No time of year is more critical to a major league team’s success — or failure — than the period from Nov. 15 through, roughly, Dec. 20, the calendar window in which teams re-rack the balls in anticipation of a new season by signing free agents, making trades, and offering, or refusing to offer, salary arbitration to their incumbents.
If the Seattle Mariners are going to break their general, galling pattern of 90 to 100-loss seasons — five in the past decade alone — the next month represents their best opportunity to do it. By Dec. 20, the roster the Mariners feature will largely be the one they take to spring training in Peoria.
General Manager Jack Zduriencik’s history with the Mariners suggests we can expect a spate of activity over the next 30 days. Hired Oct. 22, 2008, Zduriencik had only been on the job a month when he signed free agent first baseman Russell Branyan (one year, $1.4 million Dec. 6), and then executed one of the biggest swaps in recent Mariners history.
On Dec. 10, he traded RHP J.J. Putz, RHP Sean Green and OF Jeremy Reed to the New York Mets, and INF Luis Valbuena to the Cleveland Indians, acquiring in return 1B Mike Carp, OF Endy Chavez, RHP Aaron Heilman, LHP Jason Vargas, OF Ezequiel Carrera and RHP Maikel Cleto from the Mets and OF Franklin Gutierrez from the Indians.
Branyan had an immediate positive impact, smacking 31 home runs in his first year with the team, and 15 more the following season. Vargas has won 22 games for the Mariners since 2009, Gutierrez is a Gold Glove center fielder, albeit one with medical issues, and Carp is developing into a nice addition.
In the Nov. 15-Dec. 20, 2009 calendar window, Zduriencik traded RHP Phillippe Aumont (a former No. 1 pick), RHP J.C. Ramierz and OF Tyson Gillies to the Philadelphia Phillies for LHP Cliff Lee, and traded RHP Brandon Morrow to Toronto for RHP Brandon League and minor league OF Johermyn Chavez. Each of those transactions by and large worked in Seattle’s favor.
Two other Zduriencik moves from mid-November to mid-December of 2009 failed miserably, and the second continues to haunt the operation. In an exchange of headaches with the Chicago White Sox, Zduriencik sent Bill Bavasi gaffe Carlos Silva and $9 million to the Windy City for OF Milton Bradley, whose emotional baggage and lack of a bat became one of the principal storylines of the 2010 season.
Also at about that time, Zduriencik elected to lavish $36 million over four years on free agent Chone Figgins, who hit a career-low .259 in his first year with the Mariners and followed up in 2011 by hitting .188 in 81 games, making Figgins, still due $18 million, one of the bigger busts in team history.
For a variety of reasons, Zduriencik was relatively quiet at this time a year ago beyond shedding roster deadwood Jose Lopez, Ryan Rowland-Smith and Rob Johnson and acquiring Jack Cust as a free agent. That signing didn’t work, either, Cust hitting .213 in 67 games before his release.
Last season, in a development that even turned the stomach of the Mariner Moose, Seattle ranked last in the AL in batting (.233), last in runs (556), last in hits (1263), last in on-base percentage (.292), last in slugging (.348), last in on-base+slugging (.640) and next-to-last in home runs (109).
The best free-agent bat currently belongs to Prince Fielder, also the youngest free-agent impact hitter at age 27. Last year, playing for Milwaukee, Fielder hit .299 with 38 home runs and 120 RBIs. He’s going to command $20-23 million and will probably seek a contract length of six to eight years. But he might settle for five.
Fielder’s agent is the always-problematic Scott Boras, who told ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick that Fielder is an “amazing athlete” who’s just stepping into his prime. “This guy can fly,” he said. “He’s like Warren Sapp. That man was an athlete. People said he had this square body or he wasn’t big enough or whatever, but he was still an All-Pro.”
Whether Zduriencik elects to chase after Fielder will likely depend on Fielder’s preference of a ballpark. In that respect, Safeco Field has rarely tempted big hitters, although Adrian Beltre was an accomplished bopper after 2004 (.334 average, 48 home runs) when he jumped from the Dodgers to the Mariners for $64 million.
Going back a decade, we’d rank these as most significant (good and bad) moves made by the Mariners during the calendar window under discussion:
Dec. 22, 2000 (Gillick): Signed FA 2B Bret Boone to a one-year, $3.25 million contract, and C Tom Lampkin to a one-year, $1.2 million contract (good moves).
Dec. 15, 2001 (Gillick): Traded P Jose Paniagua, P Denny Stark and P Brian Fuentes to Colorado for 3B Jeff Cirillo (terrible trade).
Dec. 17, 2003 (Bavasi): Signed free agent 3B Scott Spiezio to a three-year, $9.1 million contract (disaster).
Dec. 15, 2004 (Bavasi): Signed free agent 1B Richie Sexson to a four-year, $50 million contract, the richest package in club history (had two good years and two bad ones).
Dec. 17, 2004 (Bavasi): Signed free agent 3B Adrian Beltre to a five-year, $64 million contract (mixed result: Beltre became a Gold Glove third baseman but never came close to duplicating his 2004 season with the Dodgers).
Dec. 19, 2005 (Bavasi): Signed free agent LHP Jarrod Washburn to a four-year, $37 million contract (bad signing: Washburn went 31-49 with a 4.17 ERA in his four years in Seattle).
Dec. 14, 2006 (Bavasi): Signed free agent RHP Miguel Batista to a three-year, $25 million contract (ugly).
Dec. 20, 2007 (Bavasi): Signed RHP Carlos Silva to a four-year, $48 million contract (uglier).
Dec. 10, 2008 (Zduriencik): Traded RHP J.J. Putz, RHP Sean Green and OF Jeremy Reed to the New York Mets, and INF Luis Valbuena to the Cleveland Indians; acquired 1B Mike Carp, OF Endy Chavez, RHP Aaron Heilman, LHP Jason Vargas, OF Ezquiel Carrera and RHP Maikel Cleto from the Mets and OF Franklin Gutierrez from the Indians.
Dec. 8, 2009 (Zduriencik): Signed free agent 3B Chone Figgins to a 4-year, $36 million contract (awful signing so far).
Dec. 18, 2009 (Zduriencik): Traded RHP Carlos Silva and $9 million to the Chicago Cubs for DH/OF Milton Bradley (Bradley wasn’t any good with Seattle, but he was good copy).
Dec. 23, 2009 (Zduriencik): Traded RHP Brandon Morrow to the Toronto Blue Jays for RHP Brandon League and minor league OF Johermyn Chavez (Great move: League saved 45 games last year and became an All-Star for the first time. Morrow is 21-18 in his two years in Toronto).
As Bavasi’s moves show, it’s possible to wreck a franchise in the Nov. 15-Dec. 20 window. What Zduriencik’s Nov. 15-Dec. 20 moves show is that he needs to demonstrate he can acquire somebody who can hit. The next month will show us.