AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. - Just as commissioner Bud Selig concluded his morning lamentation about baseball's growing salary disparity, the Seattle Mariners found another way to fuel this winter's free-agent frenzy.
The Mariners yesterday secured the negotiating rights to seven-time Pacific League batting champion Ichiro Suzuki for a staggering $13.125 million. The Mariners have 30 days to agree on a contract with the Japanese outfielder, whose talents are likened to those of Cleveland Indians center fielder Kenny Lofton. If Suzuki signs, the Mariners must then pay the rights fee to his former team, the Orix Blue Wave.
"He can do everything except hit for power," said Mariners general manager Pat Gillick. "He's hit for power in Japan, but in the United States I think he's more of a contact, slash type of hitter. He has an above-average arm, he's an above-average runner and an above-average defensive player. Those tools we can count on. He has hit for a number of years in Japan.
"We're confident he can carry it over to the United States."
Projected as a right fielder for the Mariners, Suzuki, 27, carries a .353 career average with 118 home runs and 529 RBIs in nine seasons. He batted .387 last season, when he earned $5.5 million with the Blue Wave. He is expected to seek $7 million to $8 million for each of at least four seasons from the Mariners.
Several Japanese pitchers, including Hideo Nomo and Mariners closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, have made successful transfers from the Japanese professional leagues to the American major leagues. However, it is believed Suzuki would be the first position player.
"There's always a risk with any player you sign," said Gillick. "In this case, it's a free agent from another professional league. Our people felt he was worth the risk. That's why we made the bid."
The Orioles, who did not scout Suzuki, were not among the approximately 15 teams that submitted a bid.
The Mariners' bid concluded a week of sluggish activity at Major League Baseball's meeting of general managers most memorable for agent Scott Boras' news conference touting his most visible client, free-agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez. The Cleveland Indians made what is likely to be their last attempt to retain free-agent outfielder Manny Ramirez by hiking their five-year, $75 million offer to $119 million for seven years. Ramirez's agent, Jeff Moorad, is seeking a 10-year, $200 million deal.
Another salary spiral is expected in coming weeks as Rodriguez, Ramirez and free-agent pitchers Mike Hampton and Mike Mussina challenge the game's financial structure. Selig spoke to club executives yesterday before taking his message of concern to the media.
A commissioner's office report released Wednesday to teams showed a 13 percent increase in the average major-league salary to more than $1.7 million.
"While the game is so remarkably popular, we have some internal problems that have to be fixed," said Selig, who described the industry as being in the midst of a renaissance. "As I've often said, this game has not done a good job of addressing its problems the last four decades. That has to stop if we are going to address salary problems."
The commissioner saved any details for later, possibly next month's winter meetings in Dallas. However, with the Basic Agreement between management and labor due to expire after next season, the issue will only gain intensity.
Selig had nothing to say about the Mariners' bid, but the reach for international talent may herald another escalation in salaries. A world draft is also under consideration.
Negotiations for Suzuki come at the same time that the Mariners are attempting to retain Rodriguez, who will also be pursued by the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox and Atlanta Braves, among others. Gillick described the potential signing of Suzuki as "a separate issue" from Rodriguez but acknowledged that the club lacks resources to pursue Mussina.
"One of the things A-Rod has told us all along is that he wants a winning situation," said Gillick. "If we're able to place [Suzuki] under contract, it ensures our ability to compete in 2001."
The Orioles now also appear out of the running for Mussina and apparently have greater interest in Darren Dreifort, knuckleballer Tim Wakefield and Jeff Nelson, a middle reliever for the New York Yankees who could project as a closer for the Orioles. The Yankees offered Nelson a three-year, $9 million contract earlier this week.