Letter to the Editor: What to do with Cirillo?

It is now known that the Mariners will find a way to rid themselves of 3B Jeff Cirillo before the 2004 season. After two awful seasons in Seattle, that's seemingly the only option the team has. For the second time in the past month, M's fan Jared Poppel of Bellevue writes in to InsidethePark.com with his thoughts on how the team can unload Cirillo while looking towards the future at the same time.

Jeff Cirillo. Boy, the mere mention of that name around Seattle these days can make even the most die-hard Mariners fan frown. After all, he was supposed to be the missing piece to the puzzle. He was supposed to make the team that had just tied the major league record for wins in a season even better. He was supposed to bring his lifetime .300 plus batting average and add depth to an already strong lineup. He was supposed to pepper doubles to the deep power alleys at Safeco Field, as he had done in Milwaukee and Colorado. He was supposed to hold down the hot corner in Seattle for the next 5 years. Jeff Cirillo was supposed to do a lot of things in Seattle… what he wasn't supposed to do, though, was totally implode.

By now, everyone knows the story: the one trade that "Stand Pat" Gillick made where he dipped into Seattle's deep minor league pitching pool came back to bite him, and caused him to forever hold his peace. The 2001 trade for Jeff Cirillo has had far more implications than the simple meltdown of a once solid major league player; it has caused an entire franchise to go into vapor lock when considering sending off another of their many pitching prospects in a trade to push the M's into the post-season. Of course, at this rate, the M's will be fielding a team of 25 pitchers real soon… but that's another story altogether.

Cirillo has, quite frankly, tanked for two seasons. Was it the change of scenery from hitter-friendly Coors Field to pitcher's haven Safeco Field? Was it the pressure of playing for Lou Piniella (which he claimed after the 2002 season)? Was it the pressure of not having that excuse after Piniella left? Was it his eyes (Cirillo has had unspecified eye surgery this off-season… Lasix?) Was it simply that his skills had deteriorated and he was on the downside of his career anyway? We may never know.

Regardless, the Mariners have concluded that Cirillo is not the answer at 3B. In fact, the Mariners have pledged to upgrade the entire left side of the infield for 2004. The M's are known to be pursuing both Japanese free agent Kazuo Matsui and the 2002 AL MVP Miguel Tejada as potential shortstops, and there is definite interest in signing free agent Joe Randa for 3B. Also, the team is looking into possible trade scenarios to upgrade there, possibly involving Freddy Garcia. And who knows what this all means for Carlos Guillen?

However, there is still the fundamental question to be answered: what do the Mariners do with Cirillo?

There are really only 2 solutions: trade him or release him. The Mariners cannot send him to the minors because of his service time. They might be able to stash him on the 60-day DL for a while because of the eye surgery, and get a portion of his salary paid by insurance, but eventually he'd have to be activated… unless Tonya Harding is available to help with another "injury". (Just kidding!)

Of course, the Mariners would love to trade Cirillo, if they could find any takers. The major stumbling block is Cirillo's hefty contract. According to several reports, Cirillo is owed $6.6 million for 2004 and $6.9 million for 2005, and there is a club option for $7.5 million for 2006 with a $1.25 million buyout clause. Assuming the last season will be bought out (a pretty fair assumption), that means that Cirillo is owed $14.75 million over the next 2 seasons. This for a player who has hit just .234 since donning a Seattle uniform, with only 8 HR and 77 RBI to show for it. That's a very large albatross around his neck. My guess is, unless the Mariners are willing to assume most of that contract, not much will be offered in return and Cirillo won't be going anywhere. At this point, Bill Bavasi should consider an offer to eat 90% of the contract and take a bag of balls in return; at least the balls have a shot at reaching the outfield wall.

Which leads to the other solution: releasing Cirillo outright. This would open up a spot on the 40-man roster which could be used to sign a free agent or bring someone in via trade.

However, both of these solutions require the Mariners to essentially pay someone almost $7 million a year to not play for them, which is a very difficult pill for the bottom-line minded team to swallow.

There is an alternative to simply releasing him, one that might appease the fiscal hard-liners in the M's front office and work out best for all involved. The Mariners might be able to convince Cirillo to accept a version of the "Bobby Bonilla solution", adopted by the Mets. After the 1999 season, the New York Mets were faced with a similar decision on aging outfielder Bobby Bonilla. The Mets had traded for Bonilla, and inherited the end of the contract he had signed with the Florida Marlins prior to the 1997 season. There was one season left at $5.9 million. The Mets had no intention of paying Bonilla almost $6 million to be nothing more than a pinch hitter (and clubhouse card player), but did not want to swallow the whole amount in one year by simply releasing him. So they worked out a deal with Bonilla: accept a release, and we will pay you the full amount over 25 years at about 6.7% interest, starting in 2010. The eventual deal worked out so that Bonilla would receive just under $1.2 million each year for those 25 years, for a total of almost $30 million! However, the Mets ended up saving $5.9 million in 2000, giving them added financial flexibility to go out and sign free agents and go to the World Series that season.

I think a similar approach for the Mariners could solve the Jeff Cirillo problem. Approach Jeff with the following offer: accept a 25-year payout of his current contract at 2% interest (more than TWICE the current federal interest rate), starting in 2008, and you will get your release, allowing you to sign on with another ballclub to prove yourself. This would work out to an annual payment of $1,068,703.33. So, Cirillo would get just over $1 million a year for 25 years to not play for the Mariners.

Why would the Mariners do this? Well, given that the first payment wouldn't come for 5 years, they would end up effectively ridding themselves of Cirillo's contract that would be due over the next 2 seasons, freeing up $6.6 million for 2004 and $8.15 million for 2005. This is money that the Mariners desperately need to help cover the expected salary increases for Ichiro Suzuki, Joel Pineiro, Ryan Franklin, Gil Meche and Ben Davis, as well as sign needed free agents for the bullpen and infield. So, going this route can affect the long-term viability of the Mariners as a successful franchise. As for the payout itself, it comes down to a simple truth in the new baseball reality: paying a player $1 million a year to NOT play for you makes more sense than paying that player $7 million to play poorly or sit on your bench.

Why would Cirillo agree to such a deal, especially when he can force the Mariners to pay him the full amount of his contract over the next 2 years? Well, for starters, it might go a long way toward convincing other teams that he is not simply content to collect his paycheck (as he has more than alluded to in his statements). By allowing the Mariners some relief, Cirillo could build a lot of goodwill with the front office, allowing them to recommend him as a "team player" to other clubs who might want to take a chance on him. If he won't come down off his (or his agent's) high horse, Cirillo might very well never set foot on a major league ballfield again, not only because of his deteriorating performance, but also because of his "me-first" attitude.

There's another more practical reason for Cirillo to go along with this plan: long-term security. Taking this type of payout ensures that Cirillo will be getting a paycheck until 2033, when he will be 64 years old! Given the recent wild ups-and-downs of the financial markets, he could get the full payout from the M's, invest all his money, and have NOTHING to show for it in 5 years. Think back 3 years ago when Enron and WorldCom looked like solid investments; there's no reason to think that couldn't happen again. By having a steady locked-in income stream (and not a shabby one at that), Cirillo would be ensuring that his family would be taken care of, basically forever.

I think that one way or the other, the Mariners will be forced to release Jeff Cirillo. How they go about it could affect the franchise for at least the next two years, and possibly longer.

Clink clink, there's my two cents on the table.

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