It’s one thing to be blown out of the water. But getting the ocean drained away . . . the Mariners have a long walk on a deep seabed.
The signings Thursday by the Angels of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the best hitter and best pitcher in this winter’s free agent market, has not only stratified the AL West into haves and two have-nots, it has signaled that the rest of baseball is getting away from the Mariners.
Unless the Mariners bust an incredible move to get free agent slugger Prince Fielder, who would have to get more money than Pujols to play for a lesser franchise in a more distant place in a hitter-unfriendly park, the club has been relegated, as we like to say in British futbol.
Second division in a four-team division, which by 2013 will be a five-team division with the arrival of the Houston Astros.
Pujols could have gone anywhere in the National League, or anywhere else in the AL, and the Mariners wouldn’t be as impacted. Instead, he ends up with a team the Mariners play 19 times, and puts more pressure on the Rangers to go after Fielder.
If you need to be told who would win a bidding war this winter for Fielder between the Mariners and Rangers, please stop reading now and get back to kitty videos on YouTube.
The two-time defending AL champion Rangers are two years removed from bankruptcy and have a robust present and near future. The franchise leader, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, bends to no one as a competitor. He has a formidable divisional adversary in Arte Moreno, the Angels owner who proved again he is fully engaged in the fortunes of his baseball team by spending a third of a billion dollars on two contracts — more than he paid for the entire team seven years ago.
Seattle? The majority owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi of Japan, has never seen his team play in 19 years. The largest American investor, Chris Larson, is going through a difficult divorce and can’t get his fellow owners to buy him out. The team hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2001 and has scored the fewest runs in baseball for three years running, and is burdened by contracts with under-productive veterans.
So yes, second place to the Rangers for Fielder is assured.
None of the foregoing facts are unknown to the rest of baseball, as well as the players’ agents, who will extract a premium from the Mariners before recommending clients sign up for the trip to south Alaska.
High-profile free agent signings have happened, as in the cases of Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson. But Beltre will be trotted out by his agent as an example of what can happen in Seattle — he peaked before he became a Mariner, flattened out as a Mariner, then peaked again after he was a Mariner.
His agent? Scott Boras.
Fielder’s agent? Scott Boras.
The Mariners are in a place no franchise should let itself get stuck — damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
There is plenty of risk in the Pujols deal, especially when he’s 42 — or 45 or 48, depending on whether you believe the “birthers” who are questioning his true age. The Angels may indeed live to regret it, but in short-attention-span America, sports teams tend to live in the moment.
But if a team hasn’t had a moment in 10 years, like the Mariners, the idea of being prudent, of tsk-tsking the Angels, doesn’t cut it. Nothing the Mariners have done in the last decade has amounted to much — even re-hiring the franchise icon, Ken Griffey Jr., backfired — so they are in no position to dismiss the efforts of others.
General manager Jack Zduriencik is an able baseball man, but he’s been told to bale the hayfield with scissors and a ball of twine. There are a hundred Jack Custs out there, but two real difference-makers, Pujols and Fielder, for what the Mariners desperately need. But thanks to Bill Bavasi years, the Mariners are attempting to catch up when many other teams are moving forward.
If it isn’t bad enough that Pujols and Fielder had no shot at becoming Mariners, each may wind up with a divisional rival.
That means the Mariners’ directionlessness not only makes the club weaker, it makes rivals stronger.
What will it say that by spring training, the Mariners’ biggest off-season transaction will have been to unload Chone Figgins?