Free Agent Watch: There Are No Free Agents, There Is Only Zuul

The Dodgers signed Zack Greinke, the Reds traded for Shin-Soo Choo, the Angels have now signed Josh Hamilton to 5 years, $125 million.

The Mariners have signed Jason Bay.

I’m not going to sit here and kill the Mariners for not giving truckloads of money to Greinke or Hamilton, just as I’m not going to kill them for not trading away truckloads of prospects for Choo or Justin Upton.  As with any deal, you have to consider the risk/reward factor.  If you’re a team that’s a piece or two away from legitimately contending for a championship (unlike those 2008 or 2010 Mariners teams, coming off winning records in 2007 and 2009 respectively), then it’s okay to assume a little more risk in trading away the farm for an impact bat.  Especially if that impact bat will reward you with getting over that hump.

Unfortunately, the Mariners aren’t a piece or two away.  They’re about 9 or 10 pieces away.  EVERYONE on the team, except for a select few, sucked last year.  Of course, we’re not going to overhaul a team like this just because Ackley and Smoak had down years; you’re going to give them another chance and hope they improve.  That having been said, it would be pointless to trade away all those farm animals we’ve cultivated just to bring in one guy.  That’s risking EVERYTHING, with the reward being … what?  1/9 of your offense?  Just so we can start all over trying to re-stock our farm system?  No thank you.  And what happens if that one bat is a bust?  Then, we’re royally fucked once again.

As far as I’m concerned, trading prospects for other prospects is a risky venture.  Robbing Peter (our wealth of pitching in the upper Minor Leagues) to pay Paul (our dearth of hitting at the lower Major Leagues) doesn’t exactly give me the biggest boner in the world.  Everyone talks about the Mariners and their minor league pitching like we’ve got it growing on trees, when really we’ve just got a small handful of guys.  And each of them struggled in the second half of last season, so who knows if even THEY will pan out?

The fact of the matter is, they’re prospects.  And if you’re trying to trade prospects for legitimate Big League Bats, you’re going to need to trade A FUCK-TON of prospects to get what you’re looking for.  Prospects flame out all the time!  That’s just the nature of the beast.  But, they don’t ALWAYS flame out.  Sometimes, they turn into All Stars.  At which point, you really regret your decisions when you trade away All Stars and you get benchwarmers in return.

Again, that’s the risk.  There’s also the matter of value.  We, obviously, value our prospects a lot more than other teams.  We know them, we’ve grown with them, and we’re also tainted because they’re ours and we want so desperately for them to be good.  Other teams don’t have that kind of attachment.  Likewise, other teams aren’t trying to help us out.  They want theirs.  They want to take as many prospects away from us as humanly possible.  What would be the incentive for them to just give away proven bats with team-control?  That’s why it takes five guys to bring back one good guy.  And if that one good guy turns into Erik Bedard, while a number of the other guys turn into All Stars, that’s how people lose their jobs.

People talk about trading prospects like it’s just this easy thing to do.  That Jackie Z can wrinkle his nose and make a trade appear out of thin air.  But, really, at this point we’re talking about a team (The Seattle Mariners) who isn’t even REMOTELY on the cusp of contending.  It will take three or four additions, and a lot of improvement by guys already on the team, to make the Mariners into a playoff contender.  So, trading the farm for one impact bat is out.  At this point, if I’m in charge, I’m only comfortable with something along the lines of last year’s Pineda for Montero swap.  A one-for-one type of deal that brings back seemingly equal value.  A high-end pitcher prospect for a high-end hitter prospect.

Of course, that still leaves us with Free Agency.

Free Agency.  Man, talk about a losing proposition!

For starters, the best free agents almost NEVER see the light of day!  If you’re smart, and you’ve got a hot-shot young stud still under team control, you’ll extend them out beyond the point where their rookie deal ends (like with the way the Mariners extended Felix).  And, if that player just so happens to be the face of your franchise, at the end of THAT deal, you’ll extend them again.  Because you have to reward your very best players, no matter the cost.

You extend them through what you believe to be their primes.  Once they’ve reached the end of their extension, you should have a good idea on whether or not they’re on the downside of their careers.  At which point, even though they’re on the downside, if they were ever any good, they’re probably coming off of a really great season.  That’s when you’re talking about a guy who wants one final HUGE contract.  It’s at THAT point, you let them test the waters.  See:  Albert Pujols.

In other words, you’re pretty much guaranteed to NOT get any kind of return on investment.  You’re left with a worthless, dried out old husk of a player making too much money.  For every Vladimir Guerrero In His Prime who lands in Anaheim and continues to dominate, there are a million Josh Hamiltons (or Richie Sexsons) out there who are overpriced, will give you 1-2 good seasons, and then completely fall off the face of the Earth.

Unless you’re getting a guy at the end of his rookie deal, who is either just starting his prime or is still on his way up, you’re likely not getting your money’s worth on any big free agent deal.

That’s why, going after Josh Hamilton (when he’s coming off of a season – and especially a second half – where he struggled with his contact rate) and giving him 5 years is insane.  Unless you’re an organization that will be willing to throw more money on top of the problem in 2-3 years when Hamilton finally wears down.  That’s why giving Prince Fielder that super-long contract is equally insane.  You’re telling me that tub of lard is still going to be worth all that money in his final years?  I’ll believe it when I see it.

The very biggest contracts should only go to the guys who are home grown superstars.  They’ve played with you, they’ve won for you, they deserve a nice reward.  Poaching superstar free agents is a great way to kill your franchise.  They have nothing invested with you; they just picked you because you gave them the most money.  They’re hired guns!  The fans don’t know them, except from what little they’ve seen on Sportscenter.  New fans and a new team bring a new kind of pressure that many free agents can’t handle.  Expectations are always higher when you’re talking about a guy going to a new team.

If we were to re-sign Felix today for a 10-year, $300 million deal, I would be fine with that.  You know why?  Because I’m familiar with Felix.  He’s already done so much for this team and I have no reason to believe he would be anything less than excellent for us through the duration of his contract.  However, let’s pretend Felix is a free agent.  And let’s say the Texas Rangers signed him to a 10-year, $300 million deal.  If I’m a Rangers fan, I’m thrilled, but I’m also thinking, “OK, here we are.  This is the guy who’s going to win us a World Series Championship!”  Anything less, from a team standpoint, or specifically from an individual standpoint, and I’m pissed.  If Felix got rocked for the first month of the season, then sort of came around, but ended up with an ERA in the 4.50 range, I would be killing the organization for giving him so much money.

However, if Felix – upon re-signing with the Mariners for the same contract – gave us the same production, I would be more likely to dismiss it as “just a down year”.  I would be convinced that Felix could turn it around because he’s the best!  And, I would probably be convinced that Felix was playing through injury all season and that’s why he sucked the way he did.

So, no, I’m not upset that Josh Hamilton is with the Angels.  I’m sure that team will be very formidable in 2013.  But, how will they look in 2015?  Old and beat up?  I sure hope so.

The bottom line is:  this free agency class sucks.  Probably.  I can’t say that with any certainty, but I really can’t say ANYTHING with total certainty.  Nevertheless, are you really telling me that Nick Swisher gets your dick hard?  A career .256 batting average, a guy who last hit over 30 home runs back in 2006, a guy who couldn’t hit more than 29 home runs while playing half his games in Yankee Stadium?  A guy who just turned 32 and is one of those free agents I was just talking about who’s looking for One Final Huge Score?  Like a master thief trying to rob one more bank vault before retirement, I would expect Swisher’s chances of success to be mighty slim.  He might not fall off completely like a Richie Sexson, but he will certainly taper off the face of the Earth.  Making more and more money each year as his production dwindles and dwindles. 

How about Michael Bourn, the other swingin’ dick free agent on the market?  Does his career .272 batting average, his history of injury, his history of high-strikeout seasons, and his complete lack of power sound like something you might be interested in?  He’s turning 30 in two short weeks.  Feel like over-spending for six years of a guy who bats leadoff and gets a lot of steals?  Doesn’t that sound like someone we just got rid of?  Doesn’t that sound like someone who was killed by the local media because smart teams don’t put all their money into slap-hitting singles machines?  Remember when the Mariners had TWO of those guys, and they were supposed to be the 1-2 punch that would jumpstart this offense?  They get on base, they steal bases, they get in scoring position … all sounds good to me, until you realize there’s no one behind them to hit them in.  And then they get old, so they’re not even on base enough for anyone TO hit them in!

Yeah, can you PLEASE sign me up for another six years of THAT?  I can’t fucking wait.

This offseason is a trainwreck, in case you haven’t heard.  You can twist the numbers any way you like, but those numbers aren’t created in a vacuum.  There’s something to be said about the fact that all these big-name free agents are coming from winning organizations.  If the Seattle Mariners signed them, they’d immediately be transplanted into a losing organization.  So, not only do they get the added pressure of trying to impress a new city, but they also get to be “The Savior”.  The guy who is FINALLY going to bring winning ways to the city of Seattle!  All of our hopes and dreams and criticisms are going to be levied upon you, the great baseball hope.

Do you ever wonder why Ichiro went from being a .261 hitter to a .322 hitter in the very same season?  Do you think it has anything to do with the fact that he went from a Loser to a Winner?  Do you think that maybe, just MAYBE, playing on a GOOD team, surrounded by GOOD players, might make it easier for one’s peace of mind?  Instead of focusing on how everything sucks, you can focus on a stretch run for the playoffs.  Instead of being faced with the burden of trying to carry an entire franchise on your back, you can just go out and play baseball like a kid again.

It goes both ways.  You know why there are so many under-the-radar type of free agent guys who go on to have some serious success?  Because they are signed without hype, without expectations.  They can go out on a 1-year deal, play their hearts out, and try to earn that next big deal the following offseason.  It’s not sexy, but the risk/reward ratio is phenomenal!

Obviously, I’m not saying we should go out and sign 9 more Jason Bays.  But, there’s a middle ground in there somewhere.  Guys who are younger and more spry than Jason Bay, but who aren’t necessarily big-name albatrosses like Josh Hamilton.  Can we get a couple of THOSE?  I guarantee we’ll end up happier in the long run.

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