DALLAS – There was no way for Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik to sugarcoat the latest coup pulled off by a division rival.
The signing on Thursday of first baseman Albert Pujols by the Los Angeles Angels added another gigantic hurdle in a division in which the Mariners were already preoccupied trying to keep up with the champion Texas Rangers. Zduriencik departed the annual baseball winter meetings still in search of landing slugger Prince Fielder and knowing that, unlike a few days ago, he has two American League West behemoths to contend with.
“It just makes it that much more difficult for everybody in our division,” Zduriencik said of Pujols’ deal, which is for 10 years and $254 million.
As if to put an exclamation point on Zduriencik’s statement, the Angels later signed free-agent pitcher C.J. Wilson to a five-year, $77.5 million deal. Whether this shifts the balance of A.L. West power from the Rangers back to the Angels remains to be seen.
“It certainly creates a challenge in our division, no doubt,” Zduriencik said. “A bigger challenge than had already been there.”
It also raises the question of whether the Mariners can continue their strategy of rebuilding slowly, over several years by developing homegrown players without hiking payroll and adding bigger name players. Certainly, the team’s behavior this offseason shows they were moving away from that even before the Pujols signing.
The Mariners have been aggressive on Fielder from the outset and – despite downplaying their interest in public comments – have been pushing hard to land him. Zduriencik met here with Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, and the two are expected to speak again in coming days.
Zduriencik said Thursday he does not feel added pressure to sign Fielder to counter the Pujols deal. Indeed, there are two schools of thought on this: One camp says the Mariners absolutely must keep up with division rivals, while others insist the Mariners should no longer try to land Fielder because they have no realistic hope of winning the A.L. West for several more years.
If the latter holds true, then the Mariners will have to decide what to do with pitcher Felix Hernandez, who is under contract three more seasons and will earn a hefty $19.7 million in 2012 in salary and bonuses. Should the M’s decide they can’t compete within the division for several more seasons, it could be best to deal Hernandez to land several premium players who can develop while the team is waiting for a contention window.
The Mariners did not come away from the meetings completely empty-handed, snagging pitcher Lucas Luetge, 24, a Double-A pitcher from the Brewers in the Rule 5 draft. Zduriencik said Luetge will compete for a left-handed role in Seattle’s bullpen.
But that acquisition paled next to the moves by the Angels, who snagged Pujols from his longtime Cardinals team just when it appeared certain the first baseman was headed back to St. Louis.
Boras said Wednesday night that the ability of a team to contend would be one of the factors at which his client would look. He added that none of the teams he’d spoken with – including the Mariners – had represented themselves as being any further than two years away from contention.
Whether the Pujols signing changes any of that in Fielder’s eyes remains to be seen. One factor working in Seattle’s favor is that the pool of suitors for Fielder appears to be thin.
Worth watching will be the Rangers. While they’ve seemed lukewarm on Fielder, they might feel pressure to counter the Pujols signing by making a more serious run at the biggest remaining bat on the market.
Zduriencik declined to say how much money he has available or whether the team has a flexible payroll that could expand this year if it meant securing Fielder over the long term. The Mariners have nearly $80 million already tied up in projected commitments if no other players are brought in other than minimum-salaried personnel.
That would leave Zduriencik just more than $14 million in cash room if he is limited to a payroll of about $94 million like last season. But sources say he has the ability to get a Fielder deal done within certain reasonable parameters – as long as the Pujols contract didn’t just drive up Fielder’s asking price.
“I just think you always have to do what you have to do,” Zduriencik said, when asked whether the Pujols deal “raised the bar” in the Fielder talks. “And everyone has to weigh their own situation by their own parameters.”
Whatever those turn out to be, the parameters for contending in the A.L. West just expanded in a big way.