January 2012

Brian Sweeney agrees to Minor League deal

Former Mariners and Padres reliever Brian Sweeney has agreed to a straight Minor League contract with the Mariners and will join the team’s Minor League camp when it opens on March 5.

Sweeney, 37, was in the Mets organization last year and went 5-5 with a 4.34 ERA for Triple-A Buffalo, with eight starts among his 32 appearances.

The right-hander pitched for Seattle in 2003 and again in 2010, when he posted a 3.16 ERA in 37 innings over 24 relief appearances.

Sweeney also pitched for the Padres in ’04 and ’06 and is 4-2 with a 3.38 ERA in 73 appearances in his Major League career. He spent 2007-09 pitching in Japan.

Sweeney is not among the 25 non-roster invitees who will be at the team’s Major League camp, which opens in two weeks when pitchers and catchers report in Peoria on Feb. 11.

And somewhere, Doug Fister is smiling …

Yeah, I’m supposed to be on vacation today. Supposed to be cleaning up some of the fallen tree branches littering my lawn. But, hey, Prince Fielder signed! Prince Fielder signed!

Not with the Mariners, who I said from the start were a longshot. Not with the Nats or the Rangers or Orioles or any other team mentioned in recent weeks. Instead, it was the Tigers — swooping in just like the Angels with Pujols — and landing the big fella at $214 million over nine years, as first reported by Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.

When it comes to the Mariners, that kind of deal never made sense. And the truth of it is, Seattle would have had to go much higher than that to outbid the Tigers, who could offer an instant contender, a city far closer to Fielder’s home in Orlando and a training camp in Florida instead of Arizona.

So at least we can put it to rest now. Fielder will be a Tiger. The Mariners will face him in Comerica Park in the third week of the season, then he and the Tigers will be at Safeco Field on May 7-9 for their only Seattle visit of the season.

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik told me before the Winter Meetings that he’d at least look into Fielder’s situation, but that the team had a “threshold.” After that, he never said anything publicly about Fielder and speculation ran high for a while that Seattle was one of the lead pursuers.

But as noted all along, it takes two to tango. And it seemed pretty clear that Fielder and Scott Boras weren’t going to dance until somebody threw an A-Rod type deal at them. That team was never going to be the Mariners. It wasn’t going to be most teams in baseball.

It did turn out to be the Tigers, who came close to A-Rod cash with a deal that averages $23.77 million for nine years.

Will that be worth it in the long run for Detroit? We shall see. For now, things certainly continue to get more and more interesting in the American League. And, yes, Mister Fister — the man who couldn’t find any run support in Seattle — should be one happy guy.

It’s finally official: Jesus Montero is a Mariner

The Mariners trade for Yankees catcher Jesus Montero became official on Monday after the 22-year-old completed his physical exams in Seattle. (Getty Images)

Under the theory that good things come to those who wait, the Mariners just landed a heckuva catcher in Jesus Montero.

Not that the Mariners needed a 10-day delay between initial word of the impending Montero-Michael Pineda trade and Monday’s official notice that the swap is now complete to justify their deal. Montero is a big-time baseball talent by all accounts, including the latest MLB.com prospect rankings that rated him the No. 1 young catcher in baseball heading into 2012.

The Mariners did need the 10 days, however, to get Montero to Seattle and then complete the necessary physical exams before signing off on the deal with the Yankees. Travel issues getting out of Venezuela and then weather problems in Seattle slowed the process.

But word finally came Monday at 1 p.m. that the trade is official. As expected, the Mariners will receive Montero and 24-year-old right-hander Hector Noesi, while Pineda and 19-year-old right-hander Jose Campos head to the Yankees.

The deal has been analyzed and re-analyzed already. What both teams — and their fans — need now is to get these guys into their camps next month and begin the process of seeing where they fit for the coming season and beyond.

Montero and Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik will be talking to the media on a conference call later this afternoon and I’ll provide full details on Mariners.com.

In a statement released by the Mariners, Zduriencik had this to say about the deal:

“With this trade we feel we have acquired a premium offensive talent that has the potential to hit in the middle of our lineup and grow with our other young players. It is also beneficial that we were able to acquire a Major League-ready pitcher with six years of control and who will compete for a spot in our rotation.

 “It was very difficult to part ways with Michael as we are extremely proud of what he has been able to accomplish in our organization. He is a special young man and we wish him the best of luck with the Yankees.

 “Through our evaluations, we’ve identified the strength of our organization to be pitching depth, and this helped in our decision to acquire what we consider a premium bat and a potential starting pitcher for the 2012 season and beyond. This trade is also a testament to the job that Bob Engle (Vice President, International Operations) and Tom McNamara (Director of Amateur Scouting) and their staffs have done through scouting and signing of players. ”

Mariners sign Oliver Perez to Minor League deal

Former Mets pitcher Oliver Perez signed a Minor League deal with the Mariners and will get an invite to Major League camp. (Getty Images)

Nine-year Major League veteran pitcher Oliver Perez has signed a Minor League deal with the Mariners as a non-roster invitee to training camp, the club announced Wednesday.

Perez, 30, was a 15-game winner for the Mets in 2007 and has a career 58-69 record with a 4.63 ERA with the Mets, Padres and Pirates.

On the day the Rangers were signing Yu Darvish to a six-year, $60 million deal that brings their total commitment in him more than $111 million with the posting fee, this move will draw scoffs from some trying to relate the two. They’re not related, of course, other than by the coincidence of happening on the same day.

Perez’s signing is simply another in the normal offseason list of moves all teams make in bringing Major League veterans to camp on Minor League deals in order to provide depth and see if anybody clicks. In Perez’s case, he was a quality Major League starter earelier in his career before going sideways the past few seasons.

The left-hander struggled after signing a three-year, $36 million deal with the Mets in ’09 and was released last year with $12 million still owed after going 3-9 with a 6.81 ERA the previous two seasons.

Perez didn’t pitch in the Majors last season, spending the entire year in the Nationals organization with Double-A Harrisburg, where he went 3-5 with a 3.09 ERA in 16 games, including 15 starts as he worked on regaining his control.

He pitched 23 games in relief for Tomateros de Culiacan in the Mexican Winter League this off-season, going 0-2 with a 0.63 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .157 average.

So the Mariners will see if he’s re-discovered something and has life left at age 30. If not, this was a no-risk move.

Perez was with the Mets from 2006-10 and compiled a 29-29 record with a 4.71 ERA in 101 games, 91 starts. He made two starts in the National League Championship Series for the Mets in 06, going 1-0 with a 4.63 ERA against the Cardinals.

Perez originally signed with the Padres in 1999 and pitched in the Majors with them in 2002-03 before going to the Pirates from 2003-06. He was 12-10 with a 2.98 ERA with the Pirates in ’04 and then went 15-10 with a 3.56 ERA with the Mets in ’07 and followed that with a 10-7, 4.22 season in ’08.

Vargas, League, Kelley agree to one-year deals

All three of the Mariners arbitration-eligible players — pitchers Jason Vargas, Brandon League and Shawn Kelley — have tentatively reached agreements on one-year deals Tuesday, thus avoiding the arbitration process.

Today is the deadline for arbitration-eligible players to sign contracts, or players and clubs must file their separate offers and then begin the arbitration process.

The Mariners avoided that process with all three. Vargas agreed to a one-year, $4.85 million deal, according to a tweet from his agency, CAA Sports.

League agreed to a one-year, $5 million deal, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.

Kelley, in his first year of arbitration as a Super 2 player, agreed to a one-year, $600,000 deal, with a potential for another $50,000 in incentives.

Johnson, Wilson to join Mariners Hall of Fame

Current Mariners Hall of Famer Jay Buhner (left), poses with Dan Wilson (center) and Randy Johnson (right) last summer at Safeco Field.

Randy Johnson and Dan Wilson, who teamed together in Seattle through much of the ‘90s, will be inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame together this summer, the team announced Tuesday.

Johnson and Wilson will become the fifth and sixth members of the Mariners Hall of Fame, with their induction ceremony set for Saturday, July 28, prior to a game against the Royals at Safeco Field.

The four current members of the club’s Hall of Fame are Alvin Davis (1997), Dave Niehaus (2000), Jay Buhner (2004) and Edgar Martinez (2007).

Wilson played 12 of his 14 Major League seasons for the Mariners from 1994-2005 and has more games behind the plate than any catcher in franchise history at 1,281. Wilson was an All-Star in 1996 and owns the club’s single-season record for RBIs for a catcher with 83 that season and is tied with Miguel Olivo for the team-record for home runs (18 in ’96).

He ended his career with a .995 fielding percentage, the sixth highest in Major League history.

Johnson played 10 of his 22 Major League seasons in Seattle (1989-98) and earned the first of his five Cy Young Awards while with the Mariners when he went 18-2 with a 2.48 ERA in 1995.

He also threw the first of his two no-hitters while with Seattle.

Johnson retired after the 2009 season with a career win-loss record of 303-166, an ERA of 3.29 and 4,875 strikeouts, second only to Nolan Ryan’s 5,714. In addition to his 10 trips to the All-Star Game (1990, 1993-95, 1997, 1999, 2001-02) and five Cy Young Awards (1995, 1999-2002), Johnson led the league in ERA four times (1995, 1999, 2001, 2002) and strikeouts nine times (1992-1995, 1999-2002, 2004).

The two will be talking to the media this afternoon on a conference call and I’ll provide a full update on Mariners.com.

So, wow … Pineda for Montero, indeed

The Mariners acquired power-hitting catcher Jesus Montero from the Yankees on Friday for Michael Pineda. (Getty Images)I was on the Hot Stove Show on 710 ESPN Seattle last night when co-host Matt Pitman asked what I thought the Mariners would do if they didn’t get Prince Fielder. And, I’m happy to say now, my reply was that a trade made more sense than chasing some of the available — and aging — free-agent DH types like Vlad Guerrero or Johnny Damon.

I mentioned the Mariners’ surplus of pitching could be used to land a young bat that fit more in the long-term plan than a one-year deal with Carlos Pena or some other Boras client that would cost a lot in free agency.

But, no, I really did NOT foresee any such move coming like a bolt of lightning less than 24 hours later on Friday the 13th, when Jack Zduriencik dealt Michael Pineda for Yankees thumper Jesus Montero in a blockbuster four-player trade.

You can say a lot of things about this deal, but, well … wow. That sums up the initial gut reaction. I didn’t see Pineda being the centerpiece of a Mariners trade, assuming they’d use one of the less-proven prospects like Taijuan Walker or Erasmo Ramirez.

But then again, I didn’t know that they’d land a big-time power hitter like Montero in return. As the smart folks say, you have to give up something to get something. And both teams bit the bullet hard on this deal.

It’s interesting that many Yankees fans are bemoaning the loss of Montero, while the majority of Mariners fans seem upset at losing Pineda. Depends who you’re most familiar with on that one, I have a feeling.

I saw a full season of Pineda and am sorry to see him go, no doubt. The big kid was both fun and formidable. He was the essence of a power pitcher and he worked hard. He also wore down in the second half last season, even as the Mariners limited his innings, his fastball dipping into the 90 mph range at times after the early season high-90s heat.

I expected Pineda to come back stronger this year, but there’s no guarantee with any pitcher regarding health. Especially youngsters who throw that hard.

So maybe the Mariners gave up a future Cy Young winner. Or maybe they gave up a youngster who’ll never live up to the immense early expectations. For Pineda’s sake, I hope he does well. He’s a great kid who deserves success.

From a Mariners perspective, Montero has equally tremendous potential — and some questions — as well. This is a 22-year-old with big-time power who is athletic enough to play catcher. Whether he plays catcher well enough to handle that position full-time in the Majors remains one of those questions.

My guess is he’ll split time at DH and catcher much of this season, as he did with the Yankees in his brief — but impressive — September callup last fall. But without a doubt, he’ll slot immediately into the middle of the Mariners lineup. He’s the bat Zduriencik talked of landing this offseason and while there will likely be growing pains, the Mariners will indeed grow with a young nucleus that now includes Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp, Justin Smoak and Montero.

Think of it this way. The Mariners started last season with Jack Wilson at second. Ackley will now fill that role.

They opened the year with Milton Bradley in left field. Carp takes over there.

Smoak was at first base from the opener last year, but could — and should — be a much better player if he lives up to expectations.

And Montero? Pencil him in at DH, where Jack Cust spent the first half last year doing next to nothing power-wise. And Montero will be under the Mariners control for the next six years.

Those are solid upgrades at four positions offensively, which is much needed. Can the Mariners overcome the loss of Pineda in the rotation? That’s a tough one initially, especially if they don’t sign one of the still-available free-agent arms. But even as it stands, they added another potential starter in Hector Noesi, the 24-year-old right-hander also coming in the trade.

And I suspect replacing Pineda eventually with a Danny Hultzen and James Paxton or Erasmo Ramirez — and eventually Taijuan Walker — will be far easier than finding big-time hitters to come to Safeco.

And signing a free-agent pitcher to come perform in Safeco will be far easier than convincing Prince Fielder or the next big bat that comes available.

That’s what this deal was about. The Mariners have pitching strength. they should always be able to add pitching. They need offensive help. So they used a strength to bolster a weakness. And, as always, time will tell how it all pans out.

Searching valiantly for clues on Fielder’s future

Prince Fielder remains the biggest free agent on the market with less than four weeks until the Mariners report to camp. (Getty Images)Not trying to burst anyone’s bubble here, but since everyone is trying to read the tea leaves on what Prince Fielder and Scott Boras are thinking, let me toss out two Boras comments that don’t make it sound like Seattle is at the forefront of their thought process.

Boras was at the Owners Meetings on Wednesday in Paradise Valley, Ariz., and my MLB.com colleague Barry Bloom caught up with him for this update on Fielder.

Here’s the interesting quote:

“Certainly we’re going to have him signed well in advance of Spring Training,” Boras said. “I can’t give you the exact date. These things take some time. That’s why we have January and early February. Spring Training doesn’t start until late February.”

Aha. That is true for everyone EXCEPT the Mariners, who are the first team into camp with pitchers and catchers reporting on Feb. 11. OK, OK. Fielder isn’t a pitcher or catcher and the Mariners full-squad doesn’t report until Feb. 18. So maybe that still counts as “late February” in Boras’ mind.

But all the other MLB squads have at least an extra week, with the next-earliest pitcher-catcher reporting dates on Feb. 18 and full-squad workouts beginning from Feb. 24 or later for every other team, which is definitely late February.

The Mariners start early because their regular-season begins a week ahead of everyone else, thanks to the two games against the A’s in Tokyo on March 28-29. For some reason, the A’s aren’t starting early, so not sure what’s up with that. But here is the full schedule for reporting dates for all 30 MLB teams.

I’m joking about this being a huge issue, but it is worth bearing in mind from a Mariners’ perspective they’ll need to finalize their roster earlier than everyone else if they want to open camp with all hands on deck. Whether that means Fielder or others among the 100 remaining free agents, or a trade to bring in offensive help, the Mariners’ clock — or at least calendar — is ticking a little faster.

Then there was this much-overlooked Boras one-liner from his session with reporters at the Winter Meetings in Dallas back in December, when he finally emerged from his hotel suite late on the final night of the three-day gathering. Asked if Fielder had a geographical preference for where he’d wind up next year, as in if he preferred East or West coast or whatever, Boras said:

“I just think he likes fences that are close to home plate. That’s the geographics he likes.”

Ahem. Again, not a ringing endorsement for Seattle, given Safeco Field’s well-known reputation as a big park.

Bear in mind that none of this probably means a thing and that Boras does his magic largely by NEVER ruling any team out of contention in order to build up competition. But hey, what else do we have to do besides search for subliminal clues as the Fielder saga drags out?

If you ask me seriously, Fielder remains a longshot to land in Seattle because like any premier free agent, he’s looking for the best combination of: 1,  money; 2, the chance to win a title as quickly as possible; 3, a city closest to his family and comfort zone as possible; and 4, a home park where he can put up the best numbers possible.

Money can and often does trump all, but the Mariners will likely need to be the clear-and-away top bidder to override Nos. 2, 3 and 4 there and that means going longer term and/or higher-per-annum than anyone else. And if that takes them up into the A-Rod/Pujols stratosphere, I just don’t see that being a gamble the Mariners — or any other Major League team — is willing to take.

If Boras lowers the expectations and is forced to accept a smaller package in terms of years and dollars, something in what Jack Zduriencik sees as Seattle’s “threshold,” then it’s hard not to imagine other teams jumping into the bidding at that point. So we’ll see. Zduriencik isn’t saying anything and all the other potential Fielder bidders have been similarly coy or in outright denial of any interest.

That leaves us to scour the occasional Boras bread crumbs for clues. And to wait. And wait. And wait.

It’s finally official: Kawasaki signs with Mariners

Japanese shortstop Munenori Kawasaki signed a Minor League deal with an invite to Major League camp with the Mariners on Wednesday. (Getty Images)

The long-awaited announcement of Japanese shortstop Munenori Kawasaki signing with the Mariners became official Wednesday, setting up what figures to be an interesting competition for the utility infielder job in Spring Training.

Kawasaki, an eight-time All-Star infielder in Japan’s Pacific League, signed as a Minor League free agent with an invitation to the club’s Major League camp in Spring Training.

But he’ll have a legitimate shot to make the team, given the need for a backup shortstop to Brendan Ryan and someone who can fill in at second or third base as well. Luis Rodriguez had that role much of last season and he’ll return on a Minor League deal as well.

“Being able to add a player with the resume that Kawasaki possesses is very good news for the Mariners,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “We are looking forward to having him compete for a Major League position in Spring Training. He is a high-energy player with a record of success in Japan.”

Kawasaki’s signing has been expected since before Christmas, but the club didn’t finalize its deal with the 30-year-old until now.

He hit .294 with 631 runs scored and 262 stolen bases in 1,145 games over 11 seasons in Japan, was an All-Star from 2004-11 with Fukuoka and won two gold gloves at shortstop.

Kawasaki played with Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki on Japan’s gold-medal winning World Baseball Classic squad in 2009 and told reporters in Japan that he wanted to play with Ichiro in the Major Leagues, even if it meant taking a Minor League contract offer.

Kawasaki is regarded as more of a defender than an offensive force, but those who follow Japanese baseball say he’s a smart, gritty player and he’s recorded 20 or more stolen bases in eight of his past nine seasons, including a league-leading 42 in ’04.

It’ll be interesting to see how he fares this Spring. Certainly he’s a low-risk candidate, given his willingness to sign the Minor League deal, so chalk this up as possible way to fill a need while still leaving payroll for other pursuits.

Heilman signs Minor League deal

Aaron Heilman, who pitched for the D-backs the past two years, signed a Minor League deal with the Mariners on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

It’s generally smart not to make too big a deal out of guys signing Minor League deals with invites to Major League camp, but the Mariners made an interesting move Tuesday in bringing back veteran reliever Aaron Heilman.

You might recall the big right-hander being part of the Mariners for six weeks between trades in the 2008 offseason. He even appeared at Mariners FanFest after being acquired from the Mets in the J.J. Putz swap, but then was dealt to the Cubs a few weeks later for Ronny Cedeno and Garrett Olson.

So Heilman’s history with the Mariners is brief and could be again, given he’ll be one of a big group of relievers coming to Peoria as non-roster invitees, hoping to make the cut and continue their careers.

But Heilman, 33, has a chance. He’s been one baseball’s most durable bullpen men over the past six years and who knows, maybe he can be this year’s Jamey Wright.

Heilman has been with the D-backs the past two years, going 4-1 with a 6.88 ERA in 32 appearances last season. He was released by Arizona in July, then pitched in the Minor Leagues for the Phillies and Pirates.

It wasn’t a great season for him and he struggled with the long ball, giving up eight in just 35 1/3 innings. But in nine years in the Majors, he has a 35-46 record with a 4.40 ERA and 16 saves in 477 appearances, and he’s a flyball pitcher who could benefit from Safeco Field.

In short, who knows how much Heilman has left. But the Mariners intend to find out. And if he is still one of the game’s more durable arms, maybe this time he’ll get a chance to actually pitch in a Seattle uniform.