Safeco Field: From Playground to Senior Center?

Is Safeco Field turning into a home for seniors to live out their days in baseball? Is this the place where former All-Stars flock at the end of their careers?'s Jared Poppel challenges the M's philosophy on building the best possible team for the 2004 season, and offers his own solutions.

Ellis Burks signed a one-year deal with the Boston Red Sox on Thursday, with a base salary of $750,000 and incentives for games played and plate appearances that could push his compensation up to $1.5 million. He would seem to be a good fit for the Red Sox, who desperately needed a right-handed bat off the bench and someone to use at DH against tough left-handed pitchers instead of last year's standout David Ortiz.

The day before he signed with Boston, however, it was reported that Burks had received an offer from another team, and that the offer had more guaranteed money than that of the Red Sox. In the end, Burks decided to go back to the team with which he broke into the majors. But until this morning, the name of the second team had not been revealed.

Now we know; it was our own Seattle Mariners who made a bid for Ellis Burks. GM Bill Bavasi confirmed that fact in local newpapers Friday morning. I have but one question for Bavasi: Why?

I have been one of the most vocal proponents of upgrading Seattle's bench during this off-season, but Ellis Burks? Is he serious? This is a 39-year-old, 17-year veteran coming off serious surgery for an ulnar nerve condition in his right arm. Burks can no longer play the field regularly, can't run as well as he used to, and is approaching the end of his career. With all due respect, doesn't this sound suspiciously like someone who the M's already have on their roster?

Is Bavasi saying that they would have signed Burks to a guaranteed contract of almost $1 million to be nothing more than a pinch hitter and insurance policy for Edgar Martinez? If so, then the M's are getting desperate, especially since I have now heard that 42-year-old Andres Galarraga is on their radar screen.


The Mariners need to not only get younger, but get more flexible, especially on their bench. An injury to one of their starting offensive players could be disastrous. Signing Burks or Galarraga, while providing the vaunted "veteran leadership" in the clubhouse, would only duplicate the problems the M's had in 2003 with Greg Colbrunn and John Mabry. There would be no place to play either one on a regular basis to keep them fresh, and no way to use them to give regular rest to multiple players as well to keep them stronger down the stretch. The Mariners had their chance to sign decent bench players all winter, but passed; now it's come to this?

If the Mariners are serious about signing a strong presence to come off the bench there are two much better possibilities still out there: Travis Lee and Raul Mondesi. I have already espoused the virtues of Lee in a previous column, but with starting opportunities available in Atlanta, Los Angeles and St. Louis, I don't think that the M's chances of landing him are very good.

Mondesi, on the other hand, would probably make a lot of sense for the Mariners right now. He can play all three outfield positions, and play them well. In fact, while not the total defensive whiz that Ichiro Suzuki is, his throwing arm is considered one of the best in baseball. Mondesi is also still a very powerful offensive force, slamming 24 HR and driving in 71 runs splitting time in New York and Arizona in 2003. He has averaged almost 27 HR and 82 RBI over the last five seasons. He could very ably step into a starting role in the event of injury. In addition, he stole 22 bases last season and has averaged 25 stolen bases over the last five years. This would give the Mariners an extra burst of speed off the bench, which right now can only be provided by Quinton McCracken.

Mondesi is just shy of his 33rd birthday. The Mariners will already be fielding an everyday lineup with all but one player being 30 or older and as far as I know, this would be the only all-over-thirty lineup in all of baseball. While not a youngster, Mondesi is not closing in on 40 like Burks, or close to turning 43 like Galarraga. He still has some baseball left in him.

Finally, he could give the M's what they have needed for at least 2 years now, which is a player who can be used to give multiple players rest on a regular basis. Think about it. Given that he can play all three outfield positions and that Raul Ibanez can play 1B, the M's would have the opportunity to rotate Mondesi with all three starting outfielders (Ichiro, Ibanez and Randy Winn), 1B John Olerud and DH Edgar Martinez, while not really losing anything in the starting lineup as far as offense. While technically a bench player, Mondesi could play as many as 5 games a week, while providing breathers for the core regulars to keep them stronger during August and September, which is something that was a major problem for the Mariners in 2002 and 2003.

One of the knocks on Mondesi is that he is perceived by some to be a selfish player, which does not really fit into the Mariners' clubhouse philosophy. Mondesi clashed repeatedly with Yankees manager Joe Torre in 2003 over playing time and respect, which culminated in the trade that sent him to Arizona on July 29. He even went so far as to claim that Torre was biased against Dominican players. Torre is considered by many in baseball to be the quintessential players' manager, so if Mondesi couldn't get along with him, how could he get along with other managers? While bringing a player who is considered a "bad head" onto a team where chemistry is considered important might be a risk, it's one the Mariners should seriously consider taking, especially given the improvements made by the Anaheim Angels this off-season.

Also, given his reputation, Mondesi has not been pursued as strongly as might have been expected given his talent and statistics. The timing might be right for the Mariners to swoop in and sign him.

I can't fault Bavasi for trying to strengthen the Mariners bench; heck, I've been screaming about it for weeks. But what I can fault is his choice of players to fill that need. Bringing in 40-year-old right-handed sluggers who can't field or run will not solve the problem. However, bringing in a younger, more versatile outfielder just might.

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