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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

November 30, 2012 at 11:43 AM

Mariners hard to read as winter meetings loom

This MLB offseason has already seen its share of fireworks, and the winter meetings don’t even begin officially until Monday. I’d say there has been an uncommon amount of action in advance of the meetings, perhaps fueled by some changes in bookkeeping dates that have allowed teams to get down to business earlier than in the past.

Check it out — the trade market kicked into action way back on Oct. 20, while the postseason was still being waged, with a three-way deal that resulted in Heath Bell and Cliff Pennington landing with Arizona, outfielder Chris Young with the A’s, and a minor leaguer and cash with the Marlins (an omen, as it would turn out).

The Royals acquired Ervin Santana from the Angels. The Marlins unloaded Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck to the Blue Jays. The Nationals picked up Denard Span. And, just today, the Braves and Angels exchanged pitchers, reliever Jordan Walden going to Atlanta for starter Tommy Hanson.

On the free-agent front, there have also been some prominent signings already, most recently reports of David Wright returning to the Mets late last night (eight years, $138 million), a day after B.J. Upton moved from Tampa Bay to Atlanta for five years, $75 million and Russell Martin from the Yankees to the Pirates (two years, $17 million). Earlier in the offseason, Melky Cabrera signed with the Blue Jays (two years, $16 million), Torii Hunter with the Tigers (two years, $26 million), Maicer Izturis from the Angels to the Blue Jays (three years, $10 million), Jonny Gomes from the A’s to the Red Sox (two years, $10 million), and Juan Pierre from the Phillies to the Marlins (one year, $6 million). David Ortiez re-signed with the Red Sox for two years and $26 million.

So far, the Mariners’ activity has been limited to re-signing two players (pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Oliver Perez), making a minor trade (Robert Andino for Trayvon Robinson), and claiming a player off waivers (Scott Cousins), whom they didn’t protect on their 40-man roster and was thus claimed today by the Angels — Cousins’ fourth organization in the span of 43 days.

The fact that the Mariners have not yet dived into the deep waters is not meaningful — or at least it doesn’t have to be. Teams move on their own timetable, and so do free agents. All that matters is the players you have on hand when the season starts, not whether you got them in November, December, January or even February. There are still numerous significant free agents as yet unsigned, including many who are plausible targets of the Mariners, such as Mike Napoli, Nick Swisher, Ryan Ludwick, Cody Ross, even Josh Hamilton. The winter meetings, which take place this year in Nashville, still serves the important function of getting all the executives under one roof. If deals — trades or signings — don’t get done during those four days, they are often set into motion for completion shortly thereafter.

That said, I’m not sure what to make of Jack Zduriencik’s tone in recent interviews. Starting with his attempt to squash optimism over the M’s chances of landing Hamilton, right up to yesterday’s conference call with reporters in advance of the winter meetings, the Mariners’ GM seems to be intent on lowering expectations of a dramatic transaction.

“To do a signing just to do a signing, I don’t think that would be the right thing to do. You look at the club and say, ‘Yeah, I would like to make it better,’ but we also have some nice pieces,” he said yesterday. “Look at what we have. I am not going to go out and have the motivational factor be the statement to make a splash. I would like to make a splash, period, because I want to bring a good player here. But I wouldn’t do it for the sake of just do it. I would do it because it made sense and it was the right thing for us to do, and it continues with the plan that we put in place when I got here.”

He also made the point of saying that the Mariners’ available payroll budget has already been dented by the Iwakuma and Perez signings, and reminded that incentives have to be budgeted in as well.

Now, there’s a few ways to interpret this. One, and I’m sure the most common, will be that the Mariners are setting the stage for a low-impact winter, one in which they don’t land one of the prime free agents or trade for a proven impact player. The Mariners have brought such fatalism upon themselves, and that sort of skepticism will reign until they prove otherwise. Even within this theory, there are two ways to look at it. One is that the Mariners want to do something, but aren’t sure they’ll be able to, and don’t want to get hopes up too high — as happened last year with Prince Fielder. The other is that they’ve seen the salaries continue to skyrocket and aren’t willing to pay the going rate for the star players. Since signing Chone Figgins to a four-year deal prior to the 2010 season, they have not shown the stomach for signing anything but fringe free agents. They would attribute this to their decision to rebuild through youth and the farm system, but now the moment of truth is arriving where the prospects need to be augmented with veteran help. At least that’s how I see it..

Another interpretation of the GM’s cautious tone is that Zduriencik fully intends to land one of the big free agents but wants to proceed more stealthily. Early in this offseason, the story line surrounding the Mariners was about their willingness to expand payroll and all the money they had to spend with Ichiro and Brandon League, among others, coming off the books.. The Mariners have been linked to just about every free-agent hitter on the market — including Hamilton, early on — and perhaps Zduriencik doesn’t think that’s the best way to get something accomplished. Thus, under this theory, a smokescreen would be in order, perhaps to throw other teams off their aggressive path.

In the bigger picture, Zduriencik is right — he shouldn’t make a splash just for the sake of making a splash. But this is a team whose fan base is craving some sign that the Mariners are serious about turning around their fortunes. They don’t want to see another winter of Russ Branyans, Jack Custs or Kevin Millwoods. And if it takes yielding some of that precious young talent Zduriencik has done an excellent job of accumulating over his tenure, I believe that would be not only understood, but lauded, if the return is someone who can help now.

Zduriencik can spend dollars or spend prospects, but the Mariners need to make some real, tangible improvements that start to reverse the sense of hopelessness that has pervaded the Mariners for too long.

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