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December 11, 2011 at 10:29 AM

Josh Willingham addition by Mariners would not rule out a bid for Prince Fielder

ADDITIONAL NOTE: 11:00 a.m.: So much for the Twitter-sphere/rumor-sphere. No sooner had I finished writing up this post than another report came along discounting the Mariners-as-frontrunners reports of last night. So, go back to watching football. The M’s are apparently not going to get Willingham. But the stuff written here still applies. A complementary piece like this is not going to rule out a Fielder bid. That would just be dumb. This team needs to add as many premium and secondary upgrades as it can.
Lots of talk in the rumor mill this morning about how the Mariners are close to landing free agent outfielder Josh Willingham. The addition of Willingham, who turns 33 in February, would likely be for two-plus seasons and give the M’s a right-handed bat they could use in left field or as a first base/DH type.
What it would not do is eliminate the team’s quest to sign Prince Fielder.
First, the M’s could use another right-handed bat in a lineup becoming more and more dominated by lefties, which Fielder is. Second, even if the team adds Fielder, it can’t stop there and would have to round out the rest of a poor offense with upgrades over the next 12 months.
In fact, it probably became much tougher for the team to convince Fielder to come here once the Angels showed they are about to become the Yankees of the AL West. This division already had the Red Sox equivalent in the Rangers and the last thing Fielder is going to want to do is come here and spend the next six or seven years in third, fourth or fifth place.
So, the Mariners have to show they are serious about getting this rebuilding plan jumpstarted.
I’d have preferred to see Willingham brought here a couple of years back when the Mariners told everyone to “Believe Big” in a plan that anyone paying attention by March 2010 could see was not going to work at the plate. Right now, there’s a case to be made that he looks like an older version of Casper Wells or Mike Carp production-wise.
Perhaps, but the difference is, he’s proven himself over a much longer timeframe.
Photo Credit: AP

The last thing this Mariners team needs is to go into the 2012 season expecting Carp or Wells to be full-time players and find out they are only part-timers.
As of right now, to me, Wells looks like a fourth outfielder for a very good team. Maybe he’s a regular for a bad team, but that’s not what the Mariners want to be, especially if they sign Fielder for a pile of money.
There’s always a chance Wells proves otherwise, especially since he’s still young. But for now, he’s a relative unknown in that department. Same with Carp, who put up two really good months of production last season but was a guy who looked like a non-factor for this club at the All-Star break.
Now, if Carp can do what he did last year over a full season, then everything is wonderful.
But for now, by adding Willingham, the Mariners would be giving themselves an insurance policy, more of a short-term guarantee than they have, as well as the option of trading some of their 1B/DH/OF types, including Carp. During last week’s winter meetings, manager Eric Wedge told me he’d requested that a veteran bat or two be brought in to solidify his young roster, either in the infield or outfield. And this was in conjunction with the team making a hard push to land Fielder. Willingham certainly qualifies for the veteran bat role.
Remember, if Fielder is brought in, the goal for this team will be to compete for something by 2013. That way, you capitalize on keeping Felix Hernandez and maybe even holding on to him past his 2014 contract expiry date.
That’s not going to happen by slowly building from within and waiting for a bunch of rookies and AAA guys to develop.
The landscape in the AL West changed dramatically this past week. The Mariners were already well aware of the need for greater urgency before Albert Pujols went to an Angels team that later announced a $3 billion television deal over the next 20 years. But once that new reality was spelled out loud and clear for them, the Mariners — like any business in a changing landscape — had to know that failing to adapt was no longer an option for them.
And in this case, adapting means trying to do something while Hernandez is still under contract or risk being buried by irrelevancy for the next five years in a rebuilding plan already entering Year No. 4.
I’ve mentioned before that it’s highly possible the Mariners have given Jack Zduriencik a flexible budget that recognizes this new reality. In other words, if he can take care of long-term needs power-wise at first base right now by signing Fielder, then it would be OK to bump up the budget.
No sense waiting for perfect conditions to do that a year from now — when Ichiro comes off the books. Or two years from now, when the Chone Figgins contract runs out as well. Do that and Fielder will no longer be available. Like I said, you have to stay flexible to compete in MLB and the business world.
And that means grabbing an above average opportunity when you have the chance to do so. You can’t pass it by simply because it doesn’t fit your timetable. The rest of baseball isn’t going to peg its watches to the Mariners and their plan and hold off on other stuff until Seattle is ready to compete.
So, for that reason, I don’t think a Willingham addition will preclude the Mariners from signing Fielder as well. Willingham is a complementary move — a more sure thing than the largely untested kids if your goal is to compete within the next 16 months. And it’s the kind of move the M’s would have to make to show Fielder they are willing to do more than pay lip service to the idea of competing in the AL West sometime this decade.
The landscape for doing business in the AL West has changed. Throw out all preconceived notions of what this rebuilding plan was going to be about, or should have been about, dating back to last August. The Mariners don’t have time for a six-or-seven-year rebuilding plan anymore.
They never did because of Hernandez’s contract. And they have the funds available to spend a lot more money than they have the past three years of offensive futility.
The fact that they need to change their approach has been hammered home in abundance this week. Like any good business, it’s up to the Mariners to react to the marketplace if they want to survive in it.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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