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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 22, 2008 10:34 AM

Strasburg and Fields forever

Posted by Geoff Baker

STRASBURG STANDINGS:

SEATTLE 57-98 (.368) --
Washington 58-98 (.372) 0.5
San Diego 61-95 (.391) 3.0

The San Diego Padres all but knocked themselves out of the running for the No. 1 overall draft pick, which is supposed to be Stephen Strasburg, the San Diego State pitcher touted as a future Felix Hernandez (franchise player). Only difference is, Strasburg is older than Hernandez was when he began his career and might need less time to get where he's going.

Of course, you never know how a draft pick is going to turn out. But as far as silver linings go, this could be it in a 98-loss season for the Mariners thus far. San Diego sweeping the Nationals over the weekend gives the M's a lead over the Padres that even they would find tough to blow. I mean, the Mariners would have to win at least four games to let the Padres catch them.

One of you emailed me to ask about how a tiebreaker for last place would work.

If the M's and Padres are tied, then last year's record comes into play. Whoever was worse last year gets the higher pick. In this case, the Padres won 89 versus 88 for the M's last year. So, if the M's go 3-4 and the Padres 0-7 this final week, and they end tied, Seattle still gets the nod. So, the Mariners would have to go 4-3 for the Padres (going 0-7) to even have a shot at Strasburg now. Any takers on that?

The Nationals are another story and would win all tiebreakers. But here's the thing. As we told you a while ago, the Nationals don't like to pay big signing bonuses to top picks. They just let their No. 1 from last June, University of Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow (9th overall) walk away rather than pay his asking price. So, even if the M's were to finish with the second worst record, they still could get Strasburg if the Nationals go for signability in their selection.

Will the Mariners pay the $7 to $10 million bonus Strasburg would want? Why not? Up until a short while ago, the Mariners figured on paying Erik Bedard next season. Now, with him likely gone for part of next year due to shoulder surgery, the M's could non-tender him and just be done with the entire episode. And save that money they were going to pay for a pitcher who will be coming off surgery and is unlikely to pitch enough to generate much in terms of trade returns. The money saved by not offering Bedard a contract for next year? About $7 to $10 million. "Et voila!'', as they say in Navan, Ont. There's your Strasburg money.

Speaking of signability, many of you keep asking me about Josh Fields, the M's No. 1 pick from last June. He was a college senior, so wasn't subject to the same deadline for signing that Crow was. The Mariners are offering Fields something like $1.5 million and he wants $2 million. Ballpark estimate. My opinion? This is a ridiculous gambit by the player. In the end, he'll walk away with an extra half million, but likely start his career later. When you start your career, you get the big bucks faster. Holding out over millions of dollars, I completely get. What I don't get is this six-figure stuff.

Now, all that said, the Mariners had better get this guy signed. It doesn't have to be right now. They technically have all the way up to a week before next year's draft in June. There's not a whole lot of point to hurrying things up at this stage. The minor league season is over. If Fields is to go the Brandon Morrow route to the majors, all he really has to do is show up to spring training next February in shape and ready to go.

Based on what I saw yesterday in Oakland, the Mariners need all the hard-throwing arms they can get for their bullpen next year. I've never been completely sold on Miguel Batista as a permanent relief solution, having seen him in a full year as a reliever in Toronto back in 2005. It's an act that wears thin by the second half. As a potential late-season solution last year, I could stomach it. Not over a full six months. I don't like what I'm seeing from Batista now. Or from Sean Green for that matter. I know he was worked hard in the first half but he's faded badly now and you can't do that if you're to be a late-inning answer.

This team doesn't have one now that Brandon Morrow is going to be in the rotation (I thought he made some gradual progress yesterday. Walks aside, he threw six scoreless innings of one-hit ball. Against a bunch of minor leaguers and slumping bats, true, which is why I won't cannonize him for it. He got away with overusing his fastball because they could not catch up. Still has to find more consistent command of his curveball. But he's coming along. It was a positive outing, all in all. Next year's when we learn the big stuff about him. So far, it's promising.)

Without Morrow in the bullpen, that bridge to J.J. Putz is looking about as safe as the one on the River Kwai (ask your parents).

Let's not forget, Putz will have plenty of questions to answer next year as well. The reasoning behind the drafting of Fields was the the M's anticipated Morrow going to the rotation. For all the grief this organization takes about a lack of foresight, this pick is actually looking better by the day.

But my view of that is growing dimmer by the day as well, so long as Fields remains unsigned.

My feeling is, this is just another game of low-stakes poker. The M's obviously have the extra cash to give Fields. They throw money around like they're printing it in Howard Lincoln's basement bowling alley (a joke -- he doesn't have a bowling alley in his basement. Only a superhero costume designing studio, like Iron Man).

This team can afford to burn $3 million by not trading Jarrod Washburn this season. Ate about $7 million by shedding Richie Sexson when it did. Another $2 million plus on Jose Vidro. There's got to be $500,000 kicking around in a shoebox under somebody's bed. Ask Hiroshi Yamauchi for the interest on his hourly paycheck.

The M's can afford to give Fields what he wants. They need Fields. Yes, they need him. Just not right now. Not this instant. They can afford to wait until early next year. Until a new GM is in place who can put his or her "plan'' into action. This is not an organizational priority right now. You don't need a hard-throwing reliever using up bullets down in winter ball. You need to get as much juice as you can out of that arm in the majors next season and in years to come. And if Fields is as good as advertised, I'd expect to see him in the majors next year. If he was worth a No. 1 pick.

Maybe not straight out of spring training like Morrow. It will depend on where Fields is at. That's where he might have just messed himself up by not signing right away. Let's do some math. Get that signing bonus into a good investment plan and what's it worth after a year? Maybe $150,000 more? And what would a major leaguer make if he started his career out of spring training instead of in, say, the second half? Another $175,000 or so? So, you're $325,000 closer to that $500,000 already.

And then, the big stuff. If you break camp out of spring training instead of joining a team next July (or even this September, longshot at it may sound at first) you're a year closer to arbitration (when, if you're any good, or even just still in the majors you get to the bigger bucks a year early and make all your bonus money back and more). Then there's a year less that you'll have to wait until free-agency. Look at what top relievers now make. It ain't $500,000.

We won't even get into the baseball related stuff. Like earning the respect of the teammates you're about to play with. Do you think the Mariners are watching this situation and talking about what a brilliant strategist Fields is? Uh, no. He's setting himself up for problems. With a little luck, and maybe a dazzling minor league start, the guy could have been with the M's already. A longshot, true. But look at this team. If he's any good, he could have made it to the big leagues already. Now, he just looks silly. He's going to come up next spring and his fellow relievers are going to be standing around waiting for the "college hotshot" to strike out every batter he faces. Many are puzzled as to why he didn't just settle for a seven-figure bonus and try to make the bigs in 2008, instead of fighting for some extra pocket change. Never mind the potential risk of him slipping and hurting his shoulder, or something else wacky, that could happen this winter. You just never know.

The big leagues are something these relievers have made personal sacrifices for and worked themselves to the bone to get a shot at. They see this, and they wonder.

Hey, it's the free market. I understand negotiations. For me, though, this one isn't worth the energy I just spent typing these words out.

This is silly on both sides. But it's not irreparable from an M's perspective. It's too late for Fields to pitch in 2008. So now, the goal is to get him into spring training in 2009. And the M's will do it. They'd better do it. Or else, they'll have a lot of explaining to do.


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