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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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July 28, 2008 9:33 AM

M's have some Washburn leverage

Posted by Geoff Baker

It would appear we still live in interesting times, even those of you who have cheered on the Mariners from Day One of this season and others. I'm sitting in the Houston airport, awaiting my connecting flight to Dallas, and see that the stalemate in the Jarrod Washburn negotiations hasn't changed much over the past three hours.

Who would have thought the M's might hold the "key" to putting the New York Yankees over the top in their playoff push this season? For Seattle to get what it wants in these Washburn talks, the Yanks will have to be convinced that Washburn is indeed the final piece. In case they aren't sure, here's another entertaining bit of help coming Seattle's way. An endorsement from none other than Richie Sexson.

And who said the final two months of the season would be dull?

All kidding aside, as the M's look to score at least one player -- Melky Cabrera or Brett Gardner -- as well as getting the Yankees to take all of Washburn's salary (no way Seattle lands both players, even if they try), they actually do have some cards to play. I don't see this brought up very often, but the July 31 trade deadline is in fact, merely the deadline where players can be dealt without having to clear waivers.

So, what would happen if the M's tried to deal Washburn after July 31? Why, he'd have to clear waivers first. And if another team put a claim in on him -- either out of sheer interest or merely to "block" a trade to New York -- then Washburn could be recalled by the M's, or that team putting in the claim could wind up with him -- at full cost.

How does that hurt the M's? It would only hurt if the Yankees were sending players back the other way. A scuttled deal would be a scuttled deal. No one gets anything.

But what if it's a cash-only deal with maybe a mediocre prospect coming Seattle's way? Well then, heck, all the M's would lose is a next-to-nothing prospect.

In other words, the real deadline for the M's, if the Yankees stick to their negotiating stance of merely picking up Washburn's contract, while sending a breathing body to the M's for appearances' sake, isn't really July 31. It's actually Aug. 31.

What harm would there be to Seattle completing such a cash-only deal with the Yanks in two weeks? If the Cards were to jump in and claim Washburn before the deal could go through, then St. Louis would get stuck with the pitcher's remaining salary through 2009. Makes no difference to the M's. Other than the two weeks more that Seattle would have to pay Washburn. Minimial money, considering he still is owed roughly 33 weeks more in pay on his contract.

So, why not sit around and wait? The really interesting part is, Washburn won't have to make another start between now and July 31. He's always going to be as good as that eight-inning, one run outing yesterday, or that 2.29 earned run average his past nine outings. Not the Yankees pitchers. They will have to head out three more times between now and Thursday's trade deadline.


The pressure is already mounting on the Yanks after Sir Sidney Ponson yesterday hit his targets less often than he did that judge on the beaches of Aruba a few years back. Ponson was exposed by the Boston Red Sox, the same way many have predicted Washburn would be exposed as a "fluke" going on two months now.

Well, that part hasn't happened. At least, not yet. Some folks in New York still think it will.

For the M's, that waiting part is over. Washburn did not get "exposed" prior to July 31. If he blows up Aug. 5 in a Yankees uniform, it's not their problem. But Ponson did blow up. Tonight, the Yanks will get to send problem-solver Mike Mussina to the mound against a slumping Orioles squad. But things might get dicey with the inconsistent Darrell Rasner going tomorrow night, though he's had success versus Baltimore thus far.

But even if the Yankees sweep Baltimore behind several stellar pitching performances, they'll still have to deal with the Ponson question four days from now. Would Washburn be an upgrade over Ponson? This is the question Yankees' brass will have to be asking themselves if the health status of Chien Ming Wang and others remains uncertain.

In other words, the M's can take this thing right to Thursday's deadline without pitching Washburn again. They can wait to see if another team -- it won't be the Brewers, a team source told me they're done with starting pitchers and most likely bullpen arms as well -- jumps into the fray. Perhaps the St. Louis Cardinals, still in the thick of the AL Central and wild-card races despite starting to lose more regularly of late.

Seattle can call the Yankees' bluff. Once it's clear the Yankees won't throw in anything more than a token prospect, the M's could wait until after the July 31 deadline, then turn around and swing a Washburn-for-salary-owed deal on Aug. 1. He still wouldn't have to pitch again.

There are, of course, risks with this strategy -- to both sides.

If the M's wait and the Yanks lose interest, they could get stuck having to keep Washburn and pay all of his remaining salary. If he pitches well, they could get something near his league-average numbers he usually produces, then deal him next winter or next July. If he tanks, they'd owe him another $13.6 million at a time when they have two other major league ready lefties -- Ryan Rowland-Smith and Ryan Feierabend -- in their system.

But if the Yanks wait too long, figuring they'll squeeze the M's past the deadline, then pick up Washburn for just the cash, another team could jump into the fray. Maybe more. Then, the M's could still have a bidding war of sorts. Maybe not for anyone that would be grabbed off waivers in a deal. But perhaps the M's force a team to take on a lesser player -- one who could pass through waivers -- in addition to Washburn.

Or, maybe the M's just ship Washburn to any team but the Yankees just for the salary cost. A little payback for the brinkmanship games.

The two above scenarios are unlikely to take place. But they could. The Yanks really aren't in any kind of major drivers' seat here. The Mariners have money. They have eaten large payroll before. Perhaps they are willing to gamble that Washburn's turnaround is legit and that he finishes the year a league average starter. You can get something for those at the winter meetings. Even at a $10 million salary. It's only for one year.

To the reader who asked me whether Washburn was losing trade value by pitching yesterday -- given how that's one fewer game he'll pitch for the Yankees -- my answer is, yes, that's one way to view things. Here's another. The Yankees already trail in both the AL East and wild-card race. Every other day that goes by is one fewer day they'll have to make those games up. Every day that Ponson, or some other starter, gets hammered in a New York uniform while Washburn remains in Seattle represents one more wasted opportunity by the Yankees. And fewer remaining days to get everything right. Every New York loss requires a higher winning percentage by the Yanks the rest of the way to make the post-season.

Is this a right or wrong question? Nope. Is the future laid out in black and white? No way. Once again, as with real life every day, this is a serious question the Yankees and Mariners will have to answer for themselves.

What do I think?

Based on all I've written above, if the Yankees are going to squeeze the M's to give Washburn up for nothing but salary, Seattle may be able to take a calculated risk and play some poker as well. Even beyond July 31. We've seen what they have to lose. But if it's gaining a legitimate prospect like Gardner, they may be able to string this out and take the Yankees to the very brink. I compared it to a game of "chicken" yesterday where one car ends up in the ditch. Thing is, even if the M's keep driving straight ahead at the oncoming Yankees vehicle, there likely won't be a head-on-collision come deadline time. Not for the M's. If all that's being offered is to pay Washburn's salary, the only team that may have to swerve come deadline time is the Yankees. Seattle will have very little to lose.

And when's the last time we saw the M's putting pressure on the Yankees? By my count, just before Game 4 of the 2000 ALCS as Roger Clemens was warming up in the bullpen and had yet to throw a pitch in anger. That was eight years ago. And too often, on the negotiating front, the M's front office has looked just like their A-Rod did eight years ago dusting off the dirt from a Clemens brush-back pitch.

It must be refreshing, I'd think, for some fans to see a change. Even if it's only for another week or so.


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