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Locked and loaded

Teams see value in holding on to their own stars

Posted: Friday July 13, 2007 12:30PM; Updated: Sunday July 15, 2007 2:12AM
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Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro gives the Mariners the sort of international clout that is hard to find for big league clubs.
Jun Sato/WireImage.com
POLL
Which contract extension represents the best value?
Mark Buehrle, White Sox (four years, $56 million)
Travis Hafner, Indians (four years, $57 million)
Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners (five years, $90 million)
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Here's the very difficult choice that many baseball executives face these days: Pay a lot for the up-and-comers and soon-to-be free agents in their organization now, or pay more for somebody else's stars later. That is, fork out huge money for a known quantity maybe a little earlier than you'd like to, or need to, or be prepared to shell out just as much -- and, yeah, very possibly more -- for a free agent you don't know nearly as well.

OK, so maybe the decision isn't that difficult after all. Is it any wonder then that Ichiro, Travis Hafner and Mark Buehrle -- just to cite three recent examples -- are staying put?

The smart franchises in baseball, big and small, have long recognized that locking up young players already in their system is a lot easier, a lot smarter and often less expensive than going outside to cherry-pick players off the market. Just in the past year, players such as Roy Oswalt of the Astros and Vernon Wells of the Blue Jays have worked out big-money extensions to stay with their current teams. The raging question in the Bronx lately has been whether the Yankees and Alex Rodriguez will follow suit before he opts out of his $252 million deal at the end of the season.

As we roll into the last couple of weeks before the July 31 trade deadline, we've seen a couple of recent examples of teams taking preemptive strikes, pulling their guys away from possible trades (as was the case with Buehrle) and impending free agency to keep them happy and at home.

A quick look at the latest contract extensions:

Ichiro Suzuki, OF, Mariners
Five years, $90 million
No player is more closely associated with a team than Ichiro is to the Mariners. He is what Derek Jeter is to the Yankees, what Albert Pujols is to the Cardinals. He's a critical member of the Mariners from a competitive standpoint, both offensively as the premiere leadoff hitter in the game, and defensively as one of baseball's best outfielders.

Now, $18 million a year is a lot to pay. It's more than anyone pulled down, on an annual basis, in the free-agent market last winter. It's Manny Ramirez and Jeter money. It's approaching A-Rod territory. And Ichiro, it must be pointed out, is not nearly as valuable as those guys. He's a skilled hitter but he lacks power -- or, at least, he doesn't use his power -- and this kind of money is usually reserved for the big bats or, in Jeter's case, a consistently good and versatile top-of-the-lineup hitter with a track record as a team leader. Ichiro is also on the wrong side of 30 -- he'll turn 34 in October.

That said, Ichiro's worth to the Mariners goes far beyond what he offers the team on the field. He is uniquely positioned in Seattle as a cross-cultural icon, a superstar in the Pacific Northwest who still has a strong fan base across the Pacific Rim, all the way to Japan. The marketing machine already is in place with Ichiro and the Mariners. Losing that would have been devastating. The Mariners, simply put, could not afford not to sign Ichiro.

So, in trying to figure Ichiro's overall worth, we probably ought to look more toward what the Red Sox were willing to do with pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka last winter. The Sox spent more than $100 million on Matsuzaka (a little more than $51 million in a posting fee to his former club, the Seibu Lions). So Ichiro gets that $90 million, and maybe a little more. Only he gets to keep it all.

Travis Hafner, DH, Indians
Four years, $57 million
A lot of credit has to go to general manager Mark Shapiro, who recognizes the importance of striking quickly and decisively in keeping together his young ballclub. In the past couple of years he's locked up outfielder Grady Sizemore, pitcher Jake Westbrook and shortstop Jhonny Peralta. Now Shapiro has signed the team's designated hitter, Hafner, just the kind of big bat that's always in demand in the trade and free-agent market. Hafner has finished in the Top 10 in MVP voting in each of the past two years. He had an OPS of greater than 1.000 both years.

It might be a little surprising that Hafner's deal would be done before pitcher C.C. Sabathia's, as Hafner was due to become a free agent after next season, just as Sabathia is. Things probably just came together more quickly with the DH. Hafner's deal is a solid, well spread-out extension that runs through 2012, with an option for 2013. It pays him good chunks this year and next year, making it a little more palatable to the team in the latter stages of the contract. By getting Hafner, the Indians have the middle of their lineup -- catcher Victor Martinez, Hafner and Peralta -- in place through at least 2009. And leadoff man Sizemore is committed through 2011.

Signing the lefty Sabathia at some point before he hits the market next winter would be the coup de grace for Shapiro.

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