SEATTLE — Even for those who don’t have to front the money, there are no perfect free agents, it seems. The potential warts are always lurking, fueling the debate: Prince Fielder is too hefty to age well, Albert Pujols too old for a 10-year deal, Jose Reyes too injury-prone, Albert Belle too flighty.
Heck, even when a player hits the market with seemingly nothing but upside — think A-Rod in 2001 — you have to worry about him commanding too much of the team’s payroll, or letting the huge windfall take away his competitive edge, or it all going to his head.
In that spirit, you could find plenty of reasons for the Mariners, and their fans, to fret about the fact that they seem perfectly positioned, as the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., ended on Thursday, for a run at the top three remaining non-pitching free agents on the market.
One is Josh Hamilton, who has more red flags than a pennant factory. There’s Nick Swisher, whose credentials strike some as underwhelming, at least when a $15 million annual contract is at stake. And there’s Michael Bourn, whose offensive stats last year with Atlanta are frighteningly comparable to Chone Figgins’ in his final season with the Angels.
But here’s another way to look at it: The Mariners have floundered for far too long with an offense that is as boring as it is ineffectual. They have finished in last place in seven of the past nine years in MLB’s only four-team division (growing to five teams in 2013 with the addition of Houston). Attendance is plummeting, while fan cynicism is peaking. All three players, even with their various and sundry perceived drawbacks, would represent a significant upgrade. And cost none of their touted prospects (though the Mariners would have to give up their first-round draft pick in 2013, No. 12 overall, to sign any of the three).
Yes, manager Eric Wedge was still talking in Nashville of building “the right way” and not becoming impatient to the point you “push a deal.” There is merit to that viewpoint. The last thing any Mariners fan wants to see is the next Adam Jones, Asdrubal Cabrera or Shin-Soo Choo flourishing elsewhere, or the next Figgins free-agent washout.
But you also can’t live in fear of a bold move.
There is a limit to the patience for a rebuild to take off — a process that is in the third year for Wedge, but has gone on much longer for the team’s fans.
This would not be a case of making a deal to just make a deal, nor would it be a case of general manager Jack Zduriencik acting merely out of desperation. That’s always a dangerous proposition, leading to such monumental blunders as the Erik Bedard trade of 2008 (or the Carlos Silva signing of 2008, if that’s how you roll).
Terry Francona, the new manager of the Cleveland Indians, made a wise observation in Nashville, regarding the evaluation of moves a team makes during the winter: “As I found out the hard way, the team that wins the winter doesn’t always win the season. Sometimes it makes you an analyst.”
But the missteps of the Red Sox and others (including the Mariners’ own still-fresh wounds) don’t mean you should shy away from a chance to jump-start the rebuilding process.
Hamilton, for all the issues surrounding his addictions, his health, his age and whatever else you want to quibble with, is one of the most dynamic hitters in the major leagues. His presence would instantly bring credibility, not to mention thump, to the Mariners’ lineup.
And it’s not a pipe dream, either. The Mariners are positioned as Hamilton’s most viable landing spot if negotiations fall apart with Texas. And with the Rangers in furious pursuit of both a Zack Greinke signing and Justin Upton trade, it seems entirely plausible that they will part ways with the man who helped lead them to back-to-back American League pennants.
Now, I would blanch at giving Hamilton, who turns 32 next May, the seven-year, $175 million contract he was said to be seeking at the outset of the offseason. But no team seems to have the stomach for that, either. At four years, Hamilton strikes me as a risk worth taking for the Mariners.
If he falls through — and there are no sure things in the world of free agency — both Swisher and Bourn are looming as viable alternatives for the Mariners.
Swisher is said to love the city of Seattle, and he certainly mashes the ball at Safeco Field (a career .913 OPS in 45 games). By many accounts, his options are down to Seattle and Cleveland (though always beware of the fabled “mystery team”). So I’d say that possibility is very much in play as well.
Before free agency, Bourn was expected to be most heavily pursued by the Nationals and Phillies. But the Nats traded for Denard Span, and the Phillies got Ben Revere. Bourn’s old team, the Braves, signed B.J. Upton.
Again, the Mariners are looking more and more like a logical spot for Bourn, ranked by FanGraphs as the top defensive player in the majors last season.
I’m sure there are many who still won’t believe the Mariners would actually shell out the money until they shell out the money. That’s the bed they’ve made. And they could have the desire to spend big-time dough and find that no quality player wants to take it, a not uncommon dilemma for long-struggling teams.
Seattle’s reputation as a hitter’s graveyard doesn’t help (to which they have the counter-argument of newly moved-in fences). We’ll see if that has traction; if not, there are some impact trades still percolating for the Mariners. Here’s hoping they don’t talk themselves out of taking a plunge forward.