Seattle Mariners Front Office Shows Keen Understanding of What Fans Want; Sign Free-Agent Kevin Millwood to Minor League Contract.

Kevin Millwood, seen here racked with self-doubt, is slated to be the Mariners ace in the hole. (Louis DeLuca/DMN)

In the critically acclaimed* movie “What Women Want“, Mel Gibson stars as a man gifted with the ability to read women’s thoughts. Hilarity ensues as Gibson shaves his legs, learns how difficult life is for his teenage daughter, and woos the effervescent Helen Hunt (Paul Reiser you lucky dog). The Mariners front office saw the movie at a recent retreat, loved it, and a decided they would try to figure out what their fans wanted. Their answer: Kevin Millwood. (*not)

It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with Kevin Millwood, it’s just not quite what Mariners fans were looking for in an offseason where the Rangers landed Yu Darvish and the Angels signed Albert Pujols. Millwood is a lot like N.A.S.A. At one point he served a useful purpose (league leader in ERA during 2005) but it was so long ago that no one remembers what it was now. In fact, scientists recently discovered that the human brain cannot independently generate the concept of “Kevin Millwood”. The right-handed Millwood wasn’t terrible with Colorado last year (3.98 ERA in nine starts) but he is really that much of an upgrade over younger pitchers like Blake Beavan or Charlie Furbush?

Welcome to Seattle Mr. Millwood. I’ve already forgotten about you again…

Tube Socks Again? Merry Christmas from the Mariners!

Cust rhymes with bust? Uh-oh!

It’s that time of year again, when the instead of the shiny new remote control car we always wanted (Justin Upton, Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey III etc.) the Mariners decide to get us something a little more crappy practical: underwear, fleece pajama pants and tube socks! Here’s a look at what the M’s left under the tree for their fans this holiday season:

Jack Cust: With a limited amount of cash to spend this offseason (thanks for nothing David Aardsma’s hip) Jack Cust will likely be the Mariners’ biggest acquisition in both impact on the field and all-around girth. While Cust isn’t exactly a household name outside of the AL West, he is a suitable replacement (Cust posted a .272-13 HR-52 RBI-.395 OBP line in 2010) for Russell Branyan, and does two things that the Mariners struggled to last season: draw walks and hit home runs. If all goes as planned, the M’s new DH will start the year hot and allow me to cash in on my garage full of “I lust for Cust” t-shirts. Jackpot!

Miguel Olivo: It’s hard to belive that the Mariners could do worse at catcher in 2011 than the Rob Johnson/Josh Bard/Adam Moore monstrosity that they put on the field last season, but with the signing of free agent Miguel Olivo, it looks like they’ll give it a try. Olivo had a memorable first go-round as a Mariner during the 2004-2005 seasons in which he hit .200 and .151 respectively, so it’s easy to see why the front office was enamored with him. Olivo is a decent defender behind the plate but he never met a pitch he didn’t like (career 800/125 strikeout-to-walk ratio) and his power doesn’t translate well to Safeco Field. This is going to be a regular dumpster fire…

Brendan Ryan: It appears that Sauron, not Jack Zduriencek, is running the Seattle Mariners because with the addition of Brendan Ryan to a lineup that already includes Jack Wilson the M’s now lead the league in goblins. Why couldn’t we have at least signed a goblin that can hit? The St. Louis Cardinals were eager to jettison Ryan after a season in which struggled at the plate, hitting just .223 with 2 HR’s and 36 RBI’s, and the Mariners obliged (they hate offense after all) by sending away Mikael Cleto for the slick fielding utility man. Hopefully for M’s fans Ryan will simply serve as a stopgap until Dustin Ackley is called up because another season like the last may prove too much for the fragile Seattle psyche. WNBA Championships only do so much for a city.

Time to throw away the wrapping paper…and any hopes for a successful 2011 season.

Mariners Draw First Blood in Free Agency: Seattle Close to Signing Chone Figgins

The Mariners made the off-season's first big splash with the signing of Figgins to fill their void at third.

Jack Zdrunciek wasted no time in letting Seattle fans know his intentions for the 2010 season—the Mariners are gunning for an A.L. West title. With the calendar turning to December and baseball’s annual winter meetings looming, the M’s are rumored to be in the final stages of a deal that would bring the 31-year-old Chone Figgins to Seattle to serve as the team’s third baseman for the next four seasons. Though terms of the deal haven’t been finalized, it is estimated that Figgins would receive around $9 million a year through 2013, with a potential option for the 2014 season. Seattle struggled all season at third base, with poor offensive production from an injury-riddled Adrian Beltre and his replacement Jack Hannahan, and the position was clearly a focus of Zdrunciek heading into the offseason.

Figgins’ signing is a true double-edged sword for the Mariners. Not only does Seattle add a talented and versatile veteran to their roster, but in doing so they also rob division foe Los Angeles of one of their most consistent and popular players. Figgins has spent his entire eight-year career with the Angels, serving as a super utility man before settling in at the hot corner, and is coming off his most productive season yet. The pint-size sparkplug was one of the game’s best leadoff batters in 2009, hitting .298 with 42 stolen bases and 114 runs scored. An extremely patient batsman, Figgins led the American League with 101 walks and will provide the Mariners with a vast upgrade over last year’s two-hole hitters (.294 OBP vs Figgins .395). While he will be replacing a Gold Glove caliber player in Beltre, Figgins’ good range and strong arm at third certainly won’t conjure up any images of Russ Davis; he’s a solid player across the board.  

Figgins will combine with Ichiro to form a dynamic duo at the top of the Mariners' order.

The Mariners were second to last in the AL in OBP, batting average, OPS and runs scored in 2009 and the arrival of Figgins should help to address those glaring needs. Though Figgins spent all of last season leading off it’s unlikely that he will usurp Ichiro at the top of the order. Instead, manager Don Wakamatsu will probably bat him directly behind Suzuki, giving Seattle one of the best 1-2 punches in the game (the two combined for 408 hits, 202 runs and 68 stolen bases last year). Now that the Mariners are set at the top of the order, the rest of the offseason will be spent looking for someone to drive in Suzuki and Figgins (Russell Branyan? Matt Holliday? Jason Bay?) and starting pitching to back up Felix Hernandez (Erik Bedard? Jarrod Washburn? Josh Johnson?). Zdrunciek and Co. are just getting started in their preparation for 2010, but this signing is certainly a strong start for Seattle.

From the outset this looks like a major coup for the Mariners, but the final grade of this signing hinges on two major factors: Figgins productivity at the end of the contract and what the Angels are able to get out of the 18th pick in next year’s draft (which they receive as compensation from the M’s). In the mean time Seattle fans should enjoy this deal as it shows the front office’s commitment to creating a competitive ballclub. Figgins isn’t the final piece of the puzzle, but he will play a major role in helping the Mariners challenge for a division title and a chance to return to the postseason for the first time since 2001.

Some Kids Do Come Home: What Griffey’s Return to Seattle Means For the Mariners

Seattle sports finally catch a break.
Seattle sports finally catch a break.

When word broke late Wednesday that Ken Griffey Jr. chose to sign with the Mariners over the Atlanta Braves, hysteria broke loose through Seattle–the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Starbucks offered $1 lattes. Griffey is the player that saved baseball in Seattle, a transcendent figure who loomed larger than the Space Needle. The “Kid” was the greatest all-around player of the 1990s and the image of him scoring the winning run in the 1995 ALDS against the Yankees will forever be etched into the minds of Mariner’s fans.

Junior made 10 straight All Star games in the 90s, as well as collecting 10 Gold Gloves and 7 Silver Slugger awards. He hit 382 HRs in the decade and drove in 1091 runs, punctuated by his MVP season of 1997 when Griffey put up a line of .304-56-147. He is a definitive first ballot Hall-of-Famer and was the only active player to be named to the All-Century Team.

But Junior is so much more than just mind-boggling numbers. He was the young kid with the backwards cap and 1000-megawatt smile. He played the game with such passion and reckless abandon that he won over fans not just in Seattle, but everywhere the Mariners played. Griffey’s love of baseball was evident each time he stepped onto the diamond. He was the prodigal son of a struggling franchise, sent by the gods of baseball to leave an indelible mark upon the Mariners, finally giving them the identity they had sought for so long. The clouds seemed to shy away everytime Junior came to the plate, and the sun shone just a little bit brighter each time he robbed a foe of a would-be homerun.

Just as when he burst onto the scene in 1989, Griffey is joining a Mariners team that needs him much more than he needs them. The Mariners lost 101 games last year, and would undoubtedly struggle to sell tickets with the down economy and a god-awful mediocre team. Not any more; Griffey’s 1 year/$2 million contract will look like a bargain when factoring in all the ticket and merchandise sales that will accompany his return. His #24 jersey will sellout quicker than the Turbo-Man action figures in Jingle All the Way.

However, Junior isn’t just some golden cow for the Mariners to trot out onto the field. He still has some gas left in the tank, and is eager to prove that he can perform at a high level. Although last season’s numbers weren’t great (.249-18-71), Griffey is certainly an upgrade over Endy Chavez in left-field, and should also see some time at DH (again, not hard to improve over Jose Vidro’s performance last season). And who knows, maybe that fresh breeze blowing in off the Puget Sound will rejuvenate Junior enough to capture the spirit of ’95, and play one last time like the kid Seattle fell in love with. 

Seattle sports were in desperate need of a shot in the arm after losing the Sonics to Oklahoma City and the disappointing Seahawks season. Wednesday night Seattle caught lightning in a bottle, as one of the city’s griffey19most beloved sports heroes finally returned home. M’s fans will once again get to see the Kid chasing down flyballs, and can “ooh” and “aah” at the swing sweeter than a box full of Krispy Kremes. Fans will finally have a reason to come to the ballpark and countless employees will have an excuse to call in sick. Starting April 6, Opening Day, Griffey will begin to write another chapter in one of the most storied careers in the history of the game, in the place where it all began. Junior saved baseball in Seattle once, and now the question becomes, can he do it again?

Scott Boras and Manny Ramirez: The Blind Leading the Blind

Yes that's correct, I am a tool.
“Yes that’s correct, I am a giant tool.”

Manny continues to be Manny this off-season, but this time it may end up hurting his wallet more than it hurts his team. Ramirez and his agent Scott Boras (aka the Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub, etc.) turned down the LA Dodgers’ latest offer of one year/$25 million with a $20 million player option for 2010. The $25 million salary would have made Manny the second highest paid player in baseball behind A-Rod who is not surprisingly, also a Boras client. Additionally, the contract would have allowed Ramirez to opt out at the end of the year and seek a new contract if the economy improves over the course of the season (magic eight ball prognosis—unlikely). Boras warned the Dodgers “not to play chicken” with him and has turned down each offer as if they are somehow insulting. It’s easy to see why. As is, he only stands to make about $2.5 million with the deal – tough life.  

This was the Dodgers fourth offer to Ramirez during the off-season; they offered him arbitration which was declined, a 2 year/$45 million deal which they took off the table after Boras said that his client was only looking at serious offers, and a straight up one   year/$20 million deal. Apparently, over $20 million a year in a major economic slump for a 36-year-old who plays defense about as well as Stephen Hawking plays Wii Tennis is not a “serious” offer. The Dodgers have bent over backwards to accommodate Ramirez, who seems to have more demands than most poodles (looks like someone will only eat Fancy Feast), yet Boras isn’t willing to budge an inch. One can see why fans have become frustrated with the greed in major sports; ticket prices continue to soar as millions are fired across the country, but here is Ramirez and his agent asking for a king’s ransom.  

Boras claims that there are a number of teams in pursuit of Ramirez, but is that really the case? Most teams have been unwilling to spend large chunks of money this off-season, the Yankees being the obvious exception, and many talented players like Orlando Hudson, that would have been quickly snatched up in years past are still looking for work.  The Giants claim that they are interested–if the price is right–but are they going to up the Dodger’s ante? Boston has the money but are clearly out of the equation (hell hath no fury like a Sox fan scorned) and the Yankees don’t have a spot for Ramirez in the field after their free agent splurge. The Mets are rumored to be looking at Manny, which is denied by GM Omar Minaya and after signing Oliver Perez and being hit by Madoff’s ponzi scheme, don’t really have any more money to throw around (at least not like Howie Mandell).

The Dodgers are a completely different team with Ramirez in the lineup as he finished last season with a stat line of .332 BA-37 HRs-121 RBIs, including hitting a ridiculous .520 in the postseason. Manny is one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all-time (think Jimmie Foxx with dreads) and is a lock for the Hall of Fame, but he does come with his baggage. Often chided for his lackadaisical play, Ramirez seemingly forced his way out of Boston with a laundry list of “injuries”, decreased production at the plate, and utter bewilderment in leftfield (we’re talking Paris Hilton in a library confused). A beloved player who had led the Red Sox to two World Series in four years had worn out his welcome in the summer of 2008, leaving Boston GM Theo Epstein little choice but to ship Manny across the country to L.A. Once the precocious Ramirez felt once again that he was the center of the universe, he magically rediscovered how to hit, and the fresh L.A. air reignited his passion for the game. Playing for the Dodgers, he dove for fly balls and sprinted down the first base line like his life depended on it. The only time Manny ran in Boston is when a new Dunkin’ Donuts opened up.

The Dodgers have no one else in their lineup who can come close to that kind of production (and no, the signing of Mark Loretta is not the answer), but why should the Dodgers let Boras manipulate them into bidding against themselves? Ramirez wants a multi-year deal but his track record suggests keeping him on a short leash is the best way to get him to produce. If this continues to drag out, the Dodgers may simply decide he’s not worth the trouble and walk away, leaving Ramirez out of options and Boras a long overdue date with the Karma Police.