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December 28, 2011 at 9:08 AM

Short-term deal for Prince Fielder makes no sense for Mariners

There was a rumor flying around yesterday, as has been the case for much of this winter, about where the Prince Fielder talks currently sit. The rumor had Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, possibly considering a shorter-term, three-year deal for his client.
That one just doesn’t pass the proverbial smell test. If anything, Boras would probably lower the yearly dollar amount before he’d sacrifice long-term security for his client. After all, if he could land a seven-year deal for Jayson Werth, why settle for less than half of that on a better player in Fielder? Especially when all the questions about Fielder’s durability center around the seasons that come after the next three? It stands to reason that those questions would become more numerous after 2014, regardless of how Fielder performs in the interim. In other words, he’s unlikely to be in a position to score bigger dollars in the winter of 2014-15 no matter how many home runs he hits between now and then.
And if he struggles at any point? Well, then you’d almost certainly expect him to potentially earn less for the 2015-18 seasons than he would by inking those years into a pact right now.
No, there sure isn’t a whole lot to gain for Fielder and Boras by taking a few more short term dollars right now.
As for the teams pursuing him? Out of all the named suspects in the Fielder hunt, the only one I can see truly benefitting from a short-term deal would be the Rangers. After all, they’ve been to the World Series the past two seasons and are truly in “win now” mode as well as looking to the future.
The others? Nope. The Cubs, Nationals, Blue Jays and Mariners do not fit the description.
We’ll focus on the Mariners for now. They really don’t need to be throwing even bigger bucks at Fielder for just a short-term gain, though I know some in Seattle have advocated an early opt-out clause.
My position on those hasn’t changed. There is nothing to be found in an opt-out clause that benefits the team. It gives the player all the power. If the player does anything close to what’s expected, then he tries to ransom that off into something bigger in a few years under the threat of walking. And if the player stinks, then he sits back and lets the team overpay him for the duration of the deal.
No, there are no opt-out clauses in deals like these that give the team the option of taking it or leaving it after a few years. Not with prime free agents. That would be too easy. It’s the reason players pay guys like Boras.
Anyhow, the discussion is irrelevant because if you’re the Mariners, you need Fielder for more than three years. Maybe not for eight-to-10 years, but certainly more than three.
Boras himself spelled it out during his winter meetings scrum with reporters, which you’ll remember, we carried live via video streaming on this blog. It came in a quote that’s been widely circulated the past 24 hours, but it sums it all up nicely if you happen to be looking at things from a Mariners point of view.
“People say ‘why don’t you do a three-year deal?,'” Boras told reporters. “That doesn’t fit anybody’s purposes. The length of contract has a lot to do with an understanding from both sides of what franchise players are and what they mean. The branding part, the media rights part — all of those things go into that and while the initial concept is shorter is better, the reality is with these types of players it’s usually not the best dynamic for the franchise.”
Photo Credit: AP

Some people think Boras talks a whole lot and hypes up his players. Well, that is his job. I also happen to think he has a much firmer grasp of the realities of modern-day MLB and how much money is at stake for franchise owners than do many of the analysts I read on a regular basis.
We’ve written plenty in this space the past few weeks about local television contracts and what they mean revenue-wise to franchises. For all the teeth-gnashing in some corners about the 10-year, $254-million deal given to Albert Pujols by the Angels, it is easily explained by their new TV deal rumored to be worth $3 billion over 20 years.
That kind of money means it doesn’t matter what Pujols does performance-wise over the latter half of his contract. It’s more important to the Angels as a brand in the Los Angeles area that they have a marquee, marketable star in Pujols who can bridge the gap to the huge Spanish-speaking community in that city.
As we keep telling you, the real baseball isn’t being played on the field this winter. It’s been about teams using — or, in many cases, not using — their economic clout to position themselves for 2013 and beyond. The decisions made this winter could very well determine where teams are going to finish in the standings in the next five years ahead.
If you’re the Toronto Blue Jays, with an ownership group already benefitting tremendously from owning a regional sports network (RSN), the inability to land Yu Darvish and/or acquire a marquee bat like Fielder could lead to many more third, fourth and fifth place finishes down the road. As long as the ownership group can live with some ticked off fans while continuing to expand a sports empire and make money, they’ll shrug it off and move forward into a second decade of their “plan” to supposedly do something that actually involves winning.
With the Mariners, it’s a lot more complex, since they don’t own an RSN like the Blue Jays do and their current deal with Root Sports has nine years left to run with an opt-out clause not occuring until 2015. Sure, the Mariners can try to reopen talks well ahead of 2015 and maybe even score some up-front money like the Rangers did with a $180-million cash payout from FOX Sports Southwest.
But it’s a lot easier to do that with a little leverage. Right now, the Mariners see fan interest dipping to levels unseen since the bad, ole’ Kingdome days. TV ratings have dropped along with paid attendance. Not the greatest way to try to reopen talks.
What the Mariners need is a plan. Not just the same decade-long one with Ichiro, or the newer version where they see whether Felix Hernandez can hold a 1-0 lead through nine innings. Not one that involves throwing as many kids as possible against the wall and hoping a few can stick. That’s for teams without their own taxpayer-funded ballpark. For teams that need to play the Moneyball game in order to avoid risking more of their owner’s capital. The Mariners aren’t one of those teams. They need a plan that will inject some realistic hope into the fanbase and give them a marquee face to put on the front of any renegotiated TV deal. That’s where Fielder comes in.
With Fielder’s bat there to give the team a needed offensive boost, Hernandez gains something in real “worth” to a team beyond any paper-driven stats. Because with an offense capable of a heartbeat and a rotation fronted by Hernandez, it gives folks a reason to flip on their TV sets.
Remember, in TV-speak, the idea of contending has little to do with actual odds or realistic chances. If you can stay within single digits of a playoff berth into the month of August, history has shown time and time again that it will be enough to sustain the interest of TV viewers.
With Fielder on-board long-term, the Mariners could spend the next 12 months rounding out the roster around him. Let’s fact it: they aren’t contending in 2012 no matter what. But they’d have one more year to weed out the contenders from the pretenders among their younger crop of talent, then could spend next winter completing more trades and signings to give this team the look of a contender.
And with that, they’d have two more years of Hernandez pitching for a contending team and could use that time — and the potential of renegotiated TV deal money — to get Hernandez to stick around on a new contract.
That doesn’t work for the Mariners if Fielder is already gone after 2014.
Like Boras said, the real value of marquee free agent stars in modern-day baseball won’t be found by typing up your go-to stats page. It’s about all the off-field stuff. The marketing and branding and how that ties in with your future TV package.
Heck, maybe the Mariners go ahead and start their own RSN in 2015. They’d still need a Pujols-type star to package that around. Maybe they do it around Fielder and Hernandez together. The more the merrier.
But Fielder has to be there first. That’s why the Mariners are looking at him. And that’s why a three-year deal makes no sense.
No sense to the Mariners. And no sense to just about any other team still in the hunt, aside from maybe the Rangers, though I’m sure there are other bats out there in the short-term that could carry them back to another World Series. You can buy a lot of pretty good players for $27 million per season over three years. What you can’t do, is put their faces on TV screens or billboards and get a bunch of people to care.
That’s why Fielder will get a longer deal. Maybe not eight years, or 10. But certainly more than three or four.



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