John McGrath: Perfect player for Mariners doesn't exist in free agency

Staff writerNovember 17, 2013 

NL-BASEBALL/

Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury is a free agent some have linked to Seattle. But he turned 30 in September, his injury history is substantial, and agent Scott Boras figures to demand a contract that will guarantee his client $20 million a season long after he’s worth $20 million a season.

ROBERT DEUTSCH — USA Today Sports

The ideal acquisition for the Seattle Mariners this winter is a speedy right-handed hitting corner outfielder with a strong arm, adequate power, a keen recognition of the strike zone, a history of durability and a contract that won’t guarantee him $50 million or $60 million after he turns 35.

The Mariners’ Mr. Right should have no baggage — no suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs, no major scrapes with the law, no reputation as a clubhouse malcontent.

Oh, and he can’t be any older than 30 because that’s around the age most pro athletes face their decline phase.

This is the template, and here’s the problem: There are no potential free agents who meet every wish on this list. And while it’s possible the Mariners could work out a trade for Mr. Right, the last time general manager Jack Zduriencik tried to acquire a fast corner outfielder not yet 30, with adequate power, he set his sights on the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Justin Upton.

In exchange for Upton, a two-time All Star, Zduriencik reportedly was prepared to give the Diamondbacks second baseman Nick Franklin, relief pitchers Stephen Pryor and Charlie Furbush, and top starting pitching prospect Taijuan Walker.

There was only one impediment to the blockbuster deal: Upton wanted nothing to do with Seattle or Safeco Field, and used a clause in his contract to prevent a trade the Mariners likely would have regretted.

See what I mean about the difficulty of finding somebody fit to solve several needs? Upton wasn’t ideal — there were concerns about injuries and his attitude — but he would’ve brought speed and power to a corner-outfield position, as well as a right-handed bat to a lineup famously vulnerable to left-handed pitches.

All of which turned out to be moot. The Mariners desperately wanted him a year ago, and he reciprocated their interest with his thumbs down, among other gestures.

As for Zduriencik’s alternatives this off-season, the market is teeming with red flags. Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury? He led the American League with 52 stolen bases, and was an MVP finalist as recently as 2011, when he hit 32 homers with 105 RBI.

But he turned 30 in September, his injury history is substantial, and agent Scott Boras figures to demand a contract that will guarantee his client $20 million a season long after he’s worth $20 million a season.

Furthermore, Ellsbury is a left-handed hitter, and the Mariners’ No. 1 priority is a right-handed hitter. Ellsbury’s Oregon State connection likely would find him more amenable to relocating to the Pacific Northwest than Upton was, but as a long-term investment, he’s too much of a risk.

Who else? Free agent Shin-Soo Choo also bats from the left side, but he’s a corner outfielder with power and speed (21 homers and 20 stolen bases for the Reds this past season), and a career .288 hitter.

The career includes an apprenticeship in Tacoma, where Choo showed an intriguing skill set before the Mariners traded him to the Cleveland for the immortal Ben Broussard, who had a skill set of his own: He played the guitar and could sing on key.

If the Mariners reacquire Choo, how many times a game would we be reminded that former GM Bill Bavasi traded him for Ben Broussard? Four? Multiply that over a 162-game season, and that’s 648 references to the worst trade Bavasi ever made, which is saying something.

Multiply that again over five years, and that’s 3,240 references to a trade best forgotten.

Kendrys Morales, you probably have heard, also a free agent. He’s a switch hitter who provided the 2013 Mariners with their only pop from the right side, finishing with 23 homers and 80 RBI.

Boras, in his imitable way, told reporters covering the GM meetings last week that Morales’ 23 and 80 numbers were “the new 30 and 100.” Few hitters nowadays are capable of hitting 30 homers and 100 RBI, Boras theorized, so you’ve got to adjust accordingly.

At least Boras is adjusting accordingly, and that’s what counts.

Morales, in baseball-scouting argot, is known as a “professional hitter,” which is a kind of code term that means: He can’t do anything else.

Morales runs as if he’s pulling a freight car in the World’s Strongest Man contest. At first base, which he occasionally stations with the dexterity of a potted plant, he’s an injury waiting to happen.

We tend to dwell on the Mariners’ absence of a long-ball threat in the middle of their order, but what they really need is some athleticism: fast guys who can chase down line drives in the gaps, and then hit line drives their speed converts from a single into a double, and a double into a triple.

If this person exists, if he bats right-handed and can connect for a few homers and has yet to turn 30 and aspires to become popular in Seattle and won’t require a contract requiring him to be paid nine figures annually until he’s 40, please inform Jack Zduriencik.

He’s trying to make a splash into a free-agent pool that’s beyond shallow.

It’s empty.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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