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Originally published January 24, 2012 at 6:45 PM | Page modified January 24, 2012 at 10:31 PM

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Princely signing means Mariners are gambling on youth

With Detroit signing Prince Fielder for $214 million, Jack Zduriencik is banking everything on Seattle's farm system.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

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The Mariners have chosen youth over girth.

Or maybe the choice was made for them. Because no matter how much money the Mariners were willing to throw at Prince Fielder (a question shrouded in mystery), he had to ultimately want to play here. And that was always going to be a tough — perhaps impossible — sell, with the M's fighting geography, their ballpark, their paltry lineup, and their scanty recent win totals.

In the end, however, that all might have been moot, because the Detroit Tigers — a classic incarnation of Scott Boras' perennial "mystery team" — swooped in with an astonishing offer that blew away the competition.

For the Mariners to beat the ultimate nine-year, $214 million package that Fielder wound up accepting would have required an investment, both in years and dollars, so lofty that even the most avid Fielder-to-Seattle supporter (guilty as charged) had to have reservations.

I think Prince Fielder would have been a wonderful fit on the Mariners. I think he would have put butts in the seats. I think he would have jump-started the Mariners down the road to contention. Fielder and Jesus Montero could have made beautiful music together — perhaps the new Prince and Braun show.

However, I concede the inherent dangers of a 275-pound man facing the aging process. I think a bold seven- or even (gulp) eight-year proposal would have been just about the outer limits of acceptable risk.

But for the 10 years and, what, $230 million it would have required to even get Fielder's attention away from Detroit — well, that's insanity. Even for a team that needs a positive bounce as badly as the Mariners.

Now we'll see what the Mariners have in store for "Plan B." For the most part, all the impact free agents have landed elsewhere, but a few interesting names remain. Perhaps Jack Zduriencik will pull a trade out of his sleeve. As he invariably does, Zduriencik said Tuesday he has "many conversations going, a lot of different dialogues taking place."

And, as he also invariably does, he cautions that there's no guarantee anything will come to fruition.

Zduriencik is holding off commenting on the pending Fielder signing until it becomes official. But he did say, "I don't think this changes my stance on anything."

It's hard to come to any other conclusion than this: The Mariners are going all-in on their kids this year. For better or worse. So far, their biggest expenditure on new talent has been a one-year, $1.5 million deal for Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma (with incentives that could reportedly lift the total to $4.9 million).

Then there's left-handed reliever George Sherrill ($1.1 million) and veteran starter Kevin Millwood ($1 million, if he makes the team). Everyone else (Montero, Hector Noesi, John Jaso, Munenori Kawasaki) is under a million. Add it all up, and it's barely Wilson Betemit.

"I've said all along, we are going to be young," Zduriencik said. "At no point this winter did I think we weren't going to be young. I've cautioned people to understand, we have (Justin) Smoak, (Dustin) Ackley, (Mike) Carp and (Kyle) Seager, and now we've added Montero. We still have Casper Wells. With 18 rookies last year, it only makes sense we would be fairly young again."

Zduriencik added, "We'd be willing to go with what we have, but certainly we have ongoing discussions about other possibilities. We'll continue to look at our options."

The Mariners have to know there will be a backlash if they don't spend appreciably more than they have so far. And if the kids sputter, the backlash will become a crescendo of wrath. But if there's visible progress from the likes of Smoak, Montero and Ackley, then the plan has a chance of being accepted.

To a great extent, the development of the Mariners' youth will be a referendum on Zduriencik's scouting acumen. They are banking virtually everything on the farm system bearing fruit. That strategy has left teams like the Pirates stuck in a permanent morass, where contention is always two years away.

It's a gutsy way to go. Nearly as gutsy as paying more than $200 million to Prince Fielder.

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

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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

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