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December 2, 2011 at 4:35 PM

Mariners signing of OF Darren Ford to minor league deal clears way to trade some outfielders

Had to get on a plane a short time ago, but just prior, I told you via Twitter that the Mariners had inked outfielder Darren Ford to a minor league contract. Ford is only 26 and steals a lot of bases while putting up good OBP and walk rates. Oh yeah, he can play center field as well, meaning that while he’s strictly minor league depth for now, his presence — he’s been invited to spring training — allows the M’s to contemplate trading one or more of their surplus outfielders at the position.
In other words, Michael Saunders, Trayvon Robinson and…yes…Franklin Gutierrez.
Now, that latter part depends on how the team views the center field depth chart. We all assume Gutierrez is ahead of both Robinson and Saunders but that could very well depend on how the Mariners forsee Guti’s bat in coming seasons. They’ve put on a brave face so far, but if they ever doubt Gutierrez will reach his projected offensive potential, then it’s possible the M’s would look to shave some salary and plug somebody like Robinson or Saunders in that spot.
And then, newcomer Ford would slot into the spots vacated by the departing player moving up to replace Gutierrez, be it Saunders or Gutierrez. Got it?
Yes, it seems radical. But it’s tough to overlook the fact Gutierrez is to be paid $13 million over the next two seasons. He may indeed be ahead of somebody like Robinson but he’s not 15 times better. And indeed, of the three, Gutierrez would probably still have the best market value. I’m going to say right here that I’m not certain manager Eric Wedge is completely sold on Gutierrez. This spring — even before the extent of Gutierrez’s stomach ailment was known — Wedge was on record saying he planned to give the center fielder plenty of rest because he wasn’t sure he had the physical capability of being a six or seven-day-per-week player.
Remember, Wedge had Gutierrez in Cleveland where he faded big-time in 2008 in his first full season in the big leagues. This will be his fifth season. Guti is no kid anymore and it’s possible the Mariners have an opinion of him that doesn’t mesh with a long-term relationship. We’ll see.
With the team looking more and more like a “player” in the Prince Fielder sweepstakes, shedding some Guti salary would give the team far more flexibility in a bidding war with the Cubs and Nationals. It could also bring a player back. If the team isn’t sold on Robinson, Saunders or Ford as a full-time center fielder — and why would they be at this stage? — you can always try to get by with one or more at the position for this year and then try to bring in a more impact center fielder next off-season.
After all, Fielder or no Fielder, few expect 2012 to be the season in which the M’s initially contend. So, a Gutierrez trade does not have to involve bringing in his replacement right away.
Now, of course, the M’s can simply not surprise us and do the thing we all expect them to do — keep Gutierrez and trade either Saunders or Robinson. And using Ford to directly replace one of the young guys in whatever role they were filling.

That, of course, would shed far less salary and still leave the Mariners looking for extra cash room for a Fielder signing. But it would also be a clear sign the team does indeed still believe in Gutierrez after all the health problems and in-season fades. It would also mean the team is confident it has the center fielder needed to take a run at contending by 2012. Don’t forget, there is still an option on Gutierrez for 2014 if he ever lives up to what the team thought he could become at the plate.
But it’s highly doubtful all four of these center fielders stick around with Ford now entering the fray. Ford was originally signed by the Brewers as a discovery by current Mariners assistant GM Tony Blengino. So, M’s GM Jack Zduriencik knows the player well and would not have brought him on if he did not feel he could be more useful than he’s been thus far.
Ford got in a handful of games with the Giants this past season but was designated for assignment on Nov. 23. As I said, he isn’t here to be another all-star. He’s most likely on-board to fill the gap left by whichever center fielder gets traded.
As for the M’s going after Fielder, that looks more and more likely as we head into the weekend before the winter meetings.
Today, we saw free agent pitcher Chris Capuano sign a two-year, $10-million deal with the Dodgers. Capuano is one of those lower-tier types that looked like a fit for the Mariners and he’s getting Jason Vargas money so it isn’t a bank buster. Neither was Grady Sizemore when he signed with the Indians, nor Ryan Doumit when he inked with the Twins.
But the Mariners, for whatever reason, were not in on those guys to the point where they secured their services. They actually saved about $2.5 million by filling their catcher needs with a trade for John Jaso rather than signing Doumit.
They could also fill their backup shortstop needs rather cheaply if they go with Japanese free agent Munenori Kawasaki, who is practically throwing himself at Seattle and begging them to offer him a minor league deal. Heck, that’s a cheap back-up fill. Take it and use the money on Fielder. It will be better spent.
We’ve told you before, the Mariners have the means to go after Fielder for a long-term deal in the $20 million-to-$25 million range annually. They can do it by upping payroll by a moderate $5 million-to-$10 million amount this year, then letting Ichiro go as a free agent after 2012.
Or, they can swing some salary shedding moves this winter to free up additional payroll if we assume they already have roughly $15 million to play with.
Some salary can be shed by eating most of the Chone Figgins contract in a trade and getting the recipient to take on a few million of the $9 million owed annually the next two seasons. But there would still have to be some additional moves made. You can trade Brandon League, or Vargas, to save about $5 million on either, or move Gutierrez to free up two years worth of cash.
After that, you can look to deal Justin Smoak at a time when he still has market value as a first baseman. That could help bring in another impact type player, possibly in the outfield or at third base. Smoak would be primarily a DH if Fielder comes in and that would automatically lessen his trade value as time moves on. That’s why, if Fielder does come in, it’s highly possible the Mariners move Smoak.
This is not Mission Impossible. These are moves that can be made to bring a franchishe player to Seattle right now and have him around in a year, or two, or three, or four, when the Mariners are ready to contend.
The players I am mentioning as trade bait in secondary moves are not franchise players right now and may never become those. League is only under contract one more year, Vargas is a mid-rotation guy at best while Gutierrez has a ton to prove when it comes to being an everyday player.
And Smoak would be made redundant by Fielder — a guy who has already hit his prime and doesn’t have to grow into it.
So, these are all very doable moves if the team wants to freeze payroll right where it’s been for the last two years at about $94 million. They will not cripple the franchise financially by any stretch and they still give the Mariners time to let other core pieces grow while speeding up the rebuilding timetable to where they can actually take advantage of Felix Hernandez and his remaining contract years.
Will Zduriencik do all of this exactly as I wrote? No way. I ain’t that smart and don’t pretend to be. But believe me, there are likely to be some dramatic moves in coming days. The Mariners see what most people do: they are still pretty far away and have done enough of the lower level build-up work for now.
This team needs a serious infusion from outside and all signs point to them being about to try to go that route. We’ll see what happens. But seriously, “staying the course” is no longer an option. If anything, it will be detrimental to the franchise’s future because of the lack of interest from fans. Nobody wants another 90-to-100 loss season and that means this offense can’t stay as is.
Bringing in Fielder would be a nice Plan A. If he signs elsewhere, then some dramatic trades as a Plan B could still do the trick. Not to please me, or members of the media. To do something to stem the tide of ticket sales shrinking by the hundreds of thousands annually. To appease the team’s broadcast partners, who need to keep people interested in a team that at least shows some signs of contending in another year or two. These are tangible reasons to make these moves. Sound business and baseball reasons. No rebuilding plan has forever to work and the Mariners truly aren’t interested in becoming the next Cleveland Indians and losing part of their fanbase forever while their front office tries to find a formula that lasts.
Anyhow, that’s where we’re at.
We should know a lot more by the end of next week. Today, we saw more of the laying of groundwork that foreshadows such deals. Should be interesting.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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