BY John Hickey 07:00PM 12/06/2010

Mariners find themselves up against a wall

A lack of cash keeps the club on the sidelines in Winter meetings

The Mariners, who plan a payroll in the $94 million range for 2011, will invest $10 million of that total in Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez. (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The good news is that the Seattle player payroll, as previously reported here, will not go down for the Mariners’ 2011 season. It will remain at about $94 million, just where it finished last year.

The bad news is that’s the good news.

Seattle has about two-thirds of that $94 million tied up in just five players. Ichiro Suzuki ($17 million), Milton Bradley ($12 million), Felix Hernandez ($10 million), Chone Figgins ($9 million) and Jack Wilson ($5 million) will bring home $53 million among them, and the Mariners owe the Cubs $6 million as part of the Bradley-for-Carlos Silva deal of last December.

What that means is that Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik is up against the wall as he tries to improve a team that lost 101 games last year. There will be no big free agent acquisitions, Zduriencik confirmed Monday, and the prospects for working out a trade seem dim.

None of which is good news for the Mariners’ prospects to be at all competitive in 2011. Nor is it good for Zduriencik’s longevity potential, because another season with the Mariners stuck in the muck like 2010 will find it difficult for him to keep his job heading into 2012 when there will be much player acquisition flexibility for the GM thanks to the money owed to Bradley, Wilson and the Cubs coming off the books.

“We are in a position this year where we need to get answers to our current crop of players,’’ Zduriencik said Monday in meeting with the Mariner media at baseball’s Winter Meetings in suburban Orlando. “I do think we are going to see some young guys on our ball club. We have some young players who are intriguing, and we really want to find out what they are (made of).”

Among that group are a couple who saw significant time last year in left fielder Michael Sanders and catcher Adam Moore and others with limited or no big league experience, including pitcher Michael Pineda, second baseman Dustin Ackley and relievers Danny Cortes and Josh Lueke.

That being said, Zduriencik turned around and said if the kids can’t cut it, he’ll find somebody else who can.

“If you can bring some veteran leadership here, that would be very nice to do,’’ Zduriencik said.  “I do think that with the young guys … I don’t know how the club is going to end up shaping itself out, because some of these young guys we’re talking about have options (to be returned to the minor leagues).

“No one is on scholarship,’’ he said. “If you earn it in spring training, you will make the club. If you don’t earn it, then you will be in Tacoma trying to work your way up. It is up to the players. To be competitive in this division, you have to have talent. We need our kids to respond to this and realize it’s not just about being in the big leagues. It is about being in the big leagues and becoming a good player.’’

Veteran players the Mariners are looking at include catcher Gregg Zaun, outfielder Hideki Matsui, outfielder Matt Diaz and, possibly, long-ailing third baseman Eric Chavez, who might only be useful as a DH now.

Diaz, a right-hander who was a .300 hitter in three of his past five seasons, was let go by the Braves after hitting .250 in 84 games. He does have a little power and might make a case for a platoon with Saunders if the left-hander can’t win the job outright in spring training.

Matsui would probably not have the Mariners on the top of his wish list, but he was let go by the Angels after hitting 21 homers and driving in 84 runs and may not have all that many offers. The 37-year-old lefty was primarily a DH for the Angels, but did play a little left field on his increasingly shaky knees.

Seattle has been interested in Zaun for a couple of years now, a left-handed hitter veteran catcher being ideal to go along with Moore if it works out.

Chavez, who has played in just 154 games since 2007 mostly because of back and shoulder problems, has been working out with trainers in Arizona and is hoping to impress a club looking for a left-handed hitter. He’d probably take a minor league make-good contract as a DH because his shoulder problems don’t let him throw well at all.

Twitter: @JHickey3


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