Prices high, prospects low for Mariners
Market for free-agent pitchers is giving the Mariners nightmares and leaving them with slim hopes for a successful offseason purchase.
Seattle Times staff reporter
This offseason already has proven nightmarish for major-league teams desperately needing to fill a starting rotation spot via free agency.
So, consider the sleep patterns of a Mariners squad actually trying to plug two gaping rotation holes in a marketplace quickly escalating beyond their control. That's why Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi tugged extra hard on his Thanksgiving wishbone this week as he prepared for an upcoming December stretch that will likely decide his legacy in Seattle.
Few teams have as many feelers out on pitchers as do the Mariners, who must still overcome a slew of obstacles in landing the arms needed to compete in 2007. What's most daunting is a marketplace causing sticker shock for teams hoping to do more than simply rummage through the scrap heap.
"I think it's fair to say that near the end of the season we were a bit concerned about where the market was headed," Bavasi said this week. "Every year there's always something. Nothing really surprises you any more."
But regardless of exactly when the Mariners figured it out, this simply isn't the year to be shopping for rotation plug-ins. The entire organization was floored by the $51.1 million posting fee paid by the Boston Red Sox just for the negotiating rights to Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Whether there will be a trickle-down effect on the rest of the pitching market remains to be seen. In other words, will the New York Yankees now pay more than previously planned to land Barry Zito, or even Ted Lilly, in a counterstrike against Red Sox Nation and effectively drive up the cost of pitchers who remain on the market?
The Mariners will fill one of their three rotation vacancies with either Jake Woods or Cha Seung Baek. But with few trade possibilities, Bavasi will be forced to pay the going rate and beyond for proven major-league arms.
And forget about landing Carlos Lee or any other big-name bopper as an additional outfield bat. Unless they see a bargain in the coming days, the only hitters added by Seattle will be with any spare change left over from paying — make that overpaying — for pitching.
"Pick any cliché you want," Bavasi said of the pitchers he's sought. "We've got all our balls in the air, our pokers in the fire, our feelers out there. We've got to be ready, so when something breaks, we can jump."
But how high?
Consider the case of Texas Rangers starter Adam Eaton, a Snohomish High School product who missed three months last season because of surgery on a torn tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand.
Eaton already has expressed interest in returning to his hometown team. He lacks the innings pitched and the appeal of bigger names like Zito, Jason Schmidt or Lilly, and wants a deal done before the baseball winter meetings open in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 4.
But despite it all, Eaton is already fielding offers in the three-year, $24 million range and exploring creative ways to get the equivalent of fourth-year money added to any deal. Seattle is being extra vigilant in going over the medical files Eaton's surgeon shipped to the team last week and reviewing MRI scans of the pitcher's hand that were delivered Tuesday.
If and when the Mariners finally do make Eaton an offer, they will likely have to add a fourth year. That's because Seattle's three consecutive last-place finishes and the uncertain future of both Bavasi and manager Mike Hargrove beyond 2007 are combining to give free agents everywhere a reason for pause.
Eaton isn't nearly in the class of pitchers Seattle fans had hoped to see brought in when the 2006 season ended. Their hopes for Matsuzaka, or Zito, now have plummeted just as the prices on the Eatons and Gil Meches of the world have soared.
"Do you think for a minute that someone like Barry Zito is going to go to Seattle?" the agent for one of the pitchers being sought by the Mariners said this week. "Why would he, even if they do throw money at him? He can get the big money from a team that also has a chance of winning something."
Eaton's agent, Jim Lindell, is more diplomatic about Seattle's chances of landing his client. But he says that, unlike other free agents planning to use the winter meetings to generate a bidding war, he expects Eaton to sign within the next 10 days.
"The Mariners have expressed a lot of interest, and they've requested the most medical stuff," he said. "It's taking them longer than other teams when it comes to formulating their opinion on Adam."
Lindell added that playing for a winner is a huge incentive to Eaton, and that one team matching that description has put in an aggressive bid. He feels there is enough money around the game right now to justify the higher salaries being sought by the limited pool of quality arms.
"Pretty soon, as soon as one guy signs, there are going to be 10 teams looking at three pitchers," Lindell said. "Then, there's only going to be one of them left and that guy's going to do real well for himself."
Another state product, Giants free agent Schmidt out of Kelso, has also expressed interest in Seattle but remains the biggest name out there other than Zito.
Lest anyone think it isn't about money for Schmidt, it was only two weeks ago that he dumped his newer agents and returned to the fold of Allan and Randy Hendricks — a Texas duo not known for yard sales or hometown discounts.
No wonder the Mariners have once again mulled over the possibility of bidding on Japanese left-hander Kei Igawa, posted by the Hanshin Tigers last Monday. The Mariners had effectively ruled out Igawa when the general managers meetings opened, but were rethinking that strategy once the reality of the marketplace began to hit home.
A team paying a posting fee of $10 million to $13 million for Igawa and signing him to a three-year, $15 million deal would have him for $8 million or $9 million annually. That's roughly the money Eaton is seeking.
The Mariners also have joined other teams in combing over the long list of National League free agents like Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver, Randy Wolf and Tomo Ohka. Despite the risks associated with switching to the hitter-friendly AL, all appear in line for higher paydays than they'd have dreamed possible a few months ago.
And in any discussions with the Mariners, Seattle's decision last year to give Jarrod Washburn a four-year, $37 million contract will be front and center. Washburn hasn't topped 11 victories in a season since 2002, and agents continuously bring up his deal as a reference point for negotiations.
Larry O'Brien, the agent for Lilly, has had two conversations with Mariners officials the past couple of weeks and doesn't mince words.
"We just look at Washburn and what he signed for with the Mariners, and I'll put Ted's numbers up against them any day," O'Brien said.
Lilly also wants to play for a team with a shot at the playoffs, meaning the Yankees and Blue Jays would have a major leg up on Seattle if the offers are close.
Unlike Eaton, the Lilly camp appears to be in no rush.
"I guess the longer you wait," O'Brien said, "the more things will become clearer."
Or, in Seattle's case, more muddled than ever.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org
|10 free-agent possibilities for the Mariners|
|Pitcher||Age||W-L, ERA||Contract sought||Mariners' chances|
|LH Barry Zito||28||16-10, 3.83||$15M-16M, 5 years||Better hope of winning 2007 World Series|
|RH Jason Schmidt||33||11-9, 3.59||$12M-14M, 4-5 years||Good, they'll have to pay through the nose|
|LH Ted Lilly||30||15-13, 4.31||$9M-$10M, 4 years||Fading by the day|
|RH Vicente Padilla||29||15-10, 4.50||$10M, 3-4 years||Virtually nil|
|RH Gil Meche||28||11-8, 4.48||$8M-$10M, 4 years||Didn't think he was worth $6M per year|
|RH Adam Eaton||28||7-4, 5.12||$8M-9M, 3-4 years||Looking like bridesmaids|
|LH Kei Igawa||27||14-9, 2.97||$8M-$9M, 3 years||Good if they actually bid|
|RH Jeff Suppan||31||12-7, 4.12||$9M-$10M, 3-4 years||Will have to risk a huge overpay|
|RH Randy Wolf||30||4-0, 5.56||$7M-$8M, 3 years||Would be better if they switch to NL|
|RH Tomo Ohka||30||4-5, 4.82||$4M-$6M, 3 years||Good fit as secondary acquisition|
|OTHERS: RH Jason Marquis, RH Tony Armas Jr., LH Mark Mulder, RH Jeff Weaver|
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