BY John Hickey 02:33PM 12/08/2010

Cust is first salvo in Mariners’ makeover

Slugger will bring power, walks and strikeouts galore to Safeco Field in 2011, where he’s expected to be the everyday DH

The Mariners signed former Oakland DH to a one-year deal

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Mariners have taken the first step toward addressing the dearth of power and base runners that afflicted Seattle in 2010 by agreeing to terms on a deal with free agent DH/outfielder Jack Cust on a one-year, $2.75 million contract.

Cust is best known for his strikeouts, having led the American League in that category in each of his last three full seasons (he played in just 112 games for Oakland in 2010) with a peak of 197 in 2008.

But in those four seasons with the A’s, he hit 97 homers and drew 377 walks, more walks than the Mariners drew as a team in all of 2010 when a 101-loss team finished 13th in the 14-team American League in that category.

“It’s pretty close,’’ a source said. “It’s probably going to be a couple of days (before the announcement).’’

It’s more than close. Cust is working on the assumption it’s a done deal, although results of his physical exam have to be seen by the Mariners. General manager Jack Zduriencik said Thursday he had “nothing to announce.”

Cust, however, did.

“My goal is to make them enjoy writing my name in the lineup every day,’’ Cust said Wednesday, adding that he’s being signed to play fulltime, mostly as the DH but some in left field. “That’s what I’m going to do, play every day (and bat) in the middle of the order at DH and some left field is possible. Whatever they ask me to do, I will be prepared for.

Cust said he didn’t find the terrible Seattle 2010 season daunting in making his decision to head to the Northwest.

“I have been around teams in Oakland that were .500 teams, and we got a lot out of the lineups there,’’ he said. “I look to compliment Figgy (Chone Figgins), Ichiro (Suzuki), Guti (Franklin Gutierrez), the guys I saw across the field for four years.

“They had a down year, but I respect what they can do.’’

Cust, 32 next month, could officially become a Mariner Friday. The Seattle contingent flies home from the Winter Meetings Thursday night.

Seattle is expected to leave the winter meetings Thursday having taken a player in that morning’s Rule 5 draft, but otherwise having made no other official changes to the roster.

“This is a well-thought-out decision on Jack’s part,’’ said a source with knowledge of the negotiations. “He likes Seattle, likes hitting there, too.’’

As well he should. Safeco Field was built for the left-handed pull swing of Ken Griffey Jr., and while Cust is clearly no Junior, he a lefty whose raw power should be amplified by 81 games in Safeco in 2011.

This move means the end of the Mariners’ road, again, for first baseman/DH Russell Branyan. Justin Smoak, the rookie acquired from Texas as part of the Cliff Lee trade, is clearly going to be the first baseman and Cust will probably eat up most of the DH at-bats. When he doesn’t, Milton Bradley could, depending on how the left-field situation – Bradley and Michael Saunders could share time there – sorts itself in spring training.

Mariner sources say that the club’s top priority now is landing a catcher, with Miguel Olivo and Gregg Zaun on the top of their list. Left-handed reliever Dennys Reyes is high on the Seattle radar, as are second baseman Luis Valbuena, left-handed reliever Mark Hendrickson and (according to at least one report) right-handed starter Rich Harden.

Valbuena and Olivo have been with the Mariners before. Valbuena was a prospect who appeared in just 18 big league games in 2008 when he was sent packing as part of the 12-play deal that brought in center fielder Franklin Gutierrez and sent closer J.J. Putz to the Mets. Valbuena had a good first year (.250) in Cleveland as a utility infielder, but his average tumbled to .193 in 2010.

Olivo was in Seattle in parts of the 2004 and 2005 seasons and found himself completely spooked by the difficulty of hitting the ball out of Safeco to left field. He’s since gone on to show decent power, including a 23-homer season with the Royals in 2009. Whether he can overcome his Safeco issues is a matter for major concern, although Seattle seems to believe he’s matured mightily since he came to the Mariners as a 25-year-old.

Zaun, who will be 39, is a left-handed hitter who has hung around for a long time because he calls a decent game, hits reasonably well and because he is comfortable as part of a catching platoon.

The Mariners’ current starter behind the plate is Adam Moore. But Moore and the limping – you’d limp too, if you had two hip surgeries at the same time – Rob Johnson were offensive and defensive problems in Seattle a year ago.

Twitter: @JHickey3


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