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Originally published Friday, June 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Larry Stone

How do you solve a problem like Erik Bedard?

Erik Bedard hasn't been everything the Mariners were hoping for when they traded five players for him. His contract goes through the 2009 season. Should the Mariners try to work out an extension now? Should they trade him? Let him walk after next season? And is general manager Bill Bavasi the right person to make these decisions?

Seattle Times baseball reporter

Tonight

Washington Nationals @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m., FSN

As if the Mariners don't have enough pressing issues percolating in their troubled world, the future of Erik Bedard is one that must be addressed very soon.

Too early to worry about it? Not with the trade deadline approaching rapidly, and this team having very few chips to play.

In their most optimistic dreams of last January, Bedard would be well into a dominating season. He'd be leading the Mariners to the top of the AL West, and coming to the realization that Seattle was the perfect place to settle down for the bulk of his remaining career.

Hasn't quite happened that way. Bedard, ominously, went on the disabled list after just two starts with a hip injury. While far from a disaster, he hasn't been as dominant as envisioned when the Mariners gave up three minor-league pitchers, plus Adam Jones, plus George Sherrill, to get him.

More to the point, the Mariners' season has unraveled to an unimagined extent. At 18 games under .500 and 16 ½ games out of first (14 behind in the wild card), they have already squandered one of the two Bedard seasons they were guaranteed at the time of the deal.

The way I see it, they have five options staring at them:

1. Trade Bedard at or before the July 31 deadline as a first step toward a major rebuilding operation.

Bedard, don't forget, is eligible to walk away as a free agent after the 2009 season. It was on the same timetable that the Texas Rangers, having determined they could not re-sign Mark Teixeira — a free agent after 2008 — traded him to the Atlanta Braves last July for Jarrod Saltalamacchia and three minor-leaguers.

The Rockies, in the midst of a similarly disappointing season, are currently facing the same situation with Matt Holliday, also eligible for free agency after the '09 season.

"You have to realize you're not going to get 100 percent of what you give up," said one industry source of a possible Bedard trade. "If you get 75 to 80 percent of what you gave up, you have to at least consider that, as bad as their situation is."

A related question, of course, is who will be making the call on Bedard's future. CEO Howard Lincoln has to answer that question, sooner rather than later.

More specifically, will it be general manager Bill Bavasi, who has so much of a personal investment in the original trade? Jayson Stark of ESPN, analyzing the Mariners' chances of pulling off a deadline deal this year, quoted a baseball source Thursday as saying of Bedard, "Only a different GM could trade him."

I have no doubt Bavasi has the integrity to put aside his ego to do what he believes is right for the team. But it's hard not to have doubts that Bavasi is the right one to make and execute the tough decisions facing the organization, based on its current state of disarray under his watch.

2. Trade Bedard during the offseason.

The main comparable is Johan Santana, who last winter was one year away from free agency, as Bedard would be. The Twins tried their best to get the Mets and Red Sox into a bidding war — unfortunately for them, the Yankees never engaged seriously — and wound up taking the Mets' package of four prospects. Most analysts rated the Orioles' haul from Seattle as superior.

3. Keep Bedard on the roster for 2009, and hope that whatever other moves they make during the winter turn them into a contender.

This strategy gives them one more chance to prove that acquiring Bedard was a worthwhile trade, while keeping open the option of trading him at next year's deadline if the season goes south again, or contract-extension talks fizzle.

This is the strategy employed this season by the Indians with Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia, who can be a free agent after the year. The Indians' season so far has been a big disappointment. GM Mark Shapiro will have to decide by July 31 whether they have enough of a chance to make a playoff run to justify keeping Sabathia, or whether it is more prudent to use him to fill other holes if he is going to walk away anyway.

4. Re-sign Bedard to a long-term extension before he becomes a free agent.

It is instructive to look at when some other upper-tier pitchers recently facing free agency signed extensions:

• Carlos Zambrano, Cubs (five years, $91.5 million), signed last August, would have been a free agent after the season;

• Roy Oswalt, Astros (five years, $73 million), signed August 2006, could have been a free agent after the 2007 season;

• Roy Halladay, Blue Jays (three years, $40 million), signed March 2006, could have been a free agent after the 2007 season;

• Jake Peavy, Padres (three years, $52 million), signed December 2007, could have been a free agent after the 2008 season.

Both sides have some evaluating to do before a possible deal could get done: Bedard about whether he wants to stay in what could turn into a rebuilding situation; and the Mariners about whether they want to make their biggest long-term investment in a pitcher. That's an exercise always fraught with uncertainty, as the Mariners know better than most.

5. Let Bedard play out the 2009 season in Seattle, and either sign him after the year, or take the compensatory draft picks if he signs elsewhere.

This is what the A's elected to do with Barry Zito in 2006, riding Zito to the ALCS before letting him sign with the Giants. One of Oakland's compensation picks, left-handed outfielder Sean Doolittle, is hitting .322 with 15 homers and 51 runs batted in for Class A Stockton and just was named to the California League All-Star team. Zito? Not so good.

Here is my unsolicited game plan: Float Bedard at the deadline and see if they can get a couple of pitching-hungry teams willing to mortgage their future for a 2008 pennant run. And hope the Indians hang close enough that Sabathia isn't out there, too. With C.C. out of the picture, Bedard would be by far the best pitcher available.

As my industry source said, "Sometimes you can get some desperate teams that believe they need a Bedard to put them over the top, and they're willing to overpay. Sometimes you can get full value at the trade deadline rather than wait for the offseason."

If the deal is good enough, make it and use it as a springboard to a brighter tomorrow.

If the deal is inferior, keep Bedard and make a hard run at a reasonable (four years or less) contract extension in the winter. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I still like the sound of a Felix Hernandez-Bedard-Brandon Morrow-Philippe Aumont rotation as the foundation of a contending team.

The Mariners never dreamed they'd be facing such weighty questions in June. But they made their Bedard; now they have to lie in it.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

UPDATE - 10:00 PM
Larry Stone: Young pitcher Michael Pineda offers glimpse of exciting future for Mariners

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