Thiel: What to know about Mariners' trade

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on January 16, 2012 at 7:00 PM

Why did the Mariners sacrifice a huge talent like rookie All-Star pitcher Michael Pineda?

Because the franchise bosses know a truth they will never tell, but the rest of us can easily deduce: The Safeco Field Theorem that says the Seattle franchise will always be the last choice of any quality, veteran free-agent slugger whose baseball priority is career power stats (see Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Prince Fielder).

The theorem is virtually a fact, now that we have the Adrian Beltre Corollary that shows his power numbers before and after his five years in Seattle (2005-2009) were superior.

As a Mariner, Beltre had a slugging percentage of .459. The year before, as a Dodger, he had a 48-homer season that produced a slugging percentage of .629. In 2010, he signed with Boston, where he slugged. 553. In Texas last season, he slugged .561.

The distinction fairly screams.

While it can be contended that Beltre was juiced in 2004, and that he was hurt in 2009, and that all hitters' slugging percentages improve in Boston and Texas, and that right-handed hitters still hit SOME home runs at Safeco, and that lefty hitters such as Fielder will always have a better chance at Safeco than righties, the Beltre Corollary is what any agent will share with veteran power hitter who has choices regarding employer.

Scott Boras is the agent for Beltre. Scott Boras is the agent for Fielder. Any questions so far?

Q: Yes. Does that mean that Mariners have no shot at Fielder?

A: The only way the Mariners have a shot is if the market for Fielder collapses back to them, something like eight years at $150M, instead of Boras' 10-years, $200M+. It's possible, given that the big players -- Yanks, Mets, Phils, Cubs, Angels etc. -- have claimed thus far to be sitting out this Boras dance.

But along with every school child, Boras knows all it takes is two to make a market. He has Seattle. Fielder is being squired about the Metroplex this weekend by the Rangers. If the Rangers fail to sign Japanese pitching star Yu Darvish by a 2 p.m. PT Wednesday deadline imposed by Japan baseball's posting rules, rumors have the club shifting the Darvish money to the pursuit of Fielder. Should the money offers from the Mariners and Rangers be roughly equal, it's a no-brainer that Fielder will choose the Rangers.

Q: Why is it a no-brainer?

A: It's the Safeco Field Theorem:  The park is too big and too cold, Seattle is too far away from the rest of baseball as well as from the Sun Belt homes of most players (Fielder lives in Florida), and franchise ownership for a decade has done little to demonstrate an ability to win big within the career span of the average major leaguer (about four years). The Rangers have a hitter's park in a market that's a two-hour flight to Florida and an ownership that emerged from bankruptcy to help put the team in the last two World Series.

Of the three factors, only the last is fixable. Someday.

Nothing this month is going to fix the fact that the people who approved the acquisitions of Jose Vidro, Scott Spiezio, Eric Byrnes, Pokey Reese, Rich Aurilia, Chone Figgins, Carlos Silva, et al, and approved the departures of Griffey, Rodriguez, Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Adam Jones, et al, are still in charge.

What part of "duh" is not clear here?

Q: Didn't the Mariners once win 116 games in Safeco?

A: The 2001 team was built on pitching, defense and the 262 hits and 56 stolen bases of AL MVP Ichiro, plus the 141 RBIs and 37 home runs from Bret Boone, who had never hit more than 24 in a full season. This was three years before baseball began serious testing for performance-enhancing drugs. Just sayin'.

Q. What does this have to do with trading away Pineda, who is exactly the kind of pitcher that the club needs to succeed in Safeco?

A: It's because the Mariners are limited to two forms of player acquisition: Draft/international free agency, and trade. They've done fairly well in the draft (Griffey, Rodriguez, Dustin Ackley) and adding internationals such as Ichiro, Pineda, Felix Hernandez and Kazu Sasaki. But to get a premium slugger, they have to trade, which is the least desirable route because the club is giving talent treasure for talent treasure. As expensive as it is to buy a veteran free agent, it is only cash, and there's always more of that. There are far fewer starting aces such as Pineda.

No matter how the trade for catcher Jesus Montero works in five years, they will have had to surrender something close to irreplaceable, even if the Mariners have a potential abundance of major league pitching.

Q: So this is a bad deal?

A: No one can say definitively now because both players have such small MLB track records. The Mariners were so desperate for power hitting that they had to go the trade route. The biggest virtue to Montero is that, at 22, he has six years under club control before he reaches free agency and leaves, which he will do when his right-handed power numbers suffer from ballpark effects.

The liability is that he's a mediocre catcher, and may wind up only a DH, meaning that more treasure must be expended to upgrade that position. But the biggest apprehension is that the Yankees thought he was worth trading. When any GM trades with the Yankees, he better be Indiana Jones, because there's lots of cliffs, snakes, boulders and shaky foot-bridges in the immediate future.

It's not that Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik isn't up to the task, it's that the Yankees always devote more resources to baseball because they want to win so much more than the Mariners and many teams.

The most obvious sign is the ability to throw money and acquire the best veteran free agents, which always annoys the more casual fan. The less obvious sign is the resources devoted to scouting and training. The Yankees almost always hire the best people and give them the best tools to do their jobs well.

So if the Yankees have the No. 3-ranked prospect in the game, according to Baseball America, and they trade him, they know something the rest of us don't. Conversely, if they acquire a young player with great potential but a limited track record, and they have missed some large flaw, they can absorb his failure more readily.

After a decade's worth of decline, the Mariners have no wiggle room in this trade. The risk is mostly with the Mariners. And because this deal has no financial impact since the players are at or near major league minimum salaries, it actually increases the pressure on the Mariners to get Fielder because Pineda has been lost.

To make 2012 anything more than another incremental trudge toward a .500 season, ownership had to step up to purchase contention. So far, they have not. If  ownership discovers the Rangers Wednesday opening their checkbook to Fielder instead of Darvish, they will have no choice but to do what Boras wants:

Even though the Mariners  proved the Safeco Field Theorem was true with the Beltre Corollary, the club must overpay Fielder to make it a secondary consideration.

Anything less, and the Mariners, in hiring a rookie DH to replace a potential ace, may not even be treading water.

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