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December 30, 2009 at 7:57 AM

Remaining sluggers the Mariners can pursue

We’re into the final days of 2009, where things have slowed somewhat for the Mariners after their frantic acquisitions of recent weeks. The decision by Jason Bay yesterday to agree to a four-year, $66 million deal with the Mets (which jumps to five years, $80 million with what is reported to be an easy vesting option) appears to take the Mariners out of the bidding for any more premium left fielders.
The Mariners had been in on Bay from the start, but not for $16.5 million per season. They were satisfied he could hit at Safeco Field since, after all, he was a consistent high-.800s OPS hitter at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, which is similarly problematic to right handed bats. Make no mistake, Bay would have been Seattle’s most feared hitter. His defense is what ultimately tipped the scales. The Mariners could have lived with it in left field, since they’d already made back channel inquires about it with the Red Sox officials and were satisfied he was not as bad as his UZR numbers showed. Any Bay signing here may also have eventually seen him shift into a DH or first base role. But once again, not for that kind of money. The M’s knew Bay wanted to play here and were going to make him pay for the privilege.
Bay’s agent was told early on what the M’s interest level was and that it would be for lower than the four years, $60 million offered up by Boston. In the end, Bay took the money and went to the Mets, with his West Coast options still out there if he decided to play for less. Given the time it took to agree to a Mets deal that had been out there a while, this was apparently not an easy decision. It couldn’t have been. Four or five years is a long time to commit to a town if you aren’t sure about playing there. Despite rumors Bay was looking to go back to Boston, this item in today’s Boston Herald shoots that down, saying the continued interest shown by the Mariners and Angels (a team feeling the heat from fans fearing its grip on the division is slipping) meant the Bay market was never going to collapse to the point where he’d settle for the reduced price the Bosox wanted to pay.
Anyhow, enough of that. The Mariners still have offensive holes to fill and their biggest hope for an impact bat now appears to be at first base. I keep hearing that Adrian Gonzalez is not going to be traded this off-season. Quickest that happens is expected to be come May, if the Padres get wiped off the map in April. Sounds like that could happen. All those rumors bouncing around about a three-way between Boston-Chicago and San Diego could very well be simply laying some groundwork for the future. Anyhow, I don’t see the M’s picking him up this winter.
On the free-agent front, the best first baseman still out there if you’re looking for longevity appears to be Adam LaRoche.
Photo Credit: AP

We’ve told you the M’s have made inquiries — actually, LaRoche himself said this — but he’s believed to be seeking a deal in the three years, $30 million range. Yes, the M’s do have that type of money to spend if they’re so inclined. And yes, it would still leave them enough to acquire another mid-range pitcher like a Ben Sheets or Jarrod Washburn — as long as some competitor doesn’t step in and overbid on those two. You never know.
But if you believe the M’s still have roughly $15 million to spend, give or take a few either way, they could do LaRoche and have a natural first baseman. LaRoche is not the greatest defender, though his UZR numbers are all over the map so it’s tough to get a handle on how bad he’d be. For now, let’s say roughly the same as Russell Branyan, a guy who put up the best numbers of remaining free agent first basemen last season, but comes with that health issue attached.
With LaRoche, at age 31, you can be reasonably assured he’ll be around for three years. With Branyan, at age 34, his track record is limited and the team isn’t sure he’ll make it through 2010 in one piece.
Branyan’s .368 weighted on-base-average and .269 isolated power is, as I’ve mentioned, the best of any remaining free agent first baseman. LaRoche compares favorably at .357 and .211 and, as mentioned, offers more certainty in the longevity department.
Carlos Delgado is the only guy who comes close to those two at .394 and .223, but he’s 38 and has worse health concerns than Branyan. Neither of the three will ever be a Gold Glove or Fielding Bible Award contender.
Of the three, given the money the M’ still have to spend, LaRoche seems the best option for a team that hopes to contend for years down the road.
Then again, it depends on what the M’s are planning for down the road. If Jack Zduriencik wants to take a shot at landing Gonzalez in a mid-season trade and seriously believes he could do it, you might not want to commit that type of coin to LaRoche. Maybe you go the shorter route with a Branyan type.
Another interesting scenario was brought up by USS Mariner’s Dave Cameron a few weeks ago, when a little birdie whispered in his ear that Baltimore DH Luke Scott was a potential trade candidate for the first base job. Scott’s numbers also compare favorably to the free agents I just mentioned, bringing a .355 weighted on-base average and .229 isolated power score to the table. He’s also 31 but not a natural first baseman — having played just 10 games there last season.
Scott does have the advantage of having played left field, however, and would give the M’s even more flexibility at that posiiton. He’s not a great left fielder, which is why he’s been getting squeezed out of Baltimore. But that’s also why the M’s could be looking to score him in a trade that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg as at least one prior deal between Baltimore and Seattle already has. Five pairs of arms and legs to be exact, but who’s counting?
There just aren’t that many left fielders still out there, now that Bay is off to the Mets, that can improve this offense the way it needs to be bolstered. If the M’s weren’t going to meet Bay’s asking price, you can forget about Matt Holliday. So, that leaves first base.
Scott earned $2.4 million last season and is arbitration eligible, meaning he’ll cost roughly half of what LaRoche would in 2010. You also wouldn’t have to commit multi-years to Scott in a trade, giving you the flexibility to pursue other first base options — like Gonzalez — in the interim.
So, yeah, I like that idea and would not be surprised to see the M’s pursue it. As for a Prince Fielder trade with Milwaukee, I don’t see the M’s going there. If this was 12 months ago and the M’s still had Washburn and Brandon Morrow — two guys the Brew Crew had interest in last year — then I’d say the keys to a deal were there. Now, I don’t see it. Fielder’s getting mighty expensive and his number of team control years keeps dwindling while the M’s have less of what Milwaukee would want in return. Don’t see that one happening.
Now that Bay is certainly off of Seattle’s table — as remote an idea as some may have thought it was — the Mariners have a better idea of how their off-season is shaping up and how to best proceed next. After their delays at filling the first base need in recent weeks, waiting to see how other possibilities progressed, I’d now expect to see them move full speed ahead at a first baseman from here, while looking to pick up another mid-range pitcher in the process.
Photo Credit: AP



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