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December 17, 2009 at 9:37 AM

Not landing Rich Harden might be best thing that ever happened to Mariners

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ADDITIONAL NOTE: Meant to bring this up the other day before the whole Cliff Lee thing broke. This post on U.S.S. Mariner took a Jack Zduriencik quote from a feature I’d written about Twitter and then implied — through references to “logic tests” and “a certain team being linked to a player who just doesn’t make any sense for that team” — that Jason Bay’s agent was behind our reports on the Mariners being interested in the left fielder. USS Mariner readers immediately made the obvious connection, given that site’s authors past claims that the Bay rumor did not pass their own “smell test”.
Problem is, the connection and implication is factually wrong. I have never spoken to either Bay or his agent and nobody at my paper had either, despite attempts, prior to that USS Mariner post being written. To imply otherwise is simply untrue and unfair to both the agent and the player. I have no idea where Bay is going to wind up signing, but, the Mariners have been and remain interested in him. They weren’t interested at $60 million, but at the right price if the market played out the way Seattle hoped it might. Zduriencik more or less confirmed his interest in a radio interview with ESPN 710 yesterday. Smell tests are in the eye — or nose — of the beholder. And there is no pre-set way to build a team. But even if Zduriencik hadn’t said a word on the radio, it doesn’t change what I’m writing here. We’ve had differences of opinion with USS Mariner on baseball-related issues before and that’s fine. Nothing like healthy blogosphere debate. But their blog post and insinuations this time, while an entertaining bit of guesswork, are factually wrong and need to be cleared up. And they will remain wrong regardless of where Bay winds up signing. There is no debate there.

Sometimes, as many of you know, fate simply gets in the way of the best laid plans. And not always in a bad way.
We’ll never know for sure how this whole Cliff Lee thing would have played out had things gone a little differently on Dec. 8 at the winter meetings. As we wrote for this morning’s paper, that Tuesday night was when the Mariners learned that another team had outbid them for free agent Rich Harden.
The Mariners found out the next day that it was the Texas Rangers. Texas had agreed to a deal with the accelerator clauses the Harden camp had been looking for. Texas paid Harden $6.5 million, guaranteed him $1 million in a buyout of his 2011 mutual option, then added the clauses: $500,000 more for the first 155 innings pitched, and another $500,000 for every 10 innings after that — up to a limit of $2.5 million in bonus money.
Now, whether the Mariners agreed to the bonuses and simply offered Harden a lower base salary, or offered the base and hedged on the bonuses is irrelevant. They got outbid and the bonus structure was the big concern.
And why not? Under this scenario, Harden is guaranteed $10 million next season even if he throws only 195 innings.
Yes, it’s true that getting Harden to throw that many innings has always been a challenge. But if you’re bidding on a pitcher, you don’t want to bid against yourself. The Mariners were naturally hoping that Harden could be a solid addition to their staff and 195 innings really isn’t all that much to ask for. Jarrod Washburn used to deliver stuff similar to that.
And if you remember, there were a ton of folks complaining about Washburn’s $10 million salary in this town. In Harden, the team had been looking for a medium-risk, high-upside pitcher at a cost-effective price. But paying $10 million for a 195-inning guy isn’t exactly cost effective. Neither is $9 million for a 185-inning guy, or $8 million for a 175-inning guy. You get the point. And remember, to outbid the Rangers, the M’s, in theory, would have had to offer even more money. Maybe they would have needed to pay Harden $11 million once he reached 195 innings. Who knows? Bottom line is, that’s a lot of dough for innings totals that, while OK, aren’t great. The Mariners were hoping for a No. 2 or No. 3 starter this winter and that usually means a guy who can get close to 200 innings or more.
Enter Lee.
He’s being paid $9 million for 2010. That’s one million less than Harden would have been paid to get the kind of season the M’s wanted out of their guy on the mound.
Photo Credit: AP


Lee has become a lock for 200+ innings, just won two World Series games and is only a year off his Cy Young Award. Need I say more? As far as bang-for-buck goes, this was a much better deal than Harden. Yeah, it cost the team three prospects, but none were really top-shelf in this organization. All were blocked at the major league level, except maybe J.C. Ramirez, but he’s got a lot of polishing to do overall despite a promising fastball-slider combo.
Of the three, perhaps only Phillippe Aumont ever sees major league action with the Phillies, who needed bullpen help last year. But the Mariners already have a ton of late-inning relief types in the majors and higher echelons of the minors. Aumont was expendable. And Franklin Gutierrez in center for years to come meant Tyson Gillies was a man without a place to play.
So, it’s a no-brainer. This was a much better deal than landing Harden, even though the Mariners were sorely disappointed a week ago Tuesday when they first heard they weren’t going to get their man.
Now, would the Mariners have gotten in on Lee even had they landed Harden? It’s possible. But not entirely probable. We’ll never know. And whatever is said by whoever now is too late. We’ll never know whether Jack Zduriencik, basking in the afterglow of a Harden singing, prepping for a press conference and knowing he had at least one arm in hand, might have shifted his focus more towards hitting.
It’s human nature, after all, to breathe a sigh of relief.
Would Zduriencik have been as hungry in pursuit of Lee if he already had Harden? Would he have managed to find himself in a position to be speaking to Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr., pleading his need-for-pitching case on that Wednesday, with the meetings 24 hours from being done? No matter what anyone says — and all the GMs are being kind of vague about just how the Mariners came to be asked in on this deal — it appears more and more as if Zduriencik, having done his homework, was tipped off in advance that the Phillies needed a Lee trade partner. And then, knowing this, that he practically wrote the script for Amaro and prodded him into asking the Mariners to take Lee off his hands without actually saying the words for him.
Could that have happened after the winter meetings? Maybe. But in this case, the face-to-face contact at the Marriott hotel in Indianapolis could not have hurt in order to prompt that question of whether Zduriencik could “do” Lee if Amaro could “do” Roy Halladay. There’s just something about these face-to-face dealings that get things accomplished much quicker than over the phone.
And Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos has stated that he wanted to get things done fast. He wasn’t going to dilly dally for months on this deal once he figured Philly had the prospects he wanted. If the M’s were less aggressive, or hesitated, Amaro likely would have turned elsewhere for Lee help and the pitcher would be elsewhere today.
And a Harden signing beforehand might have made the M’s just that much less aggressive. Heck, the money Harden’s getting might have made it impossible to get Lee in any event. The M’s after all, still need to get some bats.
So, in this case, I think it’s safe to say that M’s fans should thank their lucky baseball cards today that Harden accepted the Texas offer. Not everyday that happens and a team’s fortunes change so dramatically in a span of 24 hours. But sometimes, things happen for a reason.
As much as the M’s seem to have been burned by fate in some cases, this time, assuming Lee delivers what he can, they have been its beneficiaries.

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