The Seattle Mariners mean business.
General Manager Jack Zduriencik is entering just his second offseason at the club’s helm, but clearly has the franchise headed in the right direction.
Last offseason, he engineered a number of low-risk, high-reward deals and helped turnaround a club that had just 61 wins in 2008 to 85 victories last season.
Aside from adding a solid crop of new players, Zduriencik also took by strides by hiring manager Don Wakamatsu and bringing a more combined approach to the scouting department, by mixing both traditional scouting and modern statistical analysis.
Zduriencik is in an enviable position this offseason.
The Mariners have a very solid core in Felix Hernandez, Ichiro Suzuki, Brandon Morrow, and Franklin Gutierrez.
The club plays in a division that appears more wide-open than it has in half-a-decade and, most importantly, Seattle has some serious payroll flexibility.
The large salaries of Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista, Kenji Johjima, Erik Bedard, and Adrian Beltre are all officially off the books.
The total savings amounts to roughly $50 million to spend on free agents this offseason.
Additionally, Zduriencik has plenty of organizational depth to deal from and talented Major League players who could be used in trades.
As such, Zduriencik has wasted no time making improvements.
The club has already reportedly inked third baseman Chone Figgins to a lucrative four-year, $36 million contract and they don’t figure to be anywhere near done shopping.
Earlier this offseason the club signed defensive stalwart Jack Wilson to a two-year, $10 million deal to anchor the infield at shortstop.
The club also brought back future Hall of Famer—and arguably the most popular player in franchise history—Ken Griffey Jr. on a one-year, $2 million for the 2010 campaign.
The club is also in the mix to add at least one front-line starter, as the departures of Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard have left the depth chart a little barren beyond ace, Felix Hernandez.
Hernandez, 23, is arbitration-eligible for the first-time this offseason and—after finishing second the American League Cy Young balloting—figures to command a significant raise after earning just shy of $4 million last season.
Talks of a signing Hernandez to an extension have begun, but nothing serious has come out of the talks as both sides are said to be “far apart” in negotiations.
If an extension can’t be worked out, there is a possibility the club could move the young fireballer for a slew of prospects.
Numerous teams were rumored to have inquired about Hernandez’s availability at the trade deadline, and acquiring “King Felix” would no doubt require a king’s ransom.
In addition to bolstering the rotation, the club is also in the market to improve a lineup that ranked last in the American League in runs scored (640) in 2009, as well as tied for last in batting average (.258) and on-base percentage (.314).
Zduriencik figures to be on the lookout for a slugging left fielder, a veteran catcher, and improvements to the right side of the infield.
Jason Bay’s name has been floated as a potential target for Zduriencik this offseason and for good reason.
Signing Bay, who lives near Seattle, makes plenty of sense for both parties.
Bay, 31, has made it clear that he would love to play close to his home and his family and friends in and around Seattle.
The Mariners would love to add his 30+ home runs and 100+ RBIs into the lineup that lacked a real home run threat for most of 2009.
Bay has already rejected a proposed four-year, $60 million deal from the Boston Red Sox and could cost more than Seattle would care to pay, but he could also give a hometown discount to gain the comfort of playing close to home.
He may not fit into Jack Zduriencik’s defensive-minded lineup, but he could split his time between left field and designated hitter to minimize his impact. Additionally, with Franklin Gutierrez covering ground in center field, Bay’s defensive ineptitude would be less of a burden.
The club has also reportedly not given up on bringing back third baseman Adrian Beltre, who has until midnight eastern Monday to accept or decline arbitration.
If the Mariners and Beltre did re-unite it would create an interesting situation with the recently signed Figgins. The club would logically want to keep Beltre’s glove at the hot corner and move Figgins to either second base or left field.
Both of those potential moves would hinge on the club’s ability and/or inability to sign Bay and/or trade incumbent second baseman Jose Lopez.
If the club did sign Bay and bring back Beltre, it wouldn’t be out of the question to move Figgins to second and slide Lopez over to first where his defensive shortcomings would be less detrimental.
If Beltre does not return, the club figures to push very hard to acquire Bay to add some power and could look toward Nick Johnson, Adam LaRoche, Lyle Overbay, or even Carlos Delgado—obviously on a short-term deal—to play first base.
The club has not yet ruled out a reunion with Russell Branyan, but the sides still seem far apart on contract negotiations after Branyan rejected a one-year deal earlier this winter.
The Mariners’ other big need, a catcher, offers fewer options this winter.
There are a number of solid, but past their prime options available such as Ivan Rodriguez, Rod Barajas, and Bengie Molina.
None of the three figures to be an impact player, but the club is more interested in having their primary backstop serve as a mentor to incumbent starter Rob Johnson and rookie Adam Moore.
As the Winter Meetings open today, it seems that the Mariners are already pushing ahead of their American League West counterparts.
The Texas Rangers are still in a state of financial flux. The club is set to be sold this winter. In fact, a deadline of December 15 has now been set, so the Rangers don’t figure to be major players in free agency until the ownership situation is resolved.
The Los Angeles Angels entered the offseason with a slew of potential free agent loses.
The club has addressed a few of the holes, having already re-upped with outfielder Bobby Abreu while seemingly deciding to let outfielder/designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero leave.
Losing Figgins to a division rival was no doubt a big blow to the Angels who had hoped to bring back their starting third baseman and leadoff hitter. Figgins will now serve as a catalyst to the arguably the Angels biggest threat for division dominance.
It is also rumored that the Mariners are interested in former Los Angeles ace, John Lackey.
If Seattle is able to sign the right-hander, it would serve as a veritable knockout blow to Los Angeles as the free agent market offers few, if any, pitchers who figure to have the same impact as Lackey.
The Mariners and Jack Zduriencik realize that they have a very limited window to win a championship during the Ichiro Era and/or the second Griffey Era and it seems as though they’re willing to go all-in to make it happen.
That fact should be enough to put the rest of the American League on notice, the Seattle Mariners mean business.