Mariners taking financial flexibility into Meetings
Club seeking right-handed bat to fortify young lineup
SEATTLE -- Jack Zduriencik has all but ruled out the Mariners being a player in the big-money sweepstakes for free-agent outfielder Josh Hamilton, but Seattle's general manager does head to the Winter Meetings next week in Nashville, Tenn., with the desire and financial flexibility to get some things done.
Last year's trades of Ichiro Suzuki and Brandon League removed $23 million from the club's payroll and Zduriencik -- while noting some of that has already gone to re-sign pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Oliver Perez -- said he's already had extensive talks with free agents and potential trade partners in the hope of bringing some offensive help to Seattle.
"I have some flexibility, yes, just because of the removal of some of the contracts," Zduriencik said. "There's some room to try to do some things."
The last time the Mariners had similar budget space, they made some noise at the 2009 Winter Meetings by signing All-Star infielder Chone Figgins to a four-year, $36 million deal. But Figgins struggled for three seasons and was released Wednesday with $8 million still owed.
"I'm not going to be gun shy because of what happened with Chone Figgins," Zduriencik said. "You can go through every club in baseball and see deals that didn't work out. The human element is a factor in anything we do in life.
"That's not going to make me reluctant. It's just turn the page," he said. "I'm going to be open. If the right situation is there, we're not going to shy away from doing something that makes sense for this club."
Zduriencik is flying to Nashville on Saturday and will be joined by other club officials Sunday, with internal discussions planned that evening before the Winter Meetings begin Monday. Here is a look at the Mariners' situation going into what should be an interesting four days at the Gaylord Opryland Resort.
A veteran right-handed bat: The Mariners aren't limiting themselves to any one position, but instead are leaving their options open to whatever is the best way to add an experienced hitter with enough pop to fit into the middle of their young lineup.
Corner outfielder: The trade of Ichiro last July opened up the right-field spot he'd held for 11 1/2 seasons. Casper Wells, Eric Thames and Carlos Peguero split time there the final two months. Michael Saunders pencils in as the other starting corner outfielder, but he could be needed in center if Franklin Gutierrez has further health issues. So it's likely the Mariners will add at least one significant player to the mix this offseason, assuming they can upgrade offensively.
Starting pitcher: A two-year contract extension for Iwakuma solidified the top of the rotation behind Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas, but Zduriencik is open to adding another veteran to take the pressure off promoting any of his promising youngsters too quickly. Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez and Hector Noesi have Major League experience and will be rotation contenders, and youngsters Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer are highly regarded Minor League prospects.
First base: Justin Smoak had five tough months before awakening in September. The Mariners haven't given up on him, but Zduriencik says it should be a competitive situation in spring. If first base proves to be the best place to add a veteran hitter, the Mariners won't say no.
Catcher: Miguel Olivo, who started 68 games last year behind the plate, was let go in free agency. So even though John Jaso and Jesus Montero return, Zduriencik could add a veteran to share time since Jaso and Montero are also prime designated-hitter candidates.
Who they can or need to trade
Pitching prospects: With the release of Figgins, the Mariners don't have anybody on their Major League roster that needs to be moved. But Zduriencik is talking trades with lots of teams and it's fairly clear that his best chip is the young pitching depth in the Minor League system. If the Mariners are going to trade for a big bat, they'll almost surely have to surrender one of their prize arms like Hultzen, Paxton, Walker or Maurer, as they did a year ago in dealing Michael Pineda for Montero.
As mentioned, pitchers Walker, Hultzen, Paxton and Maurer are some of the best young prospects in baseball, while hard-throwing relievers Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor were already promoted to the Majors last year. Among position players, shortstop Nick Franklin and catcher Mike Zunino are first-round Draft picks who are close to Major League ready, while infielders Stefen Romero, Vinnie Catricala, Brad Miller and Francisco Martinez are also highly regarded.
Rule 5 Draft
The Mariners' 40-man roster is full, so they'll need to clear room if a player is selected in next Thursday's Rule 5 Draft. Seattle took lefty reliever Lucas Luetge with the third pick in last year's Draft -- one of just 12 players selected -- and he wound up sticking with the club the entire season. But with the 12th pick this year and a full roster, it's less likely the Mariners will make a selection unless one of their top-targeted players happens to still be available.
Big contracts they might unload
Seattle already took care of its real issue in this area by releasing Figgins. Gutierrez has one year at $7 million remaining on his contract, plus a club option for 2014 at $7.5 million, but it seems unlikely the Mariners willl deal him now as they'd be selling low as he's coming off a pair of injury-plagued seasons.
Arbitration-eligible: INF Robert Andino ($1.3 million in 2012), C John Jaso ($495,000), RHP Shawn Kelley ($600,000), RHP Josh Kinney ($490,000), SS Brendan Ryan ($1.75 million), LHP Jason Vargas ($4.85 million).
The Mariners have said they're willing to go slightly above last year's $85-90 million budget range, which provides some room for Zduriencik to maneuver since the club already had Ichiro's $18 million and League's $5 million salaries from 2012 come off the books. Some of that has already gone to Iwakuma ($6.5 million for 2013) and Perez ($1.5 million), while Vargas figures to get a significant hike in his final arbitration season. Still, there should be room to add a couple valuable veterans via free agency or trade if the right matches can be found.