Club seeks upgrades throughout roster at Meetings
Zduriencik has plenty of bargaining chips to barter with fellow general managers
SEATTLE -- Jack Zduriencik's agenda as he heads to the Winter Meetings next week in the shadow of Disney World remains pretty simple even in the wake of Friday's blockbuster news surrounding Robinson Cano.
"You want to make your club better any way you can," said Zduriencik, entering his sixth season as Seattle's general manager.
The Mariners made a bold step in that direction by coming to agreement with Cano on a reported 10-year, $240 million deal. The Mariners haven't confirmed that signing yet, but are expected to do so sometime next week after the free-agent second baseman takes a physical.
The Mariners could continue to be active shoppers at the Winter Meetings, when officials from all 30 Major League teams gather at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Zduriencik figures to be in the midst of a lot of discussions as his club looks toward a fresh start with manager Lloyd McClendon, who replaced Eric Wedge after a 71-91 season.
Here is a look at the Mariners' situation as they prepare for the four-day gathering from Monday through Thursday:
Outfield: With Michael Saunders, Dustin Ackley and September callup Abraham Almonte the only returnees from last year's final roster, this remains the most logical area to add an impact player. There are some free-agent possibilities, with Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz the highest-rated veterans still available on the market. Or Zduriencik could look to the trade route, with the ability to still take on salary if he can find the right match, as he tried last year in pursuing Justin Upton. The Mariners have talked to the Dodgers about Matt Kemp, who would bring five tools along with six years and $128 million on his contract after playing just 73 games last year due to ankle, shoulder and hamstring injuries.
Rotation: Zduriencik makes no secret of the fact he'd like to add one quality veteran to a group that returns All-Star right-handers Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma as well as promising youngsters Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer. A proven innings-eater would take some of the pressure off the young group, while also opening the door to using one or more of them as trade bait for offensive help.
Catcher: While 2012 first-round Draft pick Mike Zunino clearly is the catcher of the future, he'll need someone to split time with this year. The Mariners would love to add a veteran mentor to work with Zunino, but need that catcher to be more productive than Henry Blanco was in the final months last year. Jesus Sucre is the only other catcher on the 40-man roster, now that Jesus Montero is being looked at more as a first base/designated hitter option.
Designated hitter: With Kendrys Morales opting for free agency, the Mariners need to either re-sign him to a multi-year deal or find a new bat to fill that role.
Bullpen: Seattle has some intriguing young power arms, but an injury to Stephen Pryor and struggles by Carter Capps and Tom Wilhelmsen left this group shorthanded in 2013. Lefty Oliver Perez is a free agent and Zduriencik will need to replace him and presumably add a veteran right-hander or two to the mix.
Who they can trade, if necessary
Young pitching: The Mariners' biggest trade chips are their young arms, with Zduriencik having stockpiled a group that includes top prospect Walker and Paxton, as well as Ramirez, Maurer, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi. The latter four all have Major League experience, and Walker and Paxton each made a few starts last September as well. The Mariners won't part easily with Walker, but Zduriencik did include him in a package for Upton last year that fell through when Upton rejected the deal with a no-trade clause.
Second baseman Nick Franklin: The 2009 first-round Draft pick appeared in line to take over as the club's starting second baseman after playing 102 games last year as a rookie, but that changed in a hurry with Cano's addition. Franklin played shortstop coming up, but he could be moved in a trade if Zduriencik looks to shore up his outfield or add pitching.
Walker headlines the Mariners' Top 10 prospect list, per MLB.com, and is one of the premier prospects in all of baseball. But Seattle's top group has thinned a bit since last year, with left-hander Danny Hultzen out for 2014 following rotator cuff surgery and several of the former top prospects -- Franklin, Zunino, Capps, Pryor and Brad Miller -- having now been promoted to the Majors and thus losing their prospect status. Paxton is still regarded as a top southpaw prospect and the up-and-coming group includes last year's top two Draft picks -- third baseman D.J. Peterson and outfielder Austin Wilson -- as well as shortstop Chris Taylor, outfielder Stefen Romero and a pair of promising 19-year-olds in left-hander Tyler Pike and outfielder Gabriel Guerrero, the nephew of Vladimir Guerrero.
Rule 5 Draft
The Mariners have the sixth pick in the Draft, which will be held Thursday on the final day of the Winter Meetings. Two years ago, they landed left-handed reliever Lucas Luetge from the Brewers with the third pick and wound up keeping him the entire season. They didn't make a selection last year, when they had the 11th pick. As always, they're studying the players not protected on other team's 40-man rosters and will weigh whether they think anyone is worthy of a spot on their 40-man roster and has a shot at making the 25-man Major League roster for the full year.
Big contracts they might unload
Seattle has shed almost all of its long-term contracts, with Hernandez the only player with a deal extending beyond next year until Cano's agreement. Iwakuma is under contract for 2014, with an option for '15, but he's on a reasonable $6.5 million deal and is coming off an outstanding season in which he finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting.
The Mariners have budgeted in the $90 million range the past few years and have indicated a willingness to go above that this season, which still gives Zduriencik some room to maneuver either in free agency or trades even with Cano's massive contract. Hernandez ($22 million) and Iwakuma ($6.5 million) are the only returning veterans with significant contracts, while the club freed up about $35 million in expiring deals after last season and should have at least that much or more to reinvest this winter since Saunders and Justin Smoak are their only arbitration-eligibles and neither figures to break the bank.