The Mariners are at risk of making desperate (bad) choices
by Art Thiel
Higashi Iwakuma pitches in Tokyo for the Mariners. Credit: Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest
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 on 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 with them during the meetings is irrelevant. There is no urgent deadline, and negotiating can take place just as easily by phone as in 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-informed 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 career.
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 on the other hand is a speedy centerfielder, who in seven years with the Phillies, Astros and Braves, has a .272 batting average and a .705 OPS. He's had 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 for which team in what market 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.