Baseball’s winter meetings begin Monday, and the Mariners, as they have been for years, are looking for serious hitting. The free agent pickings are thin.
It’s been four years now that Jack Zduriencik has been at the helm of the Mariners. He brought home a winning record in 2009, not since. In the ensuing building process over the past three seasons, the Mariners have been more than occasionally difficult to watch.
So with the winter meetings, baseball’s prime-time off-season swap-a-thon, starting Monday in Nashville, one question facing the Mariners is whether Zduriencik feels pressure to knock one out of the park.
He says it’s not so.
“I’m not going to go out and try to be motivated, to make a statement, to make a splash,” Zduriencik said Thursday.“I’d like to make a splash, period, just because I want to bring a good player here.
“But I wouldn’t do it for the sake of doing it. I would do it because it makes sense and it’s the right thing for us to do and continues with the plan that we put in place when I got here.”
Perhaps he should go for the big splash.
This off-season is about more than Zduriencik and his Seattle legacy. It’s about the organization. The Mariners have seven losing seasons in the last nine. More damaging, they have lost more than half of their attendance in the last decade and desperately need to do something to win back a disillusioned fan base.
Trouble is, in the area of biggest need – a power hitter, preferably a right-hander – there aren’t many good options. B.J. Upton, David Ortiz and Torii Hunter already are off the free agent market. Josh Hamilton and Nick Swisher are going to cost way too much – multiple-year offers worth in excess of $100 million for each seem likely, and the Mariners have said they won’t bid for Hamilton.
Getting down to players the Mariners might afford, at the top of the list are catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli, first baseman Adam LaRoche, outfielder Cody Ross, third baseman Kevin Youkilis and catcher Russell Martin.
(Update: Martin late Thursday night signed a two-year, $17 million deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He made $7.5 million last year with the Yankees.)
Napoli, 31, is said to be looking for a four-year deal. His old team, the Texas Rangers, is more interested in a two-or three-year package in the $10-12 million per year range, so the Mariners might be able to land Napoli, who has five consecutive 20-homer seasons, by locking him in for a longer term.
LaRoche, 33, a lefty, has perhaps the most raw power, but he can’t play anywhere but first base or DH. That makes him somewhat less valuable. Youkilis, 34 in March, is handy because he’s a third baseman, but the last time he hit 20 or more homers was 2009. Probably both would come in less than Napoli, perhaps something in the three-year, $30-36 million range.
The 31-year-old Ross, who made $3 million last year with the Red Sox while hitting 22 homers in 130 games, can play any outfield position. He’s likely to come with a less onerous price tag than the others, something in the $7 million annual range.
Martin, who will turn 30 before the 2013 season starts, will get a nice boost from the $7.5 million he made last year with the Yankees. But because he plays only catcher and because the Mariners may need more utility than that, with holdovers John Jaso and Jesus Montero, who are primarily catchers, Martin could be a somewhat more difficult fit.
Zduriencik wouldn’t rule out a three-catcher situation in 2013 similar to the one the club had last year when Miguel Olivo was in the mix.
“Obviously Montero did a lot of DHing and took some ground balls at first last year,” the GM said. “Jaso and Montero and (first baseman Justin) Smoak – and even (outfielder/first baseman) Mike Carp – we’ve kind of got three positions for them with DH, first base and catcher.
“But in regard to your original question, right now we’ve got two catchers, one left-handed (Jaso) and one right (Montero), and we’ll see where that goes.”
Zduriencik could go into 2013 with the starting pitchers he has – Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas and Hisashi Iwakuma are locks for the rotation, Erasmo Ramirez pitched well in the role at the end of 2012 and Blake Beavan had some nice moments.
On top of that, a crop of rookies – Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer – should start to make themselves ready during the course of the season.
But Zduriencik isn’t ruling out picking up a veteran, a la Kevin Millwood, circa 2012.
“I certainly keep that open,” he said. “The strength of what we have is our young pitching. You could probably pencil in five guys. There will be some competition for the fifth spot. We have had some conversations with some free agent guys. Or there could be a vet in a trade.”