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May 21, 2009 at 11:36 AM

Mariners face uphill climb on trade front

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We’ll have Geoff Baker Live! coming up at 6 p.m. for those of you who want to talk trade, Mariners and everything else baseball. Don’t say we didn’t give you any notice.
Many of you keep writing in, or asking when we do our live show, just when the Mariners will call it a season and decide to start trading off veteran players. I’ve said before and will repeat: the trading season is not yet there for the M’s, who are still in the thick of things in the AL West.
Once the Mariners fall out of contention — and if this was July 21 instead of May 21 we’d probably be at that point already — they will certainly look to shed some veteran contracts for players like Adrian Beltre, Erik Bedard, Jarrod Washburn and Miguel Batista.
But it’s not happening yet. And Yuniesky Betancourt is not the same situation as those other players. The Mariners have explored trading Betancourt right now because he hasn’t helped them offensively or defensively and it’s becoming clear he doesn’t really fit into the club’s plans long-term. With teams out there looking to upgrade to younger players at key positions, there is a market to deal right now.
But it is a limited market. And if the team’s experience in trying to move Betancourt is any indication, the Mariners face an uphill climb on the rest of their trade front should it come to that this summer.
We mentioned the Betancourt-to-Pittsburgh for Jack Wilson rumors a couple of days ago. Well, I’m now told that’s not going to happen. Why? The Pirates think Betancourt is too pricey.

I mean, we’re talking about a guy who’s only 27 years old and has four years experience already as an everyday major league shortstop. Yes, Betancourt’s numbers are in decline, but there are still folks who believe he has untapped talent that can be brought out with a change of scenery and newfound dedication to what he does. That’s not for me to say, but the Pirates weren’t exactly being asked to give back the farm for Betancourt. I mean, Wilson, at age 31, is a stopgap player who would have cost the Mariners $8.4 million to keep around beyond 2009.
Not exactly Ozzie Smith, either.
And the reason the Mariners gave Betancourt that long-term deal two years ago was to buy out some of his free-agent years and make him a cost-effective option going forward. Betancourt is owed $2 million this year, $3 million next, $4 million in 2011 and has a $6 million club option for 2012 with a $2 million buyout.
Washburn will earn almost as much this year as Betancourt is scheduled to earn combined through the remainder of his deal if a team did buy him out for 2012. Betancourt’s deal was thought to be good for the team in 2007. So, what happened?
Well, 2009 happened.
The economy has drastically changed the baseball landscape. Teams are struggling to draw fans and are tightening their wallets. It’s gotten to the point where even Betancourt’s once-cost-effective deal is being viewed as too big a risk to take on a player whose numbers are tumbling.
That’s why, even as the Mariners continue to talk to teams about dealing for Betancourt, they may come away empty-handed. Where he was once seen as a good young bargain, he is now viewed as overpriced.
And that’s terrible news for Seattle when it comes to the rest of its trade front.
Where the M’s might have expected to generate a hefty haul for folks like Beltre, Bedard, Washburn and Batista on the July market, the salaries of those players dwarf the money being paid annually to Betancourt. And while the trade deadline often makes teams do foolish things in the name of contending, a two-month rental of Beltre would cost $4 million, Washburn $3.5 million, Batista $3 million and Bedard about $2.7 million.
Even if those players turn it up and are lights-out between now and July, teams are already going to be struggling with their pricetags in baseball’s changed marketplace, Consider how an intelligent Raul Ibanez was able to earn $10 million annually over three years by biting early in free agency last winter, before others like Bobby Abreu had to settle for one-year deals worth half that amount only a couple of months later. The bottom has fallen out on the salary front for even bigger name players.
And believe me, the whole steroids mess is now coming back to bite players. Teams are wondering what exactly they were paying for a few years back when salaries ballooned like they did. The entire A-Rod and Manny saga will make teams even more cautious going forward. The last thing a team wants to do is pay for performance that may have been inflated. And guilt or innocence on PEDs has nothing to do with it. All players will be tainted with the same brush.
Combine that with a recession and it’s a recipe for disaster where the M’s are concerned.
Even if they can convince teams to pay the wages some of their veterans are owed, it’s going to be a monumental challenge to get any clubs to offer up top-grade prospects in addition to that cash.
The idea that the Mariners were going to use this coming trade deadline to essentially rebuild their farm system and stockpile a cache of young talent was a nice one when the game was still being played under the old rules. But those rules no longer apply. It’s a brave new baseball world out there.
And that’s why these Betancourt trade discussions are important to keep following. It will be important to see what the team can generate as a return.
Even more important — and ominous for this summer’s dealings — if no returns can be found.



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