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Originally published Saturday, December 31, 2011 at 8:05 PM

Steve Kelley

Without Fielder, 2012 Mariners are just Felix and garlic fries

Fans won't have much to look forward to if the power-hungry Mariners can't sign Prince Fielder.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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One by one, the power hitters disappeared. The good ones, the better ones and the game-changers.

Casey McGehee was traded to Pittsburgh. Josh Willingham signed with Minnesota and Jason Kubel signed with Arizona. Michael Cuddyer went to Colorado, and for a quarter of a billion dollars, the biggest prize, Albert Pujols, left St. Louis for the Los Angeles Angels and the American League West.

And while all of this was happening, the power-poor Mariners stood on the sideline and watched, apparently unwilling or unable to play the game.

As 2012 begins, and the hope of signing the last remaining free-agent slugger, first baseman Prince Fielder, appears to be fading, the Mariners are as powerless now as they were during their 17-game losing streak last season.

They could enter next season still hoping that Justin Smoak and Mike Carp can provide enough pop to make a difference.

This new year looks a lot like the old year, all about pitching and promises. It's another year where the Mariners start far behind the Angels and the two-time defending AL pennant-winning Texas Rangers.

Another year where they are a distant third in spending in their four-team division. Another year when they have no hope of contending. Another year where they have nothing new to offer.

Without Fielder, what do Mariners fans have to get excited about in 2012?

I think it comes down to Felix and fries.

The Mariners' promotional poster for this season should feature their star pitcher holding a garlic fry, the only two true guarantees for 2012.

What else is there? Catcher John Jaso? The return of left-handed setup man George Sherrill?

I feel sorry for those guys. I think each can be of significant help to the team. But for Mariners fans, Jaso and Sherrill are like getting a sleeve of Titleist golf balls for Christmas when you were hoping for a golfing vacation on the Monterrey Peninsula.

Is that all there is?

Of course, all of this gloom could part if the Mariners signed Fielder, who is 27 years old and has missed only one game in three seasons.

He is the power hitter who can make the difference in 2012 and beyond. A left-handed hitter tailor-made for Safeco Field. He could be the answer to the Angels' boldness.

Fielder would own the Northwest, from Vancouver, B.C., to the Oregon-California border, from Forks to Montana. He would be adored here. And he would be marketed. For all of their faults, the Mariners know how to market their product.

If the Mariners signed Fielder, all of this offseason hemming and hawing wouldn't matter anymore.

But does anyone think it's going to happen?

Fielder will probably sign with the Washington Nationals, or maybe the desperate-for-attention Chicago Cubs, or maybe even the Toronto Blue Jays.

Reports say Fielder doesn't want to come to the Northwest; it's too far away, too far removed from the media epicenters.

We've heard that lament for years, and I think it's crazy. In this wireless world, no place is too far removed. Free agents shouldn't be afraid to come to Seattle. Chone Figgins signed with the Mariners. (OK, bad example.)

But look at the history of superstars here.

Randy Johnson and Hernandez won Cy Young awards. The world discovered Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez here. Lou Piniella didn't disappear when he became a manager in the Pacific Northwest. Dave Niehaus made a national reputation calling Mariners games.

The Sonics never had much luck signing free agents. Well, Jim McIlvaine signed here. (Sorry, another bad example.)

But George Karl was reborn as a coach in Seattle. Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp became two of the most popular NBA players in Seattle. Lenny Wilkens made the Hall of Fame, and Ray Allen came to love playing for the Sonics.

Shaun Alexander won an MVP award playing running back for the Seahawks. Steve Largent went into the Hall of Fame. Mike Holmgren's legend grew in Seattle. Matt Hasselbeck went to multiple Pro Bowls. And Pete Carroll hasn't become irrelevant since coming here.

I don't buy the idea that Seattle would be a graveyard for free agents.

Losing, not geography, makes players and managers and coaches disappear. More likely Fielder doesn't want to come to Seattle because he fears the Mariners can't win. And even more likely, the cash-strapped Mariners aren't truly serious about signing him.

So, without Fielder, the M's start 2012 a lot like they started 2011. All pitching and promises. Just Felix and fries.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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