Pondering Bret Boone

The 2004 Mariners campaign has come to a close, leaving in its wake, a trail of unanswered questions. The face of the Mariners is changing, and one of the biggest questions looming is ‘what to do with Bret Boone?'

Boone's 9.25 million dollar option vested automatically after his 450th at bat, leaving Mariners brass in a quandary; do they drastically overpay for a declining second baseman, or try to trade a perennial fan favorite.

Obviously, the question is complicated. Much of the answer will be determined by off-season acquisition, but for arguments sake let's try and dissect it anyway. So what are Bret Boone's contributions to the Mariners?

In 2001, Boone was a productivity machine, having the greatest season offensively in history for a second baseman. His numbers were nothing short of spectacular, and he raised the bar to which he will be judged the rest of his career. In addition, his stellar glove work helped lead the Mariners as an integral part of the leagues finest defense.

His amazing numbers; .331 average, 37 home runs and 141 runs batted in with a solid .372 OBP justified him hitting in the three-hole in the batting order in 2001, but much of his career has been spent hitting 5th, 6th or 7th; a more suitable hitting position given his free swinging approach at the dish. He is not a natural middle of the order hitter and has filled that position out of necessity for the Mariners.

In 2004 he hit .251 with 24 home runs and 83 RBI- all in line with his career average and his worst season by far since his return to the Mariners in 2001. The decline can be viewed in a couple of ways; lack of protection throughout the lineup, forcing him to try to do too much, or simply a decline due to age or skill level.

A career high of 135 strikeouts says that he was pressing to drive the ball out of the park with every at-bat. Nothing new to Bret, but his diminished plate discipline (mainly his inability to lay off the high, hard stuff,) tells me he was simply trying to do too much, and his numbers suffered accordingly. If a couple of big bats are signed, Boone will drop to a more natural sixth or seventh slot in the batting order and a modest increase in numbers can be expected. If not, than his offensive decline will likely continue, or at the very least stay down around his output from this past season.

In 2002, Boone finally broke a decade long stretch of Gold Gloves ending up on Roberto Alomar's mantle (to his credit, Alomar had to be moved to the National League for that to be possible,) Boone duplicated the honor in 2003. In 2004 his errors doubled to14 and his fielding percentage dropped to .978, the lowest mark since he returned to the M's infield. Some would blame it on the departure of his double-play partner, Carlos Guillen, and sure-handed first baseman John Olerud.

Alex Rodriguez saw a similar decline when he moved to Texas, but truth be told, Boone was a hair slower to the ball and his range seemed to decrease by a step. Regardless, Boone is still one of the finest fielding second baseman in baseball, and any further decline next season should be slight, particularly if a solid defensive first baseman is signed this off season. With a young pitching staff, their trust in the infield defense is absolutely essential, and Bret Boone is the cornerstone of a revamped infield crew.

Consideration must also be made in regards to Boone's well-known lighthearted leadership in the clubhouse as well as on the field. Boone is an enthusiastically vocal clubhouse leader, and the unquestioned on-field general.

Boone is one of a handful of players remaining whose identity is tied to the team, along with Jaime Moyer, Dan Wilson and Ichiro. From a marketing perspective, he is important to the team off the field because he is an identifiable face of the franchise. The Mariners have built an image of "the player next door"- that is, making us fans believe that these are just normal guys like us, and so we are much more in tune with the players as individuals than as athletes, compared with most professional sports teams. Bret Boone evokes emotion (good and bad at times,) amongst all of us. He is arrogant, but comically so. Who can forget the hilarious bat flip commercial from 2002?

So where does all of this leave us? Even with the decline in numbers, Bret Boone is still a valuable member of the franchise, and though his production does not justify his enormous salary, the intangible factors (those that can't be measured by a statistic,) such as leadership as well as the lack of a Major league ready replacement, necessitate his return.

Ultimately, all those factors may not even matter. With a salary sitting at $9.25 million next season, Bret Boone will draw an elite paycheck, without the bat to support it. In order to clear him from the roster, the Mariners would either have to take on a bad contract in return, package Boone with prospects, or absorb a certain percentage of salary. None of these solutions are appealing, but it may not matter.

There is one other possibility- the free-spending New York Yankees. Steinbrenner could be in the market for a new second baseman if Miguel Cairo bolts via free agency or the club just sees a need for an upgrade at the position. Imagine an infield of Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Bret Boone and Jason Giambi, rivaling the mid 70's Cincinnati Reds as the greatest infield of all time.

Is trading Bret Boone worth making the Yankees that much better? After they add Carlos Beltran and a top starting pitcher via free agency, the madness has to stop somewhere.

With limited options and no easy replacement, the best Mariner solution is to retain Bret Boone, limitations, liabilities and all. He is an important member of the Mariner family, on and off the field, and we can only hope that a return to form is on the way.

Besides, the system, nor the free agent market, has an obvious replacement at second for Bret. Who are they going to get? Harold Reynolds?

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