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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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September 5, 2008 12:22 AM

No big free agents in '09

Posted by Geoff Baker

seat0824 004.jpg

ADDITIONAL NOTE (9:51 a.m.): Some of you are shocked and accused me of burying the lede when I mentioned lower down that Chuck Armstrong had blocked the Washburn deal. I guess this just didn't surprise me, since Armstrong said the day of Bill Bavasi's firing in June that he would be looking over Lee Pelekoudas' shoulder on every potential deal. So, while Pelekoudas has the authority to negotiate trades, as interim GM he was not going to have the leeway to dismantle or reshape the team in his fashion without his boss signing off on it. This was made clear from the very beginning. I know it's been almost three months and many may have forgotten what was said. Consider this the reminder. Armstrong, as team presidents usually do, was always going to have final say on all trades -- but it was going to be less of a rubber stamp than usual in this case. So, you don't have to like that he's doing it. But it isn't exactly news. He said it would be the case right from the start.

Many of you wrote in yesterday, asking me what the Mariners were going to do free-agent-wise in 2009. I wanted to wait until I had a chance to speak to team president Chuck Armstrong (pictured above, with manager Jim Riggleman) about it. And what many of you suspected is true. The Mariners are changing their ways.

Here's the story I wrote for this morning's paper:

In short, no big-name free-agents. Forget Mark Teixeira, or C.C. Sabathia. No Ken Griffey Jr. either, I assume, though Armstrong only mentioned Teixeira and Sabathia specifically.

This team is changing its ways. Armstrong says he wants "a comprehensive plan'' from any prospective GM on how this team can thrive for years to come. No more putting all the team's eggs in one basket and going for it year-to-year. This could be a long process.

Armstrong insists he has not given up on 2009. But if this team is to contend next year, it will be largely with the group already here and possibly some minor signings. There could very well be some coming trades, but it will be for players bringing "value'' back. That can often mean younger players, sometimes years away from helping a team contend. So, if Jeff Clement turns into a 30-homer guy, Brandon Morrow excels in the rotation and Erik Bedard shows Cy Young form for an entire season, the M's could contend. But they won't be doing it by adding Teixeira's bat at first base.

In other words, they will be rebuilding. And almost certainly not with the same payroll they had this year. Seattle's first year as the charter 100-100 club member (spending $100 million while losing 100 games), if it indeed comes to that, could very well be its last for quite a while. The money coming off the books after the departures of Richie Sexson, Jose Vidro, Brad Wilkerson and others will not, after all, be replaced by incoming big ticket items. Sure, Felix Hernandez should see a hefty arbitration raise. Bedard will get one as well. But the odds are, this payroll could drop below $100 million.

It's a new era coming.

For the record, Armstrong says he was the one who blocked the Jarrod Washburn trade to the Twins. Says he wants "value'' back, not just more saved money. He feels Washburn has been the only one other than Hernandez getting hitters out the past three months and that the team still needs that to get through the year. He also says, if the new GM doesn't deal Washburn, the team could still find value in having Washburn stick around. With Bedard's health status in question for now, and a bunch of young starters vying for full-time rotation spots for the first time, picking up innings could be a concern in 2009.

Every team needs a minimum number of collective innings out of the starting five.

Right now, you've got 200 penciled in from Hernandez, possibly the same from Carlos Silva in 2009. After that, a lot of question marks. You don't know how many you'll get out of Bedard, Brandon Morrow, Miguel Batista (if he's still a starter or even still here), Ryan Rowland-Smith or others. And that means, the team could be well short of the innings it needs if it deals away Washburn and the 185 to 195 or so he brings every year with an ERA under 5.00.

It's not a trivial concern.

Teams that overestimate potential innings totals and then fall short have been prone to overtaxing young arms in both the rotation and bullpen. It's a legitimate worry. Is it worth keeping Washburn here? I still think he gets dealt. But it's why Armstrong says he wasn't going to deal him strictly to save money. He figures that bringing in another veteran lefty on the free-agent market (which is what he'd have to do if worried the guys here could not produce the innings load required) for a year would cost him close to that $10 million price on Washburn next season.

Anyhow, that's his reasoning. We can argue (and I have, to an extent) that he should have taken the $13 million in remaining Washburn salary through 2008 and 2009 and stockpiled it by dealing him. But in this case, the team isn't going to go out and splurge on free agents. So, in effect, the team would have dumped Washburn for the saved cash and not necessarily rolled it back into the team. For now, he's still here and the money is still being spent on the team. That's how I see it. At least for now.

We're in for an interesting winter. And an interesting 2009 season. But don't expect me to pick the M's for first place come next spring. Had enough grief about that already and we're about to see some growing pains that could linger a bit.

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