Free Agent Frenzy: Can Seattle do it again?

Last winter the Mariners proved that they could compete with the big boys by convincing Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson, a pair of the biggest names on the free agent market, to sign long-term deals. For the first time in their existence, the Mariners were legitimate players in free agency. The question is simple… was last winter an aberration, or do the Mariners have what it takes to lock up more marquee free agents in 2006 and beyond?

It's a difficult question to answer definitively, but what's impossible to overlook is that there are a number of factors that seem to indicate that the Mariners can, indeed, by players in free agency year in and year out.

When looking at the Mariners franchise, first and foremost, the two draws to the team that jump out first are 1) it's state of the art ballpark, Safeco Field, and 2) the beautiful city of Seattle.

If those were the only two factors, it'd be difficult for any free agent to pass up on the chance to suit up as a Mariner. Very few cities have the appeal that Seattle does with its scenic setting and fantastic ballpark facility. Maybe the only other team that can compete with Seattle in this department is the Colorado Rockies, which play in the beautiful city of Denver and also are lucky enough to play in Coors Field.

Take a look at the history of free agents to sign in Seattle or Colorado, though, and it's fairly easy to see where the city and ballpark rank in the minds of most free agents. The answer? Pretty low. The fact is, there are many other parts to the equation.

Still, a prime location and top-of-the-line home ballpark can never be negatives for free agent suitors; they simply aren't the top factor for most baseball players.

There are several other things that free agents consider, like…

  • What is the home park like? Does it favor pitchers or hitters?
  • What kind of future does the team have?
  • Does the team have the financial backing to contend for a World Series on an annual basis?
  • Money – probably the most important of them all, as sad as it is to say. How much is the team willing to pay?

  • Lets see how the Mariners stack up in each of those four areas, shall we?

    As far as the home park goes, Safeco Field, as everyone knows by now, is one of the best pitcher's parks in the game today. The ball doesn't carry well to left field, and the power alleys are deep, which gives pitchers a distinct advantage on the mound. Safeco is known to be a difficult place to hit, and isn't the kind of ballpark that most sluggers would be anxious to make home. Obviously, money did the talking last year, and the Mariners were still able to lock up Beltre and Sexson to long-term deals, but for any hitter concerned about his numbers there are few ballparks worse on offense than Safeco.

    When looking at the future of the ballclub, the Mariners aren't in the type of position that would entice free agents to come on board. They will put together maybe their youngest roster of all-time in 2006, and likely be short-handed in the pitching rotation yet again with endless question marks after Felix Hernandez.

    They are fresh off a 93-loss season, which happened to come after a 99-loss campaign in 2004. While the future looks brighter than it has been the past two seasons under managers Bob Melvin and Mike Hargrove, and 90 losses doesn't seem all that likely, the playoffs don't appear to be right around the corner either.

    Making matters worse, the Mariners are a part of the American League West, a division that has been dominated the last two seasons by a Los Angeles Angels team stacked with potential all-stars in its minor league system. Anyone who signs with the Mariners would have to realize that in order to make it to the playoffs, the AL West will likely have to go through the Angels.

    Known as a small market team for their first two decades, the Mariners managed to erase that label in the mid 1990s with future Hall of Famers like Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez on their roster, and an ever-expanding, loyal fan base making its way out to the ballpark with a high frequency. Then, just when it seemed the Mariners were becoming one of the top franchises in Major League Baseball, they let Griffey, Rodriguez and Johnson leave town. Doubters returned, many questioning the financial backing of the team. In baseball, like gambling, it takes money to win. More than that, it takes a general manager who is willing and able to spend the money in the right places.

    So far, in his two seasons as Mariners general manager, Bill Bavasi, backed with a budget right around $90 million, has experienced mixed success. His signings of Sexson and Beltre were huge for the organization, if nothing else, even considering Beltre's mediocre 2005 season. They proved that the Mariners could go after the biggest names on the market and come out on top despite competition from the big guys like the Yankees and Red Sox. On the other hand, the signings of middle-tier veterans Scott Spiezio, Rich Aurilia and Pokey Reese all turned out to be major busts. To Bavasi's credit, he isn't afraid to take risks.

    That's the kind of general manager the Mariners so desperately needed to fill the shoes of former general manager Pat Gillick, who directed the team through its best years of success but left it with a roster full of rapidly-aging veterans.

    Seattle had the eighth biggest payroll in Major League Baseball in 2005, spending over $10 million more than either the Houston Astros or Chicago White Sox, so it isn't as if the Mariners don't have the financial backing to return to being the World Series contender they were four or five years ago. And with a boatload of money coming off the books this offseason, again there will be money to spend.

    Bavasi and the Mariners managed to prove last winter that they could land the high-caliber free agents. Now, with that feather in their cap, the key for the future will be deciding which free agents can best help the team.

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