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November 18, 2011 at 10:46 AM

Prince Fielder and the acceptance of mediocrity

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ADDITIONAL NOTE 6:26 p.m.: Today is the final day for teams to finalize their 40-man rosters and protect players ahead of the Rule 5 draft. No surprise that the M’s chose OF Chih-Hsien Chiang, INF Francisco Martinez and INF Carlos Triunfel to protect, leaving the roster at 38 players. The Mariners were interested in C Ryan Doumit, who signed with the Twins and OF Grady Sizemore, who appears headed back to the Indians. That would explain the two remaining roster vacancies. Seattle has a couple of hours to add players to the roster, if they wish.
Years from now, if somebody can be bothered, they might write a treatise on how a franchise like the Mariners — flush with enough cash to fund payrolls in the game’s top tier for several years — could remain so mediocre for so long.
And if they get around to it, they might try reading some of the arguments against bringing in top players that permeate the Mariners blogosphere.
The arguments will throw in names like past failures Adrian Beltre, Richie Sexson, Rich Aurelia, Jarrod Washburn, Chone Figgins and others to argue against importing other top free agents. These arguments will be devoid of any real context. But they will still be used to argue against the rationale of signing somebody like a Prince Fielder. Never mind that Fielder right now represents the best chance for a rebuilding team to add a long term impact bat that you might see around for many years. That context will be ignored in favor of the arguments of fear.
The fear that somehow, augmenting one of the worst offenses in the history of the game will paralyze the Mariners for years when it comes to future additions.
Some will even mention the Texas Rangers and A-Rod from a decade ago, again ignoring the context that those Rangers were not a rebuilding team. They were an aging team trying unsuccessfully to take the next playoff step. Sure, they had just pulled off a successful swap for Michael Young a few months earlier. But their pitching was almost non-existent with nobody really coming up the pipe. And they had an owner en route to spreading himself way too thin on the international sports stage, whose attention to on-field detail with his baseball team was sorely lacking.
That isn’t the case here. Which is why context matters. Anyhow, back to present-day facts, involving the Mariners and Prince Fielder.
I can understand why folks would not want to go eight or nine years in contract length, and there’s a good chance they won’t have to. Scott Boras is merely doing what good agents do in setting the bar high for his client so that if it’s knocked down a few pegs, he still ends up looking good. In the end, only a handful of teams could afford that length and the Yankees and Red Sox already have premium first basemen.
The question then becomes, as a franchise, do you want to spend between $20 million and $25 million per season on a first baseman? Well, if you’re the Mariners, you may have little choice if the plan is to contend at some point this coming decade.
Can the team afford it? Of course it can. And the folks who argue that it can’t really have to take a deeper look at their figures and explain why not.
The consensus seems to be that the Mariners already have a cushion of about $15 million if they keep payroll the same and account for raises to Felix Hernandez, Franklin Gutierrez and some others. Eat most of the remaining cash on the Chone Figgins contract and you’ve got a couple of million more. Trade Brandon League or Jason Vargas, there’s your Prince Fielder money.
It ain’t rocket science.
Better yet, when Ichiro’s contract runs out next year, don’t re-sign him. Do what good teams do with 38-year-old right fielders who possess a sub-.700 OPS. Wave bye-bye.
There’s your bonus money for all future acquisitions.
Again, not that complicated. It can be if you try to have it both ways and play politics and PR games at the expense of making sound baseball decisions. But this really isn’t very complex. Fielder is an easily affordable piece for this franchise even if it keeps payroll exactly where it is. Which would be ridiculous, mind you. The Angels and Rangers will already be outspending the Mariners next season and the incoming Houston Astros will eventually pass them as well if they hold the payroll line. It’s too low.
And the fact that Mariners fans keep arguing for additions based on the assumption the current payroll is enough are deluding themselves. It’s been enough to give them one of the worst offenses in MLB history two years running with 196 combined losses. Doesn’t matter what the Milwaukee Brewers managed, or the Cardinals or the Rangers so far. The Mariners are not any of those teams.
Spending only $93 million total when a third of it is going to Ichiro and Chone Figgins and players no longer around is not enough. It may have looked like enough 10 years ago. But not anymore. Not in the American League, where free agents tend to migrate more than anyplace else, and not in the AL West where two teams will soon be outspending you.
And yes, this is how mediocre teams stay bad. With the general acceptance of their mediocrity.


Under current conditions, this team looks to be at least three years away from seriously contending for anything. And if that’s the case, there is no point keeping Felix Hernandez around for three more years at his current price. Better off trading him to allow the real rebuilding to begin. If you’re being honest with yourself and your fans.
Or, if you want to keep him around — which I am still in favor of — you can also be honest and try not to drag the rebuilding out longer than it has to go.
The only reason you drag it out longer is if you’re absolutely opposed to spending any more money than you need to in order to keep franchise value current. In other words, if you don’t want to take risks.
And again, aversion to risk is how mediocre teams stay bad a long, long time.
I’ve just showed you the Mariners can afford Prince Fielder and Hernandez at the same time.
What about other upgrades, you ask?
Easy. Some of your trade returns will hopefully plug holes. This team can actually trade pieces like League and Vargas for some MLB-ready returns. Or some of your farm pieces. Not all of these pitchers are going to fit in the rotation. But I’d jettison the two vets first. Even if the returns turn out to just be stop-gaps until the “kids” on the farm are ready. Better than sitting around waiting for those farm pieces now with no major upgrades. No guarantee anyone of Fielder’s potential will be there a year from now. Or three years from now. If this farm system is really as good as advertised, then it shouldn’t be a problem. The kids will arrive in a year or two and everything will be grand. If it’s all smoke and mirrors, well, the franchise is in serious trouble.
And if those trade returns don’t do the complete trick, well, you have two choices. You can (gasp!) up payroll by $5 million, or $10 million so that you’re spending as much on the on-field product (this year’s was about $87 million) as you were in 2009.
Or, you can sit tight, try for a .500 record (or slightly below) and do your other shopping next winter once Ichiro’s contract comes off the books.
After all, most of us agree the Mariners are not just one Prince Fielder away from contending in 2012. Most of us understand this team needs several additions before it can become competitive. But having an impact bat in the middle of the lineup — where opposing pitchers actually have someone to fear and may not take as many liberties with the rest of the lineup — could go a long way towards making this team better.
Fielder may not be that bat. If he really does get nine years, $250 million, I could understand a lot of teams — not just the M’s — walking away. And maybe the Mariners could go out and get somebody almost as good for a lot less. I’d be all for that.
But what I can’t do, responsibly, is argue for the M’s not to consider adding Fielder to the lineup, even if the cost per annum is $20 million to $25 million over six or seven years. Good players cost money. Spending in the AL West is going up, not down. The division is becoming more competitive, not less. The Mariners have the money to spend on Fielder right now and will have more in a year if they do the right thing and let Ichiro walk.
This isn’t the NL. It isn’t the NL Central, which Fielder is leaving for much greener — accent on green — pastures. This is the soon-to-be free-spending AL West. And while a payroll of $90 million may have been OK five years ago, it’s now the domain of mid-market teams. And the way the Mariners are currently positioned, it will be the domain of a very mediocre team for years to come.
I’ve listened to the arguments against adding a big bat to the Seattle lineup for two years running. We’ve seen the results. You can make excuses for why it is what it is, but the bottom line is, it is what it is. An experiment that failed on an historical level.
Now, there’s a guy out there who can change the look of your offense. Not put you over the top by himself. But at least get you jumpstarted to where you need to be. Not a guy like Erik Bedard, with a history of injuries and only two guaranteed years on a team with several vets poised to fall off a cliff. Again, context is everything. And as bad as the Bedard deal went, it hardly crippled the Mariners flexibility-wise as predicted. Adam Jones would not have made a difference on this team, nor any of the relievers given up. His current team is on the verge of scuttling that rebuilding plan and beginning another.
But the Mariners are not the Orioles. Or the Brewers. Or the Cards. Or the Diamondbacks. They are the Mariners, with their own unique set of circumstances. This team can’t afford to take a pass on Fielder. In fact, this team can afford to try.
Those arguing against even trying — citing price as the ultimate reason — have to understand that the consequences of inaction could be far worse than the cost of overspending on this one bat. And unfortunately, those consequences probably won’t be fully grasped until years from now. When somebody writes a book, or blog piece about how a mediocre team was allowed to stay mediocre for so long.
If they can be bothered.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins

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