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The Mariners should stay out of the free-agent market

Aging, over-priced players are no way to build a team.

By Art Thiel

November 30, 2012.

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 Mariners' back-up catcher, acquired in trade a year ago, turned out to be the team's 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 only saw fit to get him into 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 in his previous four years, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik will dutifully 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 fresh cake. All trailed by an enthralled media horde, declaring it knows who shall feast and who shall starve in the next year.

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 $10-12 million each. 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 sentient, ambulatory beings, that would seem unlikely. Certainly, they would entertain an offer. That is the only way to gain 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 too pessimistic about the Mariners chances to improve the club, but 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.

The fact that the Mariners have lost half their fan base in the last decade 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 have gone into a new scoreboard. Oh, wait. . .

Art Thiel is co-founder of Sportspressnw.com, a former sports columnist for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and author of the 2003 regional best seller about the Seattle Mariners, Out of Left Field.

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Printed on April 23, 2014