions himself in a Seattle unform.”

And we’ll have an indication soon if that vision is more expansive than in the past by virtue of a cozier Safeco Field.

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