Mariners need to do what’s right, forgo ’08 first-round pick Fields

Last June, the Mariners selected relief pitcher Josh Fields, out of the University of Georgia, 20th overall in Major League Baseball’s June amateur draft. For a team buried in the cellar with an already-strong bullpen, the move was questionable at best and pretty much came to sum up the ineptitude of the franchise’s previous management group. Pick any role or position of any other player, and chances are they would have been a better fit for this ballclub than a college-aged relief pitcher.

Seven months later, Fields remains unsigned by the team. Under the rules of the draft, the team that selects a player has one year (or until the next June amateur draft comes around) to sign that player, or said player reenters the draft pool the following June.

Initially, the M’s couldn’t sign Fields because his agent is Scott Boras, shark of sharks. Boras was demanding enormous sums of money for a player who doesn’t really deserve it. Hell, relief pitchers don’t really deserve to be first-round picks or pull in big money anyways, but try telling that to the Mariners old management group.

Now, however, it appears the M’s may be hesitant to sign Fields for three reasons: a) a rebuilding club has no need for a late-inning specialist b) a rebuilding club has no desire to overspend on a relief pitcher and c) the reward for NOT signing Fields may be greater than actually bringing the former Georgia Bulldog on board.

Points a) and b) are fairly clear. A team that will be lucky to win 70 games this season doesn’t need elite back-end-of-the-bullpen guys, let alone unproven, supposedly-elite guys.. Likewise, such teams should be unwilling to spend freely on seldom-used relievers who won’t really have an impact until this team gets good (which could be five years down the road, who knows). Rather, a team like this year’s Mariners can take chances on one-year, $1 million type guys and try catching lightning in a bottle. Just ask reliever Tyler Walker, a 32-year-old hard-throwing righthander, who the M’s signed for one season and a mere $750,000 (money is relative in the world of pro sports). Walker spent time as a closer during the 2005 season with San Francisco, and now seems destined to fill that role for the 2009 M’s. Taking a chance on a cheap closer with veteran experience is a much safer move than investing millions into an unproven commodity with no experience beyond NCAA baseball.

And then there’s point c), the reward for letting Fields walk. Again, under the quirky laws of Major League Baseball, the June amateur draft can pay dividends to teams unable to reach an agreement with their previous year’s first-round pick. If the Mariners cannot or will not sign Fields, they will be rewarded with a compensatory pick which will essentially become the 21st overall pick in the ’09 draft. In addition, the M’s already hold the second overall pick in the draft, the 28th overall pick in the draft (Philadelphia’s first-round selection, as compensation for signing Raul Ibanez), a “sandwich” pick between the first and second rounds (further compensation for the Ibanez signing), and the second pick in the second round. If Fields walks, the M’s will hold three first-round picks, one sandwich pick, and the early second rounder, meaning they will get a crack at five very high-caliber players to add to their system. Furthermore, the ’09 draft class is rumored to be significantly stronger than that of ’08, meaning the M’s will be in line to pick and choose a higher quality breed of player than they were able to look at last year.

Side note: A brief bit of perspective to throw at you. The Mariners 2003 first-round pick was Adam Jones, current Baltimore Orioles center fielder. Jones was a compensatory pick in the that draft and was selected 37th overall by the team. Depending on the number of compensatory and sandwich picks issued this year, potentially all five of the Mariners early-round picks could come before that 37th slot. At the very least, the M’s would have three picks (#2 overall, #21, and #28) within that frame were Fields not to sign.

On a positive note, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik recently stated that a Fields signing “is not imminent.” So whether you like it or not, we may be headed down this road anyways. Which, for a team trying to climb their way out of the basement, is great news.

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