Mariners Should Keep The Chief

As the future of the Seattle Mariners peaks its head out from beyond the horizon, there are several key decisions that the front office must make. None are bigger than the one concerning the M's staff ace, Freddy Garcia. As the trade deadline looms, time is running out on the Mariner brass. Insidethepark.com's Jason A. Churchill has already made the decision for them.

For all of the trade talks in every major newspaper and every rumor mill from Flushing, New York to Seattle, the M's have one single decision to make that could have a rippling effect on the organization for years to come.

What to do with Freddy Garcia?

Most claim that the Mariner brass must trade Freddy, and those who do often offer two reasons; Garcia is the most valuable trading chip on a team in dire need of adding youth into the everyday lineup, and the 28-year-old will be come a free agent this fall.

Both seem like good reasons to consider such a move, but let me argue the other side of things.

Freddy Garcia is not going to bring back enough in trade to shorten the rebuilding process all the way down to one strong winter of free agent signings and some luck with the club's own prospects. Granted, at worst, Garcia would net the M's a quality young major league-ready position player who could fill a starting role for at least the next handful of seasons. At most one would think the M's could land one solid young player and possibly a prospect along with him. But how much impact can one or two unproven players actually make?

Either way the M's are not going to be able to acquire an impact bat that would immediately make the offense better, unless they add more to the trade package. Not because Garcia isn't worth it but because so many teams are still somewhat in the race that they are unwilling to send away proven hitters and weaken their already established lineup. Teams that are probably out of the pennant chase and have young prospects that could help the Mariner as soon as 2005 are simply labeling those blue chippers as untouchable. Case-in-point, New York Mets 3B prospect David Wright.

Instead of selling off Garcia to the highest bidder and setting the franchise back two or three years at a bare minimum as they wait for the prospects they receive to develop, why not keep the staff ace and sign him to a well-deserved contract extension?

Ok sure, the naysayers will toss out the year-and-a-half or so that Garcia struggled mightily and crippled the club's playoff hopes with sub par performances. They will also talk about Garcia's seemingly immature attitude and site the instances where he seemed to handle a tough situation without the professionalism you'd want in your team's best starting pitcher. But have those naysayers seen the Chief pitch this season? Have you?

Garcia has returned to form and is dealing his nasty stuff every five days, with or without run support. The big right-hander ranks sixth in the AL in ERA at 3.23 and despite the worst support in the league, he continues to shell out his best effort every time he gets the ball. The performances are back and so is the consistency, toughness, focus, and most of all, maturity.

It would be easy for Garcia to fall apart after losing time and time again due to lack of run support, but the Venezuelan has remained sharp and has yet to have a blow up start.

The "He isn't Worth What He is Asking For" Department: For those who doubt Garcia's monetary worth to the Mariners, let me enlighten you a little bit.

Ever heard of Roy Halladay or Javier Vazquez? How about Kerry Wood? Sounds like three of the top young right-hander's in baseball right? They are. All 27 or younger when the season began, and none of them have more career wins than Freddy Garcia. Garcia has more victories than any starting pitcher in baseball that is 28 or younger and has always been as durable as any pitcher of any age in the entire league.

So when you hear rumblings of Garcia and his agent requesting a four-year $40 million deal, don't laugh or lose your soda out of your nose, or even shout out a big "whatever." Freddy Garcia is worth such a contract. Roy Halladay just signed a four-year $42 million deal this past winter, and Kerry Wood was handed a four-year $43 million contract extension. The Yankees gave newly acquired Javier Vazquez a four-year guarantee of $45 million without seeing if he could pitch effectively at Yankee Stadium, a park well-known for favoring left-handed pitchers and left-handed power bats.

The "Freddy isn't as Good as Those Three" Department: Possibly a true statement but consider the fact that despite his struggles in 2002 and 2003, Garcia still has more victories than all of them and boasts a better ERA than Vazquez while staying within reach of Wood and Halladay. Garcia's career 3.91 ERA isn't great, but if you were to remove his two trouble-seasons, that number drops to 3.55 which is better than the ERA of any of the three aforementioned aces'. Wood's career ERA is 3.58, which considering the parks he plays in is very impressive. Wood, however, does have a small history of injury to his elbow and the Chicago Cubs still thought enough of his worth to the club to reward his work with a long term contract for fair market value. Wood is turning 27 as this is being written.

Halladay, last year's AL CY Young Award winner, put together two straight fantastic seasons for the Toronto Blue Jays and was promptly given his lucrative multi-year deal, without any fuss about whether he could keep up the performance. Halladay's career ERA sits at 3.81, and he enters the year at 27-years-old.

Vazquez has never had a season quite like the 2001 season of Garcia or either of the last two seasons by Halladay, but might have the most potential of all of them. The Yankees wasted no time in taking care of the right-hander's contract. Vazquez currently carries a career 4.11 ERA and a 71-72 record into his next start scheduled for June 19.

Vazquez will turn 28 in late July.

The "Freddy is as Good as He is Going to Get" Department: History disagrees and disagrees wholeheartedly. The vast majority of starting pitchers over the last 15 to 20 years have been better between the ages of 28 and 32 than they ever were before turning 28, and most of those had their very best seasons in that time span.

Starting at the top, Randy Johnson went from a 4.01 ERA before age 28 to a 3.20 ERA during the five year span between 28 and 32. Greg Maddux, who had 115 wins by the age of 28, still improved from 3.19 to a stingy 2.10 ERA during the target age range. Tom Glavine went from 3.53 to 3.04, Mike Mussina went from 3.56 to 3.42, and Orel Hershiser went from 2.85 to 2.70.

Al Leiter went from 4.43 to 3.51 and Kevin Brown went from 3.67 down to 3.21. Only Andy Pettitte's rise from 3.92 to 3.94, Roger Clemens rise from 2.91 to 3.17 and Nolan Ryan's small descent to 3.34 from 3.01 were major exceptions. Each pitcher's durability increased with a heavier workload, and showed no signsof slowingdown even at the end of the five years. The conclusion is; Signing Freddy Garcia to a 4-year contract is not nearly the risk that many seem to think. Chances are that he will at least be about as effective, and will almost certainly stay on par with a full workload every season.

So what's the problem here? Still hung up on Freddy's perceived attitude problem during the two previous seasons? Don't be. The club has said time and time again that attitude wasn't the problem. His focus and intensity was the issue. Clearly, that is not a hurdle for him to overcome this season. He has had every opportunity to lose it this season after seeing his run support drop to 1.54 per start.

Rumors are that Garcia's asking price of $40 million over four seasons was countered with four years at $32 million by the team. If the club thought he was worth that prior to the season, then he has to be worth more than that right now.

Even with attitude issues not being a factor, your still not convinced that keeping Freddy Garcia is the right thing to do? Ok. Here is another reason why. This might be the most crucial factor, in my opinion.

If Garcia is traded or is allowed to walk after this season the M's will be left in a bind starting with the 2006 season. Jamie Moyer has a year left on his contract and is most certain to retire after the 2005 campaign. That would leave the Mariners with a starting rotation of Joel Pineiro, Ryan Franklin, Clint Nageotte, and probably Gil Meche and Travis Blackley. Not awful, but it's missing two of the most vital components of a top starting staff; Stability and leadership. Moyer is gone. Freddy was traded or was allowed to sign elsewhere. Joel Pineiro is now the staff ace and will be looked to as the leader.

As much as I like Joel Pineiro, he is clearly not ready to lead a pitching staff and carry the workload on and off the field.

On a team where starting pitching needs to be their strength, the rotation needs a leader. Without one, the kids have nobody to look to when they are fighting bumps in the road. Do not underestimate the importance of Jamie Moyer's brain and Freddy Garcia's right arm. Eating innings and teaching youngsters how to handle the everyday life of being a starting pitcher in the big leagues is as important as anything that Garcia and Moyer do.

We all know the club isn't going to go out and buy a staff leader on the open market to replace the likes of Moyer and/or Garcia. Freddy needs to be re-signed.

Look at the most successful teams in baseball right now and you will find that every single staff has either an innings-eater or a veteran that is looked upon and the leader. Furthermore you will notice that the teams with more than one are usually the best pitching rotations. Along those lines, examples where the rotation has a lot of talent but lacks the leader almost always result in underachieving.

The New York Yankees have Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina to be both an innings eater and a staff leader. Boston has Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. Minnesota has Brad Radke. Anaheim has Bartolo Colon. Oakland has their three aces who all qualify, though Tim Hudson is seen as the staff leader. The Cubs have Maddux to aid with the young arms in Chicago while Wood and Prior eat innings. San Francisco has Jason Schmidt while Houston has The Rocket and Andy Pettitte.

Two perfect examples of a talented pitching staff without a true leader are the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox. Neither Randy Wolf nor Kevin Millwood are quite ready for such a role in Philly, and neither Esteban Loaiza nor Mark Buehrle fit the bill for the Sox. It's not a coincidence that each of those teams is successful but is thought to lack one key starting pitcher. It's also not a coincidence that both clubs have been linked to Freddy Garcia trade rumors with the White Sox being openly fond of the Mariner ace.

The Mariners brass may say they cannot afford to hand over a guaranteed four-year contract for more than $8 million per season, but I say they can't afford not to re-sign Garcia. Failure to do so could add an extra two years to the rebuilding process while they await leadership qualities from Pineiro or Meche, both on and off the mound. The M's can't go into the 2006 season, assuming 2005 was the rebuilding year, without certainty in the rotation. I'm never sure that Pineiro is going to last six or seven innings. But every time out I'm convinced that Garcia is going six or seven frames and will give the club a chance to win.

It's truly a classic example of a no-brainer.

Dealing from strength is something that CEO Howard Lincoln has stated publicly since the very day Pat Gillick was hired as general manager prior to the 2000 season. Trading Freddy Garcia is not following that line of thinking. Sure, in position it might fit that bill, with several pitching prospects closing in on the big leagues. But tell me, who is going to lead these youngsters, and who is going to be the stopper that every club needs? Who is going to be that guy that can come in and snap losing streaks or long slumps in the rotation?

With millions available under the self-imposed salary cap set by Mariner ownership, the M's have the money to keep Garcia around. They also have the cash to make the rebuilding process more of a re-tooling job. Major League franchises with the financial resources that the Mariners boast have no right to rebuild. And the Mariners would be doing the fans and the rest of the 2006 roster a shameful disservice if Freddy Garcia was not brought back.

Trading your best asset is never the right thing to do. After the 2004 season their will be many opportunities for the club to improve their deficiencies through trade and free agency, without trading off the best thing they have going.

The Mariner ownership owes the city a re-tooling process. Not three years of 70-win, $50 million payrolls.

Most of all they owe Freddy Garcia a multi-year contract. It's time for Lincoln and the ownership group to pay back the players for working their tails off. It's time to stop the madness.

Memo to Seattle Mariner ownership and front office personnel: Invest four years in Freddy Garcia. He has already invested six years in you.


Jason can be reached at JasonAChurchill@InsidethePark.com.

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