SEATTLE – The Seattle Mariners are on the verge of landing their biggest free agent pitcher of the offseason, veteran right-hander Jeff Weaver.
The Mariners have made a contract offer to the 30-year-old Weaver, who must pass a physical exam before the deal becomes final. It could come together this weekend, and there’s a chance the Mariners could introduce Weaver to fans Saturday or Sunday at their annual FanFest at Safeco Field.
Thursday was a busy day on the pitching front for the Mariners.
They signed veteran left-handed reliever Arthur Rhodes to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training, then continued work on signing Weaver.
Weaver had said during the offseason that he’d like to return the Cardinals, but he also was seeking a four-year contract worth about $10 million per year.
If Weaver winds up with the Mariners, he would join a starting rotation that includes Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista and Horatio Ramirez.
Weaver made $8.325 million last year, when he resurrected a miserable season after signing with the Cardinals.
He had gone 3-10 in 16 starts with the Angels, who waived him midway through the season and replaced him in the rotation with his younger brother, Jered. After going to St. Louis, Jeff Weaver went 5-4 the rest of the season, then 3-2 in five postseason starts, including a Game 7 victory over the Tigers in the World Series.
Many baseball insiders gave credit to Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan for fixing flaws in Weaver’s delivery. It would be up to Mariners pitching coach Rafael Chaves to continue that work.
Weaver has never put together a dominant season in a nine-year career. He’s 86-101 with the Tigers, Yankees, Dodgers and Angels with a 4.58 career ERA. He has been durable, pitching 200 or more innings in four seasons and never having a serious arm problem.
The Mariners have lost several of their top free-agent pitching targets to other teams as the market exploded with big money. They made what they believed was a competitive offer to Barry Zito, who elected to stay in the Bay Area and signed with the San Francisco Giants for $126 million over seven years.
Rhodes, who pitched for the Mariners from 2000-2003, is hoping to recover from a difficult 2006 season with the Philadelphia Phillies. He went 0-5 with a 5.32 ERA and ended his season in early September because of a sprained left elbow.
“I was just sitting at home waiting for my agent to call around to teams,” Rhodes said. “Seattle jumped in and I said, ‘Hey, I’d love to go back there and play.’
“I have a whole bunch of memories from there. Going to the playoffs, having a lot of fun and winning 116 games. It’s great for me to come back. I had my best years there.”
His finest was 2001, when he went 8-0 with a career-low 1.72 ERA and was one of the key members of the Mariners’ record 116-victory season.
There are no guarantees for Rhodes this time.
Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi said the signing will help balance the bullpen with a much-needed veteran left-hander.
“You can never have too much left-handed pitching in the bullpen,” Bavasi said. “Since I’ve been here, we haven’t had as balanced a bullpen as we would like.”
Rhodes would join veteran George Sherrill and, possibly, youngster Eric O’Flaherty as left-handers in the bullpen. Of course, that depends on Rhodes making the team.
He missed most of September last year after suffering a strained tendon and sprained ligament in his left elbow. Rhodes says the arm is fine and that he began throwing again about three weeks ago.
“I’ve been throwing here at home, off a mound, and it feels good,” he said.
Bavasi also seems to have little doubt that Rhodes’ arm still has plenty of life.
“He’s going to get a tremendous opportunity to make the club,” Bavasi said. “We fully expect him to be on the club. His stuff is still tremendous. Last year, he pitched in a ballpark I don’t think (Sandy) Koufax would have wanted to pitch in. This is a good fit for him.”
Rhodes had a 7.24 ERA in 24 appearances in Philadelphia, but his ERA was 3.81 in 31 road games.
Safeco Field is one of the best pitcher’s parks in baseball, and Rhodes flourished during his four seasons with the Mariners from 2000 to 2003, when he got hitters out with power – a 96 mph fastball and a quality slider.
Bavasi said the Mariners may ask Rhodes to use the breaking ball more this year, and that he may pitch in a variety of relief roles.
“Middle innings to the end of a game,” Bavasi said. “He’d end up having to be pretty versatile. The most important outs aren’t always those last two innings.”