November 2011

Looking at the Prince Fielder question

Prince Fielder is a big bopper who would look nice in a Mariners uniform, but it figures to be a long shot that he'll wind up in Seattle. (Getty Images)

Jack Zduriencik held a conference call with reporters this afternoon and largely reiterated what he told me earlier for this Winter Meetings preview story that went up this morning on Mariners.com.

In short, he’s interested– either via trade or free agency — in adding a left-hander in the bullpen, a veteran starting pitcher, a backup shortstop and, yes, a bat.

The bat everyone wants to talk about is Prince Fielder and Zduriencik indeed told me for my earlier story that the Mariners would “go down that road” and see where it leads, while acknowledging the cost and length of contract could be difficult.

Not to throw cold water on all the fun, but my sense is Fielder remains a very long shot to wind up in a Mariners uniform for a variety of reasons, foremost being that Fielder himself may not have a rebuilding Seattle ballclub first on his list and it thus would take a way-over-market bid to land him. It does take two to tango in free agency, remember.

The Mariners will do their due diligence and find out what the market looks like, but Zduriencik sidestepped most of the Prince questions in the conference call.

“There are a few options out there that would fill some needs,” he said. “On any of these things, you have to figure out where it ends up. Lots of time the years, dollars and where you currently stand are factors.

“There’s a point with any player that you can go down a road a certain distance and then at the end, find out it’s not where you want to go. We’ll explore several options, even via trade if possible. But there aren’t any promises on these things. You don’t know the other party’s sincere desire. Those are all things that need to be gauged and we’re doing that with a lot of players.”

Zduriencik was the Brewers scouting director when Milwaukee drafted Fielder in the first round in 2004, but he doesn’t think that carries much weight. And he’s right. If Mariners scouting director Tom McNamara becomes a GM in Milwaukee in six years, does that mean Dustin Ackley will automatically want to sign with the Brewers? No offense to Tom, but probably not.

“I’ve known Prince since he was young kid in high school,” Zduriencik said. “But in the end, Prince or any player has to do what is in their best interest. It’s nice you have a relationship and that might get them to open the door and listen, but we’re all adults and when a player earns free agency, they’ll probably do what is in their best interest and relationships become secondary.”

Zduriencik didn’t cover much new ground in the conference call, other than acknowledging that the club does not have any firm offers out to free agent as of today.

“No, I’d say at this point in time we do not have any offers,” he said. “We’ve had dialogue with a lot of different entities, but no offers on the table.”

The Winter Meetings start Monday in Dallas and that four-day run figures to bring more news, so stay tuned.

Lueke traded for Rays catcher Jaso

Left-handed hitting catcher John Jaso was acquired by the Mariners in a trade Sunday with Tampa Bay for reliever Josh Lueuke. (Getty Images/J. Meric)

John Jaso, a left-handed hitting catcher, was acquired by the Mariners on Sunday in a trade with Tampa Bay for right-handed reliever Josh Lueke and a player to be named later or cash considerations.

The player to be named is not expected to be a top prospect.

Jaso will give some needed depth to the Mariners backstop position and could be a potential platoon partner with Miguel Olivo.

Jaso, 28, has hit .245 with 10 home runs and 71 RBIs in 595 at-bats over three seasons with the Rays.

“John gives us a left-handed hitting catcher with some big league time who is still young,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “His left-handed bat will be a nice compliment to our right-handed hitting group. He’s a tough kid with post-season experience and should be a nice fit with us.”

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Jaso was the Rays’ Opening Day starter last year and finished his first full season in the Majors batting .224 with 15 doubles, five home runs and 27 RBIs in 246 at-bats.

He started 67 games at catcher, with 65 of those coming against right-handed pitchers. He started 50 of Tampa Bay’s first 90 games before going on the disabled list with a strained oblique muscle that forced him to miss 33 games.

Jaso is regarded as a good contact hitter and he batted in the leadoff spot in six games in 2011 after batting leadoff in 45 games in 2010, when he hit .263 with 18 doubles, three triples, five home runs and 44 RBIs in 109 games as a rookie.

Jaso made his Major League debut as a September call-up in 2008, appearing in five games. The native of Chula Vista, Calif., was drafted in the 12th round by Tampa Bay in 2003 out of Southwestern Community College.

He has appeared in five post-season in 2010 and 2011 with the Rays, batting .214 (3-for-14) with one RBI.

Lueke, 26, was acquired from the Rangers in the Cliff Lee deal in July of 2010. He appeared in 25 games as a rookie last season, going 1-1 with a 6.06 ERA in 32 2/3 innings.

The Mariners have some young depth in their bullpen, but are fairly thin in the catching department behind Olivo, who will be in the final year of his two-year contract this coming season. Adam Moore played just one week last season before undergoing knee surgery, though he’s back to health now and just completed a successful stint in the Arizona Fall League.

My thoughts on the tragic death of Greg Halman

Greg Halman works with Matsu molendijk, a 10at a baseball clinic in the Netherlands earlier this month. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Mariners)

The news of Greg Halman’s death hit like a punch in the gut for all who knew him Monday morning.

Senseless, pointless, tragic, all those phrases we come up with in an attempt to fill the empty space and answer questions when a young man dies for no apparent reason.

Word from the Dutch media is that Halman allegedly got in a fight with his younger brother over loud music and Jason Halman, 22, brought out a knife and stabbed him. Greg Halman’s girlfriend called police, who arrived too late to save him.

That’s what is being reported in the Netherlands anyway, where they’ll try to figure out the what and the why.

Here in the United States, the day was spent getting reaction from teammates and those who knew Halman. We have several of those stories up on Mariners.com and I’d recommend reading them all to get a full persective on a vibrant youngster whose life ended far too early.

From my perspective, Halman was one of the most easy-going, friendly professional athletes I’ve ever dealt with.

A year ago at this time, I called Halman in the Netherlands and did a story on his work with youngsters in his homeland, where he wanted to help grow the sport of baseball. That gave us a nice bond when we both got to Spring Training last February and he always greeted me by name with the big smile that accompanied him everywhere.

He did another of those European baseball tours this past month and the Mariners sent me a couple photos of him working with Dutch kids, but I figured I’d already done that story and didn’t chase him down again. Now I wish I had.

Every time I talked to Halman, I was struck by what a great kid he was, whether it was after a tough loss or a game where he made a key play. This was a guy who wasn’t caught up in trying to act self-important. He was accommodating, gracious, happy to just talk baseball or anything else when he was sitting around in the clubhouse.

When Mother’s Day approached and I had to get a couple players on videotape talking about their moms, I hit up Halman in the dugout one afternoon and was blown away by how natural and smooth he was in immediately whipping off a “Happy Mother’s Day” message not only to his own mom, but “all the mother’s in the world” in a thoughtful, caring response.

Wouldn’t you know it, I discovered later that I’d hit the wrong button and failed to record his message – hey, I’m a writer, not a broadcaster. But when I approached Halman the next day and told him I’d messed it up, he just said, “No problem. Let’s do it again.” And he knocked out another version without blinking an eye.

Maybe that sounds like a little thing, in the big scheme, but in my world that’s a great example of an athlete who gets it, a guy who isn’t too big for himself and doesn’t take his situation for granted.

As the season progressed, Halman didn’t play a ton and wound up getting sent back to Tacoma for the final weeks. But he was an excellent and promising athlete, an intriguing blend of speed and power. I figured if Franklin Gutierrez struggled, Halman was the next-best center field option at this point for the Mariners.

I was curious how he’d come back to Spring Training this year, if the added season would benefit his bat and propel him to a permanent place in the Majors.

Instead, we’ll never find out. Instead, his parents will be burying their son in the Netherlands. his brother will be left with a life-long burden and we’ll be left to wonder why.

Senseless. Pointless. Tragic. Yeah, all of that. And more than anything, just sad.

Readers respond to AL West move by Astros

Interesting day with news of the Astros moving to the AL West as soon as 2013. I offered my own thoughts here, as well as this story about Justin Smoak’s reaction and the Mariners’ limited history with Houston.

But this story affects fans as well, so I asked followers of my Twitter account (@gregjohnsmlb) what they thought of the Astros’ move into the Mariners division and here are some of the responses:

– No objection to the Astros as such, but annoyed that the M’s will have to play so many games at Houston’s silly park. @DJoVecc84

– Can you image watching the game starting at 9PM and not game over until Midnight? I feel bad for the #Astros fans. @trak2k

– It’s a good idea. Evens out the leagues. That’s the OCD in me speaking. @labenjr

– I like it..don’t mind interleague play year round and also 1 game wild card playoff game I really like! @kylehead8

– I think its funtastic.. more games vs the ‘stros & less vs Texas is a good thing @topherJmitchell

– Hopefully with the added division foe it helps cut down some of the road travel. Assuming the schedulers do it right… @M_R_Ducks

– We don’t know what this new owner will do. Could have $200M payroll in top 5 sports market w/ relatively new stadium. @BoiseMsFan

– I’m fine with it just as long as the #Mariners get our first World Series Championship before the Astros get theirs. @catsiena

– People say HOU moving to the AL as more wins for the M’s, but doesn’t that also mean more wins for TX LA OAK? @scottmmeredith

– #Mariners and Astros will be strange, but 4 team division always seemed weak. @KillSwitchTD92

– Hate it, hate it hate it @GoofyMsFan

– Will this increase recruiting opportunities for the Mariners in Texas? :) @leehawk77

– Another team for @RealKingFelix to dominate. @34Prime34

– Competitive balance: Yes. Perpetual interleague: No. AL West respect gets a shot in the arm with a 5th franchise. @siskosbaseball

– I think it sucks for TX fans. Gotta go to STL or AZ to see NL baseball. I just hope that HOU and Rangers are on same trip. @olyhomer

– Grew up going to Astros games in Astrodome. Its going to take a while to get used to! @_JenMueller

– Excellent. At least its the Astros and not the Rockies or the Dodgers. @luismanuelm

– I like it if it means we play the Athletics less! Ha. @CarpeMC12

– 19 more easy games. Interleague play year round. Lower playoff odds offset by additional wild card. Win win. @colefitzpatrick

– Hopefully someone to finish above in the standings. #justsaying. @Jamer555

– I love it. Maybe not because of the Astros but because we get a 5 team division. It’s so needed. @Ike_Thompson

– Well if the @Astros were there last year the @Mariners would of still been in 4th place, doesn’t make much of change now haha. @Atwood92

–  I was hoping it would be the Diamondbacks (i live in phoenix) @cdaz18

– Not a fan of the #Astros moving to the AL-West. I would’ve have moved the #Rockies instead. @trak2k

– Like road trips weren’t tough enough. @JustYourAvgJoe

– Won’t finish last in 2013! @gutchecktime

Thoughts on the Astros coming to AL West

The anticipated arrival of Houston to the American League West became official Thursday, with MLB saying the Astros could join the Mariners division as soon as 2013.

Change is always interesting … and usually met with considerable resistance on some fronts. Many long-time Astros fans aren’t happy about being forced to switch leagues, which is understandable as the same would be true in any city with much of a tradition and history in one league.

For the overall benefit of baseball, I think it’s a good thing. Two 15-team leagues make sense, though there will now be interleague games throughout the season instead of in one midseason lump.

The four-team AL West and six-team NL Central was always a little odd, so now scheduling will be more uniform and fair. And the anticipated addition of a second wild-card playoff berth in each league should be good as well.

But what about the affect on the Mariners? Houston is coming off a 56-106 season, the worst team in MLB last year, so initially it could provide some easier games. But things can change there and no one knows how the new ownership group will spend. Bottom line, the Mariners now will compete in a five-team race and face one additional hurdle, though if the Astros continue to be poor, it conceivably adds 18 easier games to the slate.

Travel to me is the critical element. The Mariners already face the most difficult road of any MLB team simply because of location. Having another division team in Texas sounds like more miles, but it could actually help if the schedule-makers combine trips to Arlington and Houston. Then suddenly you’ve got just a short hop on some legs of those trips, which is a rarity in the AL West.

So we shall see. I can tell you this. One Mariners player who is excited about this is Justin Smoak, for good reason. Smoak went 7-for-14 with two doubles, two home runs and eight RBIs in a three-game Interleague series at Minute Maid Park in 2010 while with the Rangers.

Ichiro is another who apparently loves Houston, having hit .536 (15-for-28) in six games there.

“I like the idea of playing in Houston a little more often,” Smoak told me this morning. “The ball flies everywhere there, that’s all I remember. It’s the total opposite of Safeco Field.”

In case you’re wondering, the Mariners are 3-6 all-time against the Astros, including a 2-4 mark in Houston. 

You can read my full story for Mariners.com on Smoak’s thoughts as well as the history of how some of the other Mariners have done in Minute Maid Park by clicking here.

Liddi’s second Winter League shot ends quickly

Mariners third baseman Alex Liddi saw his stint in the Dominican Winter League end after just three games Tuesday as he was released by Leones del Escogido.

Liddi was taking a second shot at winter ball after being let go by Lara in the Venezuelan League after a slow start there during which he hit just .136 in 14 games, but he committed five errors and was 0-for-7 for Escogido.

He’ll likely return home to Italy now to rest up for spring training, which isn’t a bad idea given the long haul of his past season in the Minor Leagues and then his September call to the Mariners.

He did have two walks and scored a pair of runs for Escogido, but his real difficulties came in the field. Playing against a Licey squad that included Mariners teammates Wily Mo Pena and Carlos Triunfel, Liddi made a fielding error in the first inning of his debut on Friday and then committed a throwing error that allowed Pena to reach base in the fourth.

On Saturday, Liddi had two more throwing errors and then was replaced by Fernando Tatis after striking out in the fifth inning. He made another throwing error the following night and then was released Tuesday.

Pena, who is now a free agent, just started playing for Licey this past week and is 2-for-15 with a double in four games. Triunfel, one of the Mariners top young shortstop prospects, also just now is getting back into the Winter League action. He played two games in mid-October, but has now returned for five straight for Licey and is batting .238 (5-for-21) with a double and two RBIs.

German pitcher signs with Mariners

Daniel Thieben, an 18-year-old German right-hander, has become the latest international prospect to sign with the Mariners, the club confirmed Thursday.

Thieben is working out at a baseball academy in Regesburg, Germany, and is expected to report to the Mariners Minor League camp in Peoria, Ariz., in March.

Thieben has pitched for the German National Team and World Cup team. Here’s some additional background on baseball-reference.com.

Chalk this up as another signing for Bob Engle, the Mariners vice president of international operation. Engle, who helped Seattle land Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda, was one of three men selected as Major League Scouts of the Year this week.

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