BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 12/07/2012

Thiel: No Hamilton, please, Mariners. Others . . .

The Mariners are said to be in the hunt for three free agent hitters. But a big-money, long-term commitment to one would make lopsided a payroll that has too many holes to fill.

When healthy, Josh Hamilton is a wonderful hitter. However, that is a $100 million qualifier. / Wiki Commons

The expression, “Your money is no good here,” is a contrarian, cliche gesture of hospitality by a host, barkeep or restaurateur that says the item in question is on the house.

In the case of the Mariners, it might seem fair to ask, after the annual winter meetings that produced the excitement of a dial tone, whether the expression might have a more ominous meaning. As in: Your money is REALLY no good here. Go away, as well as the horse you rode in on.

I happen to think that is not the case. The Mariners’ money is in fact part of the same U.S. currency that has been available everywhere for more than 200 years. The question is not so much the nature and kind of the club’s money. It’s the amount.

As a franchise, the Mariners do have an impoverished reputation, owing to a decade of mistakes, misfortune and neglect that have cost them more fans than any in major professional sports.

But they have always had money. Despite the financial setbacks to primary owners Hiroshi Yamauchi and Chris Larson, the club has the resources to operate a top-tier franchise. It’s always been a question of desire.

That is now the scary part. They may have too much desire.

Driven by an urgency borne of panic, the Mariners are said to be in the hunt for one among three veteran free agent hitters unsigned as of this writing: OF Josh Hamilton, 31; RF/1B Nick Swisher, 32, and CF Michael Bourn, 30 this month.

The fact that no deals were struck for them during the meetings is irrelevant. There is no urgent deadline, and negotiating can take place just as easily by phone as a bar in Nashville. Nor does it matter that the Mariners made a small signing this week of Jason Bay, a 34-year-old outfielder who washed out of the Mets, Figgins-style, with $16 million still owed, only to be signed for gawd-knows-what-reason by the Mariners. But at one year for $1 million, he’ll make a fine dancing groundskeeper.

My well-informecd colleague at the Seattle Times, Larry Stone, summarized well here the market situation as of noon Thursday, indicating that the Mariners’ patience may be paying off because teams that had previously expressed interest in the three are gradually spending money and filling needs with others.

That may well be true. But all it takes is one other team to create a market, and it still can be done stealthily. Despite the popular belief that the Twitterverse has become larger than the universe itself, Prince Fielder and Detroit one year ago managed to get together without the knowledge of a single twit.

The question I have is less who, than why. All are good players, but have shortcomings that make long-term, big-money commitments for a team as player-needy as the Mariners close to foolish. If indeed Bourn and Swisher are capable of commanding $15 million each annually, and Hamilton $20 million, such payouts would make the Mariners payroll so lopsided as to eliminate other deals (without flushing the roster again) and threaten the ability to extend the contract of Felix Hernandez.

Unlike the Rangers, Dodgers and Angels, the Mariners have yet to cash in on the rights-fee bonanza that regional sports networks are throwing at MLB clubs. By the time the Mariners can re-open their deal with ROOT Sports in 2015, there’s always a chance the market will have been proven a bubble whose time had come to burst.

That’s why a signing of Hamilton is so scary. He can smell panic, and he can tell the Mariners that Seattle is such a lousy team and so far away that he’ll need a $5 million premium atop the $20 million. The Mariners might say yes.

It’s like watching a toddler approach an electrical outlet with a fork. Nothing good will come.

The veteran baseball fan knows the risks of Hamilton that don’t show up with his gaudy numbers in Baseballreference.com: He is a recovering addict who has had relapses and requires a personal monitor to help him with a life-long battle with the disease. By itself, that isn’t a disqualifier. It’s the hard miles that came with the lifestyle that may have shortened the expiration date on his prodigious batting feats.

His injury-riddled second half of the 2012 season, which ended with him being booed off the field at the Ballpark at Arlington when Texas’s playoff bid ended, should be a giant red flag for a team like the Mariners with so little margin for error.

Bourn is a speedy centerfielder who in seven years with the Phillies, Astros and Braves, has a .272 batting average and a .705 OPS. He has 22 homers in his career.  Really? Don’t the Mariners have twelveteen outfielders more or less like this?

The one guy who might be worth the stretch is Swisher, who has hit at least 20 home runs for eight consecutive seasons and has a career OPS of .828. That’s even better than the Mariners current “slugger,” backup catcher John Jaso. The best part about Swisher is his .913 OPS at Safeco. And he can play first as well as the outfield.

But what will it take to get Swisher to Seattle? The $15 million that may be the newly inflated base rate for a player of his caliber, plus a $5 million premium to play in Seattle?

Based on 2012 figures, a $20 million annual salary would have been about 25 percent of the Mariners payroll. I’m trying to think of which team in what market where that might be a good idea. Still thinking . . .

I know the Mariners are desperate. You know the Mariners are desperate. Every ballplayer and agent knows that better than we do. So, is this a good time to make a big deal?

Oh, right. I forgot. They raised ticket prices. Never mind.


YourThoughts

  • Just passing thru

    Art, I’m mixed on this, but last year’s roster isn’t enough for this coming year. When going to a game with the family costs a couple hundred dollars or more, I want some decent value. So far, I don’t see it. They want the fans back, they have to improve the team. If not Swisher or Hamilton, then a big trade is needed. ‘Meh’ on Bourn.

    What do you suggest they do instead? Hope for a Smoak and Ackley revival? … Sounds like Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.

    • art thiel

      As I wrote, the Swisher risk is the most manageable. And he’s a two-position player. Understand the desire for value for ticket, but this year’s veteran FA market is too thin, too rich and altogether too risky.

  • Praise Z

    Your article makes me want to puke! Art – Maybe you should pick another team to root for and write about?!

  • maqman

    All teams will benefit by about $25MM a year from the new national media rights sale. The M’s can give that to a bat and start to enhance the value of their regional rights sale in 2015. Their current rights are worth about $45MM a year, (which is one of the larger values in MLB, other than the Texicans, Angels and the Padres which are newly minted) they could well double that or more.

    • art thiel

      Maq, the new national TV money floats every team’s boat equally, so there’s no gain competitively. That means that the 2013 payroll at $120M is today’s new $100M payroll. As regards Hamilton, there’s a significant risk he won’t be healthy enough in 2015 to add value, which is based only a little on roster salaries/makeup.

      • maqman

        I agree Hamilton has a high albatross potential, I’d prefer they sign Swisher and trade for Morse. Just as the Dodgers spent like drunken sailors to show media rights bidders that they would attract eyeballs, the M’s have to get to contending status before they sell their rights or settle for less than that will bring them. Back loading contracts or taking on a little debt to get there is just a smart investment right now.

  • Hacksaw104

    You make a good case Art. The thing that scares me about Hamilton is that he probably is not a good person to be cast in the role of leader, which is exactly what he would be expected to do here, since he’d be the highest paid player on the team. He would be better off in an environment with more veteran players around him as a support structure, which the M’s don’t have. Yeah, i’d love his bat, but I think signing him might be a mistake. I know it’s not popular, but the M’s really should be thinking about dealing Felix. They could get some nice young major league ready talent in return and build this club the right way. The team is deeper in pitching than any other position right now, they’d be dealing from strength, with the ability to backfill quickly.

    • art thiel

      Good point, Hack, about the leadership. I’ve advocated a bit for a trade of Felix, but I’m beginning to believe just a little that he might be the rare player who, everything being equal, would prefer to stay in Seattle. But that was last season, and who knows what he’ll be thinking in 2014.

  • RadioGuy

    Okay, first of all, the Mariners have been in the middle or upper half of the list of team payrolls for years. The problem hasn’t been how much money they spend, it’s how they spend it. Somehow, Billy Beane has usually been able to put competitive teams on the field in Oakland despite miniscule payrolls, and Terry Ryan was able to do the same thing in Minnesota for years. I also recall the years the Mariners were near the top of the list in payrolls…how many titles did that bring Seattle? As anyone who ever bought a deLorean could tell you, spending top dollar on something doesn’t always make for a good investment.
    I’m perfectly fine with the Bay signing. What’s a million dollars if the guy somehow overcomes the injuries and contributes? I think it would be worth spending a few bucks to bring in Nate McLouth from Baltimore for the same reason. If he pans out, there’s a guy who can play great defense and hit with occasional power while working a count to put at the top of your order. These are low risk moves. They don’t really address the need for mid-lineup power, but they can help at little cost to the team.
    The fact is that this year’s free agent market is thin, Why spend Neiman Marcus dollars when you’re shopping at Value Village. I have no problem with Zduriencik holding the line and NOT trading prospects if he doesn’t see similar value coming back. Yes, the M’s are coming off yet another sub-.500 season, but their system is loaded with top pitching prospects that any other organization would love to have. In that regard, Zduriencik is dealing from a position of strength because he knows that he has a lot of willing trade partners who are also aware of each other. More than one team would love to pry a Taijuan Walker or Danny Hultzen away, but they know they’ll have to give value to get value.
    The Mariners remind me so much of the 1968 Mets, who were 16 games under .500 (their best year ever at that point) one year before winning the World Series: A poor-hitting team with good defense, a Cy Young Award level pitcher and some of the best young pitching prospects in baseball. We aren’t that far off and Zduriencik knows it. By the way, the “big” offensive acquisition the Mets made in 1969? Donn Clendenon, a decent but unspectacular player for Pittsburgh for years who got shuttled off to Montreal before landing in New York and winning the World Series MVP.

    • art thiel

      Good points, radio. Can’t let the desperation collide with a relatively weak FA market and continue to perpetuate a lopsided roster. And I haven’t thought about Clendenon in years. Well played.

  • Lou Novikoff

    You are right, Art. Hamilton is a huge, expensive risk and the Mariners should not spend time bidding to get him. Bourn and Swisher could both be signed for the same money it would take to get Hamilton. They are less risky and would be assets on the field and in the clubhouse.
    But the team would be better served to look for talent elsewhere. The Twins, in Nashville, dealt inexpensive, talented outfielders Spann and Revere for young pitchers less talented than those the Mariners could have offered. Spann and Revere are probably comparable in talent to Bourn.
    There are still more moderately priced, talented hitters and outfielders on the free-agent market and available in trade. Unless Swisher and/or Bourn can be signed quite quickly,
    the Mariners should go to Plan B right now.

    • art thiel

      My only problem with Spann and Revere is they aren’t much better than the 4th and 5th OFers the Mariners already have.But they cost a lot more. But not unreasonably so.

  • Matt712

    I’m with ‘Just passing thru’. Josh Hamilton may have his demons but the Mariners have not seen talent like that since Griffey and A-Rod, and have never seriously gone after it in free agency. The Mariners need a catalyst – both on the field and in the clubhouse. Hamilton is a polarizing figure who needs some fresh air. Seattle is the perfect set-up for him.

    Is it risky? Duh! Of course it is, but the Mariners need to make a statement to their fans that they really want to win and that they’re willing to gamble big to win big. No more of this timid mind-numbing toiling away at the five-dollar table, Mariners.

    After more than a decade of ‘low risk – low return’ investments in mediocre free agent talent, in the end, the only thing you’ve really risked is your fan base. How’s that working out for you?

    • art thiel

      I don’t think Hamilton is a clubhouse-leader guy. He needs to be led. No question about his talent when healthy. And regarding risk, of course any signing is a risk, but the roster is about risk management, and Hamilton is way high maintenance for a club with no margin for error. I don’t think the Mariners are sufficiently deep to survive a Hamilton fail as the Giants were when Melky Cabrera was suspended. And who hits behind Hamilton? John Jaso?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=736372914 Adam Salazar

    Art, I understand your logic, but an even greater logic says the Mariners simply need to spend more in order to even think of being competitive in today’s MLB. It has to start somewhere. Don’t buy the line that they can’t afford it.

  • one174

    When Hamilton is on, he can hit any reasonably close pitch with power. Witness the first 2 months of 2012. When he is not on, he is a virtually certain strikeout to a low and away fastball. Witness the last 4 months of 2012. And he always swings at that tailing fastball. He seems to have little plate discipline. The fans in Arlington did not boo him til the end, but there were enough other good players to distract somewhat from his bad performance. It was only at the end when his failure was the final nail in the Rangers season that the fans let loose. But move him to Safeco. Let him fail for two thirds of the season. Throw in the curse of Safeco where good hitters go to die. Throw in his seemingly lackadaisical attitude that has him laughing and joking at the plate with the opposing catcher most of the time even when his performance is awful, and the fans will revolt. Imagine Richie Sexson at twice the price. No thanks.

    • art thiel

      One, you’re right about the easy K, and few walks. It will also be worse for him here because the Mariners, at the moment, have no one to hit behind him. He could become in Seattle the first MLB to draw 500 intentional walks. The rest of the Texas order was a real asset to Hamilton. But to reiterate, his big salary makes the payroll so lopsided they can’t do much else with the roster

  • OffTheLows

    This would be an argument to trade Felix though. When slightly above average players are getting $15m and stars getting $25m then to fill out a roster even when you’d include 1/2 your roster with club control guys and low paid older vets, payroll is $130m or more. It’s scary to think signing a few free agent vets in the case of the M’s and extending the few decent to excellent vets on the roster, while still playing mostly “the kiddies”, gets you to over $100m in payroll

  • Jason L

    Totally disagree Art. The M’s need to plant that flagpole somewhere to begin having a competent offense. Remember when Ivan Rodriguez shocked everyone and signed with a crappy Detroit team a decade or so ago? Everyone wondered why he would go to such a lousy team. But he was the lynch pin to the offense much like Hamilton would be here.

    Stick him in the 4 hole slides Montero, Seager, and Smoak to less stressful spots in the order and hoe Ackley improves (along with the above mentioned) and the offense may be passable. Then next year maybe add another bat to add on and we can put this long nightmare behind us.

    You gotta start somewhere and the only way to do that is with a little risk.

  • olychelan

    There are some known risks with Hamilton, be they health, attitude or age, that have a chance show up in year one, two and/or three which could make Hamilton more of a Figgins or Bradley or even a Cust. Plus, I agree with Art, who’ll hit behind him? And if John Jaso falters, the Mariners will be spinning the revolving door from Tacoma to the bigs so fast, even Felix will grow tired of Seattle – along with many fans.

    I’d much rather see a deal with a couple of younger and/or more consistent players brought on board. Maybe Garret Jones or even Swisher and add Dexter Fowler or even a Mike Morse type in the outfield (ok, at least before bringing back Ibanez or some other player one injury away from hanging up his cleats – or fooling a desperate team to sign them) so pitchers will actually pitch to the top and heart of the order.

    Hamilton fits far better with powerhouse teams like the Rangers or Yankees or the re-rebuilding, on steroids, Red Sox and many other top tier teams because they all have solid offense around him. We don’t. We need a couple strong offensive producers. Right now, we don’t have nearly enough to stay out of the cellar.

    Finally, we could trade some of the mid-range talent who have been tepid here and might finally play up to their hype elsewhere. I’d unload Smoak and a couple of the dozen or so 4th outfielders to sweeten or at least front load the offer. But a one show horse, and a iffy one at that, is not going to save the Mariners from last place. Oh wait, the Astros will save the Mariners from the cellar…..but for how long?