Prince Fielder: At What Cost?

The Mariners have finished in the basement not only in the standings but also in most offensive categories over the past few seasons. One of the league's most coveted Free Agents-to-be is Prince Fielder, who Mariners' GM Jack Zduriencik just happened to draft while he was with Milwaukee. It seems like a good fit, but can Seattle afford to go after the big slugger? Can they afford not to?

Here is an assignment for you, baseball fans: Think back chronologically in your baseball mind and try and remember the last time the Seattle Mariners had a legitimate clean-up hitter in their lineup for any length of time. Mike Carp? Probably too soon to say he's to that point. Jose Lopez? I'm going to give that one a 'no'. Griffey (part two)? Meh. Beltre, Vidro, Ibanez, Sexson? Truth is, you probably have to go back to 2003 and the end of the Edgar Martinez era to find someone who fits that mold.

Find out what readers think about signing Prince Fielder
Now think what this current club--flush with blossoming young talent in the field and on the mound and with one of the best starting pitchers in all of baseball--could do if they had an Edgar Martinez-type presence once again. Exciting, isn't it? Yet despite the obvious team need and the clear connections to one of the best Free Agent bats available, many fans are saying, "no thank you".

Prince Fielder could be the perfect bat for the Mariners lineup: he hits left-handed, he hits for power, he hits for average, he draws walks, he uses the whole field, he has great bloodlines and he has an infectious personality. His teammates love him. The baseball media loves him. But when asked if they would love to see him suiting up for the hometown nine, a number of Mariners fans don't think they would.

The concerns are legitimate. First and foremost, listed at 5-foot-11 and a generous 275 pounds, Fielder's body-type doesn't scream, "sound long-term investment" in most people's opinion. Prince's dad, Cecil Fielder, was great early in his career but he was basically done being productive by the time he turned 34-years-old. Their body types aren't identical (the elder Fielder was 6-foot-3), but they both had the same conditioning questions. The second concern is directly tied into the first, and that is the money that it will take to get him signed. He will be just 28-years-old when 2012 play kicks off and he has hit more home runs since he came into the league than anyone not named Ryan Howard. Howard's contract (5 years/$125m), the contract that fellow first baseman and Scott Boras client Mark Teixeira signed in 2009 (8 years/$180m) and the contract of Adrian Gonzalez (7 years/$154m) figure to be reference points for Boras and Fielder when negotiations open up, as does whatever Albert Pujols signs for. Is that money wise to be throwing at a player who's production could conceivably face a dramatic drop-off before the contract is up?

The follow-up question to these Fielder questions for the Mariners is perhaps just as important: If not him, then who?

Who else can step in for the club in 2012--or 2013 or 2014 for that matter--and be that middle-of-the-order tour de force for a club that managed to hit as many home runs over the last two seasons (210) as their American League West rival and two-time defending A.L Champion Texas Rangers hit just in 2011? Clearly this Mariners' team isn't built on power, but their complete lack of power is not necessarily the result of design but rather the result of available talent.

Prince Fielder is an available talent right now; that much we know. What we don't know is, 1) If he would consider playing in Seattle, and, 2) If the Mariners would be willing to pay enough money to 'buy' his services as a free agent. General Manager Jack Zduriencik has spent big money on free agency before, but the signing of Chone Figgins has basically blown up in his and the Mariners faces. And although the Pacific Northwest location comes with the most travel of any MLB team and the ballpark and it's dimensions are decidedly pitcher-friendly, the club has successfully attracted big name bats in the past in Figgins, Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson.

But unlike those three, Prince Fielder is a left-handed hitter, and Safeco Field has been much less impeding on the talents of left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters since it opened back in July of 1999. The park, after all, was originally designed with the club's best player in mind: Ken Griffey, Jr. But the question on Fielder remains. Is he a worthwhile pursuit?

One thing that is clear is that even if the M's do manage to land Fielder, they will need to do more to become a contender in the American League West. Texas has been in back-to-back World Series, and although they may lose their ace starting pitcher for a second straight offseason (C.J. Wilson this time), they still have and offense stacked with a middle of the order that no club in the division can match. Los Angeles also poses a serious threat as they have great starting pitching and will likely be returning one of their key hitters to full health in 2012 (Kendrys Morales).

Meanwhile the Mariners are minus 324 in runs scored since the start of 2010. Fielder is good, but he isn't that good, even now. And a lot of that good pitching that the Mariners showed the past two seasons has been traded away, and as we sit here today, it is looking like a very open competition on the 4th and 5th starters jobs come Spring 2012. Getting Fielder would more than likely mean sitting out the rest of the free agency period for Seattle, and if Fielder isn't enough to lead the club to the playoffs, should they bite on him?

Another thing to consider: Does using up all of their money on a power hitting first baseman (or designated hitter) make sense for this club? A club that includes cheap, team-controlled years of Justin Smoak and Mike Carp, two of the teams' most effective and promising young hitters? If Fielder comes aboard, Carp either becomes trade bait or a full-time outfielder, and left field has proven to be one of the most important defensive outfield positions in the league--one where plus speed and a plus glove are vital. Carp, despite reinventing his body this past offseason and being in easily the best shape of his career in 2011, has neither.

Consider this: Even with Smoak and Carp, the M's first basemen and designated hitters have managed to put up average seasons of just 18 homers and 70 RBI over the past two seasons with a triple slash average of just .221/.293/.363. Meanwhile Fielder has averaged 40 homers and 113 RBI with a .285 Average, .399 On-Base Percentage and .553 Slugging since 2007. Seems clear that Fielder would improve on those Mariners figures.

Young power hitters with good plate discipline and the ability to use the whole field (23 of his 38 HR last season and 139 of his 230 career HR were hit to the left of right center) don't hit the market very often. When an opportunity such to acquire one arises, teams should be willing to break out of their normal approach in order to secure the player, even if the move doesn't produce immediate dividends on the field or in the standings. Fielder's age gives the club a window to maximize on his talents--even if it is only three or four seasons--that fall in line with the development of the orginization and it's top prospects.

The Mariners and Jack Zduriencik may not get another chance to get their hands on a hitter of this caliber. They need to act while they can to secure that coveted middle of the order bat that is so hard to find. The risk is worth it in my estimation, despite the cost.

Looking for more Mariners news and articles? Follow SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall on Twitter at @randallball.

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