Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, baseball agent Scott Boras practically promised The Washington Post that he would have his hottest client, free agent slugger Prince Fielder, signed and delivered to his new club by Dec. 30. At the time, theMariners were reportedly among a handful of teams involved in the Fielder sweepstakes.
Now, not so much, and probably not at all, if the latest intelligence --that the 27-year-old left-handed first baseman is close to a multi-year agreement with the Washington Nationals -- is credible.
Certainly the power-bankrupt Mariners could benefit from the kind of bat Fielder provides (37 home runs, 106 RBIs, .929 OPS per 162 games over the past seven years). But the price and terms Boras seeks – reportedly $180-200 million covering at least eight years -- make little sense for a Seattle franchise facing financial challenges of its own, with declines in attendance, TV ratings and buzz.
If I’m Jack Zduriencik, I'd blanch under my baldness at the thought of investing up to $250 million (Albert Pujols money) in Fielder, especially given (my opinion) that Fielder is unlikely to replicate his Milwaukee numbers – the basis for Boras’ asking price -- in Seattle.
And if I’m Zduriencik, I would wonder how far the apple has fallen from the tree.
At 5-foot-11 and 275 pounds, Fielder has the same general body type as his father, Cecil (6-3, 240), who broke down after 11 major league seasons and was done as an elite power hitter at the young age of 32. The 2012 season, wherever Prince Fielder elects to play it, will be his eighth (Fielder has been blessed so far: no serious injuries).
Conversely, if I’m Prince Fielder, I wouldn’t sign with the Mariners even if they met my price and terms. Any number of interested teams -- Nationals, Blue Jays, Rangers, Orioles, Cubs -- have the wherewithal to do that.
Before entertaining any Mariner offer, I would want a guarantee from Zduriencik that the Mariners will become a competitive team sometime in the rest of my baseball lifetime, preferably within two years, if not sooner.
Having lost 101 games twice (2008, 2010) and 95 once (2011) in the past four years, the Mariners can make no such guarantee, not even while employing a young Cy Young winner, Felix Hernandez, and a developing batting star, Dustin Ackley.
If I'm Fielder, I would want to know how other free-agent hitters have fared in Seattle over the past decade. And if I'm Zduriencik, I'd try to destroy any evidence of involvement with Chone Figgins, Jack Cust, Milton Bradley and Casey Kotchman and especially those signed by Bill Bavasi, most notoriouslyCarl Everett, Rich Aurilia and Scott Spiezio.
If I'm Fielder, I would also ask the Mariners why they have been able to win a four-team division only twice in 17 years with a payroll that annually ranks among the top third in baseball. And if they've gone 2-for-17 in a four-team alignment, how do they plan to win the division when it expands to five clubs with the addition of the Houston Astros?
I'd also wonder if I really wanted to endure the nuisance of flying twice as many air miles every season (about 50,000) than I had to.
But most of all, I'd wonder about the wisdom of taking my game to Safeco Field, simultaneously the Mariners' greatest asset in attracting fans and the greatest impediment they face in luring big-time free agent hitters.
Safeco Field is the most pitching-friendly venue in the American League, and has been since its opening midway through the 1999 season. It doesn't matter what statistic or split is used -- runs, hits, doubles, triples, homers, batting average, OPS -- Safeco routinely ranks in the bottom 10 consistently, in stark contrast to the hitter-friendly former home of the Mariners, the Kingdome.
Without delving into all the geekery that goes into computing "ballpark factors,” we’ll simply say that Safeco is not the Egg McMuffin of hitting meccas, and has scared off sluggers going back to Ken Griffey Jr.’s prime.
The park nearly destroyed Mike Cameron, who loved playing in Seattle but couldn’t abide Safeco because Cameron came to believe that Safeco was the source of his batting agonies. Maybe he was right: 2000-03 (Cameron at Safeco): .223 BA, .328 OBP, .373 SLG, 30 HR 2000-03 (Cameron on road): .286 BA, .370 OBP, .514 SLG, 57 HR Given Cameron’s splits at Safeco, no way could the Mariners justify making him an offer when he became a free agent following the 2003 season. If I’m in Prince Fielder’s shoes, I’d also take note of the tricks Safeco played on Jeff Cirillo after he arrived in a trade from Colorado in 2002. Cirillo came in as a 10-year veteran with a .313 career batting average, an .844 OPS and two All-Star appearances. Over the next two seasons (2002-03), Cirillo played 105 games in Safeco Field, coming to bat 349 times. He hit .203 with three home runs and a .449 OPS, leaving his career in shambles. It got so bad midway through the 2003 season that the Mariners dispatched Cirillo and his .179 batting average to the team’s Peoria training headquarters in an attempt to help him regain his confidence and stroke. Didn’t work: The Mariners traded Cirillo to San Diego before the 2004 season. Since Safeco opened in mid-1999, the Mariners have lured two marquee free-agent sluggers to Seattle, Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson, both inked within a two-day (Dec. 15-17) span in 2004. Both came because GM Bavasi had $64 million over five years to lavish on Beltre and $50 million more to stuff in Sexson’s pockets. Beltre, a Boras client whose contract offer from his previous team, the Dodgers, hadn’t been anywhere near the Mariners' offer, arrived in Seattle after batting .334 with 48 home runs and 121 RBIs in 2004. Over the next five seasons with the Mariners, Beltre hit .266, never hit more than 26 home runs, and never drove in 100. During his three best seasons (2006-08), Beltre’s Safeco Field batting average ranged from .240-.260 and his five-year OPS was .759. The majority of his 76 home runs during that span came on the road. In two seasons since leaving Safeco (Boston and Texas), Beltre has batted .309 with 60 home runs and a .911 OPS. Safeco didn‘t faze Sexson much. He hit 38 of his 73 home runs there in 2005-06, but the Mariners received two good years from him out of the contracted four seasons. As with Cecil Fielder, Sexson was finished as an elite power hitter at 31 – with two years remaining on his Mariners contract and his batting average near the Mendoza Line (.218). Since Fielder entered the league (2005), he has hit the majority of his home runs in his home ballpark, an average of more than 20 per season. Consider:
- Since Safeco opened, the Mariners annual leader in home runs has hit the majority of his long balls on the road six times, the greatest discrepancy occurring in 2000, when Alex Rodriguez hit 28 of his 41 away from Safeco Field.
- The Mariners have hit better on the road than at home in six out of the past eight years.
- No left-handed hitter has hit more home runs in a season at Safeco than Russell Branyan, who belted 16 in 2009. In his first seven seasons, Fielder averaged more than 20 home runs per year in his home park.
The Mariners need home run hitters, two or three of them. But they are going to have to grow them at home. If they've got enough funds to entertain an offer to Fielder, they would be better served using that money to acquire and cultivate the kind of gap hitters that made the 2001 Mariners so successful.