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Originally published January 3, 2012 at 10:01 PM | Page modified January 4, 2012 at 9:52 PM

Mariners in holding pattern as they pursue Prince Fielder

Prince Fielder would be the quickest fix for the Mariners awful offense, but Seattle is one of six teams interested in the power-hitting first baseman.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Top-three player

Prince Fielder finished the 2011 season ranked in the top three in the NL in eight categories:

38

Home runs (2nd)

120

RBI

(2nd)

107

Walks (2nd)

32

Intentional walks (1st)

.415

On-base percentage (2nd)

.566

Slugging percentage (3rd)

.981

On-base plus slugging (3rd)

15.0

At bats per HR (1st)

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Five weeks before spring training, the Mariners' hopes of upgrading their offense remain in a holding pattern.

Part of the holdup has been Seattle's pursuit of Prince Fielder, which should come to a head soon with reports that he's close to a multiyear pact with the Washington Nationals. If the left-handed hitting first baseman doesn't come to the Emerald City, it would be full speed ahead with Plan B for a Mariners team that would then not require any yearly eight-figure commitment to Fielder.

The latest news on the Nationals must be taken in stride, considering the ever-changing reports on which team is close to landing him. The Mariners, Nationals, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles and Chicago Cubs are all said to have interest.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik met Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, last month at the winter meetings in Dallas. But since then, the slugger's price likely shot up after the Los Angeles Angels signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year deal worth $240 million in salary and $10 million more in post-playing money.

"I'm not sure exactly what's going to happen," Zduriencik said Tuesday, adding that he wasn't referring to any particular player. "But as time goes on, players are going to have to make decisions."

The Angels are paying for Pujols with funds from a new 20-year, $3 billion television deal with Fox Sports. Boras has suggested that his asking price for Fielder, especially contract length, will be based upon his client's ability to generate similar monster revenues for teams as the focal point of future TV and marketing megadeals.

"The length of contract has a lot to do with an understanding from both sides of what franchise players are and what they mean," Boras said last month. "The branding part, the media rights part — all of those things go into that. And while the initial concept is shorter is better, the reality is with these types of players it's usually not the best dynamic for the franchise."

That thinking is why reports have Boras seeking a Fielder deal of eight to 10 years. The Nationals are reportedly ready to reset their current TV deal, which would supply much of the revenues needed to pay for Fielder.

Boras already has several high-profile clients in the Nationals organization, including Jayson Werth, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. An MLB.com report Monday said Fielder recently met with team officials in Washington, D.C.

The Mariners have seen new TV deals give increased financial clout to the Angels and Rangers, a development that could leave Seattle years away from contending in the American League West.

Acquiring Fielder could help the Mariners jump start their rebuilding before ace pitcher Felix Hernandez sees his contract expire at the end of 2014. But without Fielder, it's uncertain where upgrades would come from for an offense that ranked among the worst in 40 years for the past two seasons. The Mariners made a late-November trade for backup catcher John Jaso, but also watched during their Fielder pursuit as potentially helpful hitters Grady Sizemore, Carlos Quentin, Michael Cuddyer, Ryan Doumit and Ian Stewart signed or were acquired by trade elsewhere.

A major concern is whether the Mariners could fund a Pujols-type contract averaging $25 million per year over most of a decade. The key could be in backloading contract money like the Angels did with Pujols, with him making just $12 million this season and $16 million in 2013.

The bigger portions of the Pujols deal don't kick in until later, when the Angels expect to be reaping the rewards of the TV deal. Seattle will have a chance to renegotiate its current TV deal with ROOT Sports in 2015 and will also see Ichiro's yearly $18 million salary vanish when his contract ends after this season.

In other words, the team appears to have the ability to reach a deal, with money left for complementary players to build around Fielder. A judge in the divorce case of Mariners minority owner Chris Larson last month pegged the team's franchise value at $641 million, which would rank it among the 10 most valuable properties in Major League Baseball. And while sources say the team will declare a $6.75 million loss for 2011, the court heard testimony that the club has $20 million in additional operating capital.

What remains to be seen is how far the Mariners go in bidding and whether Fielder even wants to play here.

If Seattle doesn't get Fielder, the Mariners still have a stockpile of young outfielders and pitchers from which they could assemble trade packages. But until the Fielder question is resolved, any add-ons could be limited to pitchers, with George Sherrill rejoining the bullpen last week and the team continuing to be linked to starters Hisashi Iwakuma, Kevin Millwood, Jeff Francis and Jamie Moyer via various reports.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com.

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