By LARRY LaRUE
The News Tirbune
The News Tirbune
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. – No Japanese position player has ever made a major league roster, but the Seattle Mariners have bet $13.125 million that Ichiro Suzuki can make theirs.
Now all they have to do is sign him.
In the blind bidding process for the rights to negotiate with Suzuki, the seven-time Japanese batting champion, the Mariners’ bid was the highest – perhaps by millions of dollars. That earned them 30 days in which to come to agreement with Suzuki on a major league contract.
“There’s been no prior contact with the player or his agent,” general manager Pat Gillick said. “We’ll contact the agent (today), and I would think by next week we’ll get together and begin the process.
“Is there a risk? There’s always a risk, with any player. Our people think Ichiro is worth the risk.”
Suzuki, 27, has played seven years in Japan’s Pacific League – and won seven batting titles, including the 2000 season, when he batted .387. He has a career average in Japan of .353, with 118 home runs and 529 RBI.
“He does everything but hit with power,” said Gillick, who has never seen Suzuki play. “He was in spring training with the Mariners for a few weeks before I joined the team, and Lou Piniella saw him, Roger Jongewaard saw him, our scouts saw him. Our Pacific Rim director of scouting, Jim Colborn, has seen him since then.
“They all believe he’ll hit in the big leagues.
“He has an above average arm, above average speed, above average defense.
“The fact that he’s hit in Japan – and that Japanese pitchers are considered a little ahead of Japanese hitters – means, we think, that he can hit anywhere.”
A team in which Japanese businessman Hiroshi Yamauchi has invested heavily, the Mariners baseball people wanted Suzuki for his ability on the field, and Mariners ownership was willing to commit financially in part because of his cross-cultural drawing power.
What Seattle’s $13.125 million bought them wasn’t a player, but the right to sign that player. If the Mariners and Suzuki agree to a deal now – and the Mariners are looking for a three-year contract – the Orix Blue Wave will be paid $13.125 million.
Suzuki won’t come cheaply. Last season, he earned $5.3 million. As the General Managers Meetings closed here Thursday, the Suzuki derby was the biggest news of the six-day session.
“Our bid went in at 3 p.m. (Wednesday), and we heard it had been accepted today at 11:30 a.m.,” Gillick said. “I wish I could tell you it was a scientific process, but we looked at the overall package – what we thought it would cost to sign the player – before we calculated the bid.”
The process was nearly unprecedented: A blind, one-time only, sealed bid by any major league team interested. Only the high bid was sent to the Blue Wave, who had to accept that bid without knowing the bidder involved.
Once Orix accepted the bid in Japan, major league baseball told them that bid had come from Seattle – and told the Mariners the clock was ticking.
“The Mariners have until Dec. 9 at midnight to negotiate with Suzuki,” MLB vice president Sandy Alderson said. “If those negotiations are successful, Orix gets the money. If they are not, the Mariners keep the money and the player remains with the Blue Wave next season.”
Though baseball was silent on how many teams had entered the process – and the range of bids submitted – general managers believed the number was only a handful of teams, and that no one had come close to Seattle’s bid.
“Am I surprised by that number?” Mets GM Steve Phillips asked. “No, because it doesn’t mean anything until the player is signed. If he signs, then you look at the entire package.”
If, for instance, Suzuki should sign a three-year, $21 million contract – and some GMs thought he might want more – the total price Seattle would pay would be $34.125 million.
“I don’t think anyone came within three million of that bid,” one AL East executive said. “And no one may have come within five million. They wanted him that badly.”
The Yankees, at the last minute, declined to bid. The Mets, Tigers and Dodgers all submitted offers, and one source with Major League Baseball said a few other teams took part in the process.
The Mariners now will begin negotiations to bring Suzuki to Seattle, with the full knowledge that doing so could help their chances with free agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez.
“A-Rod is a separate issue,” Gillick said. “We’re still very much committed to bringing Alex back, but one of the things Alex is looking for is a winning situation, and signing Suzuki would make us a stronger team in 2001 and beyond.”
Suzuki is tentatively pencilled into right field next season, and would likely be the Mariners leadoff or No. 2 hitter.
And they’ll open another door for baseball.
“If Suzuki is a success, I think it would be a big boost for Japanese baseball and its players,” Gillick said. “One of the premier players in that league was Kazuhiro Sasaki, who we signed last winter and who was just named American League Rookie of the Year. We’re hoping now we can sign another premier player, and that he’ll be just as successful.”
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