December 4, 2011 in Sports

Upgrading Mariners’ anemic offense could come at high price

Geoff Baker Seattle Times
 
Associated Press photo

Prince Fielder’s big left-handed bat is a prime free-agent target for offensively challenged Mariners.
(Full-size photo)

Two years ago this week, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik arrived at the baseball winter meetings in Indianapolis in search of a big bat.

He’d just landed free-agent third baseman Chone Figgins and would leave those meetings having opened discussions that eventually led to the trade for premier starting pitcher Cliff Lee. But Zduriencik also left those meetings knowing one of his bigger bat targets, Jason Bay, was no longer an option and spent the next two years dealing with a Mariners offense that plunged to historic depths.

And that’s why Zduriencik arrives in Dallas today for the winter meetings this year with many of those same big-bat goals in mind. He’ll have a different free-agent target in mind this time in first baseman Prince Fielder, though once again, he knows he’ll have to back down if bidding gets too crazy.

“In all these things, you have to figure out where it’s going to end up,” Zduriencik told reporters in a conference call ahead of the meetings, which run Monday through Thursday. “Often, years are a factor, dollars are a factor, and where you currently stand is a factor. There’s a point with any player where you can go down the road a certain distance, and in the end find out it’s not exactly where you want to go. A lot is up in the air.”

The Mariners have filled one need, landing pre-arbitration catcher John Jaso from the Tampa Bay Rays for Josh Lueke and a player to be named. But the Mariners also have allowed other potential targets to land elsewhere, watching outfielder Grady Sizemore ink a one-year deal with Cleveland for $5 million while catcher Ryan Doumit signed with the Twins for $3 million.

That Seattle did not capitalize on those lower-end opportunities has fueled speculation the team is gearing for a mammoth expenditure on Fielder, 27, who Zduriencik first recommended to the Brewers when he ran that team’s draft. Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, reportedly is seeking a multiyear contract in the $200 million range, though the lack of competition from the high-spending Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies could lower demands considerably.

Seattle’s main competition for Fielder could instead come from the Cubs and the Nationals. The competition is far different from what it was for Bay two years ago, when the outfielder was 31 and coming off knee surgery.

It was widely assumed – wrongly, it turned out – that Bay had a multiyear offer from the Red Sox in his back pocket. Instead, that offer had been reduced by Boston to just one year because of health concerns, which is why Zduriencik had talked with Bay’s camp about a one- or two-year contract.

That hope vanished when the Mets made a five-year offer that blew competitors out of the water. Zduriencik wisely backed off, knowing Bay’s future outlook did not lend well to a long-term salary risk. The Mariners, meanwhile, still did not get results from the lower-end bats they wound up acquiring and produced two of the worst-scoring teams in 40 years in 2010 and 2011.

But unlike the right-handed-hitting Bay, Fielder is a left-handed hitter who fits nicely with Safeco Field. He is four years younger than Bay was, lacks the injury baggage and is entering his prime.

That long-term outlook makes him a good fit, even for a Mariners team that still looks at least a year away from contender status. Zduriencik also is looking to upgrade in left field, at third base, the backup shortstop position, bullpen and starting rotation.

If the Mariners decline to increase payroll from the roughly $94 million spent each of the past two years, a Fielder signing would take up all of the estimated $15 million cushion Zduriencik has in hand. That would require him to move additional salary and plug holes via trade, meaning the Fielder question can’t drag on.

Trading for Jaso rather than signing Doumit enabled the team to save about $2.5 million on a second catcher. Recent proclamations by Japanese infielder Munenori Kawasaki that he wants to sign a free-agent deal only with Seattle could fill the backup shortstop hole rather cheaply as well.

The Mariners also are trying to offload Figgins and could snare an extra few million more dollars that way if successful. Zduriencik would then have a stockpile of young pitchers and outfielders from which he could put together some trade packages.

If Fielder does come to Seattle, incumbent first baseman Justin Smoak would become prime trade bait. It’s highly likely the Mariners would deal Smoak while he still has value as a first baseman, rather than allowing him to become a designated hitter next to Fielder.

Without a Fielder signing, the Mariners would have to be more aggressive in trades.

“We’ll explore several options, even via trade, if that’s possible,” Zduriencik said. “There are no promises in these things. We don’t know where it’s going to end up, and the other party’s sincere desires. These are all things that need to be gauged.”

And before any other needs can be addressed, that Fielder domino needs to drop.

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