BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 11/30/2012

Thiel: Mariners and FA hitters: Why bother?

The Mariners are not good at this free-agent-hitter business, and the market is not very good for hitters. GM Jack Zduriencik would be wise to pass on dessert when M’s are starving.

Just as an idea, how about trading for Arizona RF Justin Upton, 25, instead of throwing money at middling free-agent hitters? Wiki Commons

Faced with a choice of overpaying in the free-agent market to hire an average MLB hitter on the decline, or filling up the roster with a bunch of John Jaso-type players, I say yay-so.

The back-up catcher, acquired in trade a year ago, turned out to be the Mariners’ best off-season addition to the offense, which is a little like saying he’s the wettest fish in the lake.

He led the team in average (.276), on-base percentage (.394) and slugging (.456), but the Mariners saw fit to get him into only 108 games for 294 at-bats. Maybe they thought he would get tired. Certainly, he didn’t get tired from being driven around the bases by his teammates — the Mariners, for the fourth year in a row, were last in the league in runs scored.

The hire of Jaso comes up because it is again time for the Mariners’ annual exercise in futility — pursuing a big-time veteran hitter to come play 81 games at Safeco Field, otherwise known in on-deck circles as Death to Flying Things.

As he has done in his previous four years as Mariners GM, Jack Zduriencik dutifully will say all the diplomatic things about improving the club, finding the right fit and spending wisely. And by the end of the annual winter baseball meetings, which begin Monday in Nashville, Zduriencik will find himself rummaging through the day-old pastry table while several serious baseball franchises walk out the door with cake, trailed by an enthralled media horde declaring it knows for the next year who shall feast and who shall starve.

The media horde rarely gets it right (the San Francisco Giants? Really?), but they haven’t missed as much on spotting the starving. Zduriencik is good at finding a crumb or two, like Jaso, but the fresh dessert tray is ever elusive.

Given the expensive yet dainty delights in Nashville — Mike Napoli, Cory Ross, Kevin Youkilis, Adam LaRoche, Russell Martin — I’d say it’s better to starve.

If any of these guys would take Jaso money — $500,000 — sure, back up the truck. But Napoli, the most coveted remaining hitter and a useful player, is said to want four years at $10 milllion-$12 million per. Last year he was injured a lot, hit .224 and had 24 home runs. And he’s an old 31. He deserves that money like Danny DeVito deserves to play James Bond.

I realize that as GM of the Mariners, Zduriencik probably had to take an oath of office that swore him to overpay for under-performers. But he fulfilled that obligation with Chone Figgins. No need to prove that point again.

Whether these guys are worthy of an investment presupposes that they are interested in continuing their careers with the Mariners. Since all are identified as sentinent, ambulatory beings, that would seem to be unlikely. Certainly, they would listen to an offer because that is the only way to get leverage in the free-agent bazaar. The players’ agents tell the media that Seattle would be a wonderful spot for their clients, knowing that the truth has no place in the discussion.

Zduriencik this time is armed with a bit more persuasion, because the Mariners announced after the season that they were going to bring in the fences in left field and left center, in order to make the park a little less pitcher-friendly. But free agent hitters may well respond, “Jack, that’s wonderful. But do you have an explanation as to how much is enough? Is it still going to be cold there until the Fourth of July? And by the way, the wife,  kids and I live in Orlando in the off-season. Any chance you’re moving the entire club and not just the fences?”

Then there’s the issue of desiring to play for a winner. That’s when Zduriencik looks down at the top of his shoes, rocks back on his heels, and clears his throat. “We have this plan, see . . . ” he says, and suddenly the player’s agent looks over Zduriencik’s shoulder, hoping somebody important suddenly walks into the room.

Some might suggest I am slightly pessimistic about the Mariners chances to improve the club, and that’s not true. I think the Mariners have a number of good prospects in the minors that would fetch a quality hitter, but that requires a trade. Like when Jaso was acquired from Tampa Bay for bad-boy relief pitcher Josh Lueke.

That’s what the Mariners need to do — trade for younger or mid-career guys whose contracts have years to run.

For example, and discussion purposes only: Right fielder Justin Upton of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

He’s 25, hit .280/.357/.475 with 17 homers and 67 RBI and is signed for $9.75 million next year, $14.25 million in 2014 and $14.5 million in 2015. That’s pricey, but so is $12 million for Napoli to limp through 110 games at .220, or Figgins at $8 million to play golf.

Would Upton cost the Mariners some young pitching? Sure. Maybe Dustin Ackley too. But given the inherent disadvantages facing the Mariners, dealing quality young talent for quality young talent is the only smart option.

It’s what Zduriencik did a year ago when he swapped All-Star pitcher Michael Pineda to the Yankees for whatever-position Jesus Montero. The merits of that deal have years to play out, but the principle of trading young for young is better than the high-risk, low-reward outcomes awaiting Zduriencik in this year’s free-agent marketplace.

Just because the Mariners over the decade have lost half their fan base is no reason to lose the rest of it by hiring players to play past their career expiration dates for millions of dollars that could go into a new scoreboard. Oh, wait. . .



  • Big

    Best by dates for ball players now that’s a good idea.

    Wow, how did Justin Upton score that kind of money? He’s got better numbers than Napoli who appears to have an inflated sense of his worth to a ball club.

    Z, you have had 4 years and the fans are voting with their feet. Break the mold and try something different.

    • art thiel

      Um . . . Broadway musicals?

  • effzee

    Rooting for the M’s is like rooting for Jupiter to turn into a star.

    • art thiel

      Training a cat to fetch?

  • Tian Biao

    but . . . trading young talent for young talent is just spinning our wheels. also, it hasn’t really worked out for Z: we didn’t get much for Fister, for example, or Morrow. I agree that the Ms should not overpay for a free agent, but i’m not too worried: if it plays out like in the past, Ms will be rumored to be in the running for this guy or that guy, but it won’t pan out, which is still better than buying a Figgins.

    • art thiel

      Yes, there is an element of wheel-spinning, but only if the farm system has a relatively even distribution of premier talent. The M’s are pitching-heavy, and can afford the sacrifice for hitters. You’re right about Fister/Morrow, which is why I’m not ready to take a bullet defending JZ’s record as GM. But the trade mart has more to offer than the bleak FA mart this winter.

  • notaboomer

    i too am a huge fan of john jaso jingelheimer schmidt la la la la la la la la.

    • art thiel

      Notabomer, numbed down to children’s song parodies.

  • Trygvesture

    Bulls eye!

    Well put– you told the story, the narrative that describes what’s really a tale of ineptitude so deep seated and long running that the options for digging out are few and incremental at best.

    It’s hard to imagine anybody from the management side– PR excluded– having a script convincing enough to convey authentic optimism. That old bugaboo, reality, just invades the airspace like Voldemort’s Dementors. Z is totally unconvincing, and keeps the conversation so jumbled that sorting it out as you do is a monster task.

    I don’t like the FO, but they surely have enough combined horsepower to have seen the fan base evacuate over the last few years– before they topped the list of losers. Why would they let it slide so far? Why open the gates for the Dementors to take roost in Marinerville? Why squawk so loud about Hanson’s plans? Only ‘grooming for sale’ comes to mind.
    Any other plausible reason? If Spring comes with the same-old same-old M’s, if Upton et al play elsewhere again, if Z double talks as well as he did yesterday– well, it’ll be clear.

    • art thiel

      Voldemort’s Dementors . . . now there’s an admirable, vivid analogy. Well played.

      Jack Z is a smart guy who gains nothing by being straightforward with the media about the constraints under which he operates. Same with the the FO staffers who grieve at the fan-base decay. To speak out is to be fired. Ask Jeff Nelson.

      Far as I can tell there is no intent to fail, it’s just incompetence based on a conservative, risk-averse ownership that is disconnected from the idea that operating a baseball franchise is fundamentally different than nearly any other business enterprise.

      And ask I write this, there is no evidence that for the balance of this off-season there is any intent to sell. That could change tomorrow, but not now.

      • Trygvesture

        Doesn’t seem the same as washing your old minivan and putting it on Craigslist. I suspect those who would buy are always looking, and the low-overhead, no-capital-calls M’s stand out like the Pirates or the Expos or… fill in the blank. Once a few headlines about their deterioration appear, they become carrion, good for low-cost, good-upside pickins –and all the carrion have to do is lie there and attract attention. (Obviously, I have never purchased a MLB franchise)

  • Old Goat

    At least we have competition for the coveted “you can only go up from here” basement spot with new arrival Houston – or probably not.

    • art thiel

      The Lastros do provide a challenge, but I don’t think Mariners fans should assume Seattle has fifth place locked up.

  • Two words: Michael Morse.

    • art thiel

      To seek, or to lament?

  • SandlotSam

    I think it’s going to be a trade that gets M’s fans hopping (hopefully not hopping mad) this off season. So I guess in a sense I’ve already written this whole crop of free agents off and am just waiting for the trade that’s going to take everybody by surprise.

    • art thiel

      It’s the only way to get young talent under contractual control.

  • You hinted at it, but to me the gist of the story is that the hitters that are available in this FA period really stink. Just because they’re the best available doesn’t mean a team should spend money to acquire them.

    • art thiel

      That’s the point, Bryan, and if you think I just hinted at it, I guess I better bring a sledgehammer next time.

  • rjawk

    I realize that as GM of the Mariners, Zduriencik probably had to take an oath of office that swore him to overpay for under-performers. But he fulfilled that obligation with Chone Figgins. No need to prove that point again.

    Hey Art….

    Any team any city any state would have taken in Chone Figgins after his run with the Angels. Thats one bad move compared to what we had previously. Jackie Z is ten fold what we used to have here with the bald one Bill Bavasi who ruined this team. JZ has brought back our farm from dust bowl to somewhat harvestable. Ol Bill depleted our farm and home with horrible trades and junk moves. (Bedard/Soriano trade+) Bill was talking smack about Bedard in his exit speech. The same Bedard he traded for with prob the best prospect in MLB (Adam Jones) and four good players. Cmon man. Your same ol same ol should not be directed at JZ but at the upper mgt and ownership. Chuck Armstrong/Howard Lincoln has been allowed to be the President/CEO of this club FOR EVER with out any results.Owner Hirioshi Yamauchi has never been to a game at Safeco and doesnt care if we win or lose just as long as he is making money. WE NEED WINNERS. Eric Wedge is a good start. Get over Chone. We are way better off with JZ than Bill Bavasi.

    • art thiel

      Bavasi is the bald one, and Jack Z isn’t?

      Seriously, I never said Bavasi was better. Please read the column again. My point was that Jack Z, smart as he is, guessed wrong on Figgins. The evidence is strong that at best, it’s 50-50 that most mid-level or better FAs do not deliver value for the dollar throughout MLB, not just Seattle. Jack has done better than Bavasi, but not as well as you think.

      The issue of ownership indeed is the same ol’ same ol’, recounted endlessly here. I was writing about this particular FA period. Without the resources to go after premier FA talent, JZ is best to stay away. That’s the point.

  • Tom C.

    Good work Art. You get it. Especially the part about the Mariners front
    office. You have always been one of my favorite local writers in the Dan
    Shaughnessy mold. I have been a lifelong Mariners fan who voted with
    his feet three years ago. Now I get my baseball fix at Cheney and watch
    the kids. If I am forced to watch minor league talent, I’ll be darned if
    I’m going to pay major league prices. I fear that, despite Jack Z’s
    best efforts, unless and until there is a change in the ownership and
    front office, the M’s are doomed to be the west coast version of the
    Montreal Expos. Keep up the good work!

    • art thiel

      Thanks Tom. Apparently you and 1.5 million others from 2002 have fled the premises. And think of all the money you’ve saved by avoiding the ticket price hike this year.