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November 26, 2012 at 10:11 AM

Don’t be surprised by Mariners’ pursuit of Mike Napoli

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Photo Credit: AP

The Mariners flew free agent Mike Napoli into Seattle early last week, before the Thanksgiving holiday. He spent the night here — yes, it was raining — got taken on a tour of Safeco Field, Pike Place Market and all the usual fun spots before having dinner with team officials.

One thing the Mariners were able to do with Napoli this winter, as opposed to with other free agents in years past, was an aggressive sales push on their plans to move in the ballpark fences. I’m told that was indeed a key feature of their overtures to him.

Napoli has also met with the Boston Red Sox and the Texas Rangers — his former team — and negotiations are expected to continue right on through the winter meetings in Nashville next week.

Now, as most of you know, Napoli is a catcher by trade, but also can play first base and has served as a DH when needed. From all reports, he’s trying to land a three-or-four-year deal and the Mariners would be hard-pressed to get him on the short end of that, given that they aren’t the Red Sox or Rangers.

But that’s the reality of life in Seattle, which hasn’t sniffed a real post-season race in a decade. You have to pay more to get the quality here, because better teams will be trying to get those same players.

That said, pursuit of Napoli does not prevent the Mariners from landing other bats to go along with him. In fact, it would almost require them to do so. But whatever happens, don’t be surprised the Mariners are going after Napoli.

As with their interest in Billy Butler of the Royals, the Mariners are looking into these deals with an eye on fast-forwarding a rebuilding plan that has been proceeding at a glacial pace.

Like the case with Butler, bringing in Napoli would give the Mariners a bat that has already been developed and done things at the big league level.

There is a huge difference between that and hoping that Jesus Montero will become the full-time DH the team wants him to be. Also a difference between a bat like Napoli’s playing first base and hoping that Justin Smoak figures things out as he enters his third full-time big league season (and his fourth season overall).

Jack Zduriencik will be the first to say — and keeps saying it, the most recent time being last week on Sports Radio KJR — that there is a world of difference between prospects and proven big league players. He’s said it enough times to me over the years that I believe he means it and isn’t just trotting it out for public consumption.

So, locking in Napoli over multiple years would give Zduriencik at least some of that comfort level he can’t possibly have with his in-house prospects who have yet to prove themselves as successful big leaguers.

That’s it. There is no two ways about it. If you’re Zduriencik, you either believe what you’ve been telling people for 30 years or you don’t.

And if he does, then he knows there is a world of difference between having Napoli in-hand and rolling the dice on Montero and Smoak again.

Now, acquiring Napoli doesn’t mean you have to wave goodbye to Smoak and Montero. At least, not right away.

The Mariners need a regular catcher at present and do not have one in either John Jaso or Montero. At least, that’s what the people running the team believe. As for Mike Zunino, he showed at the Arizona Fall League that his defense still needs work before it is MLB ready, so I think we can rule him out breaking camp with the team out of spring training.

So, in 2013 at least, Napoli becomes your regular catcher, with Jaso spelling him like a good backup does — once or twice a week. Montero can then become the regular DH and can catch every now and then as well. And you see what Smoak does at first base in yet another attempt.

Then, as things progress, you see where you’re at. If Zunino is ready for a second-half audition and Smoak falters, you can take some time away from Napoli behind the plate and move him to first base with added frequency. Ditto if Montero struggles at DH.

The bottom line is, if Napoli comes in, there probably isn’t enough room for him, Smoak and Montero on the same team beyond the 2013 season. But you cross that bridge when you come to it. For now, there is a fit for all three.

There is also plenty of room to add Napoli and an additional impact bat this winter, which might eliminate the need to fit Smoak and Montero into the equation. I keep hearing that the Mariners will look to add a bat via trade this winter — regardless of what happens on the free agent front — and a Napoli signing will do little to help the team’s outfield situation.

I’ve already mentioned the need for a corner outfield bat and suggested last week that Alex Gordon of the Royals could be a possible fit. Now, I’ve always felt the Royals would move Butler ahead of Gordon, but in Seattle’s case, acquiring Napoli would eliminate the need to trade for Butler.

Could the Mariners get Gordon? Sure, they could get anybody if the right package is offered. On USS Mariner last week, it was suggested the Mariners go after Royals outfield prospect Wil Myers, which would also make sense if Seattle can pull it off.

The thing to remember with Myers, though, is that the Royals have been flogging him to their fanbase with even greater hype than the Mariners have touted their minor league “Big Three” starting pitchers. So, if they’re going to alter the dynamic and trade a guy like Myers, they will expect a whole lot back in return and probably not just the standard two good minor league prospects Seattle fans would be willing to part with. The Royals would need something to sell to their fanbase in a Myers trade.

That’s where a guy like Smoak or Montero could be added in to a deal. Yeah, the Royals already have Eric Hosmer for first base, but nothing like a little insurance. Besides, you could make Smoak or Montero your full-time DH down the road if you do indeed trade Butler to save on salary as the Royals have looked at doing.

Still, I’m not convinced Zduriencik and the Mariners would be willing to pay that kind of a premium for Myers, who still is, like it or not, just a prospect until proven otherwise. That’s how Zduriencik will view him, in any event. So, don’t hold your breath on that one, as nice of an idea as it sounds.

But even if the Mariners trade with another team to fill their outfield needs — like, say, with the Diamondbacks for Justin Upton — the odds are pretty good that they would have to give up a bat already at the major league level.

In other words, same as with the Butler scenario we floated last week in explaining why the Mariners have interest, the team won’t allow the players already here to limit their scope. As I’ve just shown you, there is no reason to.

The Mariners have an immediate need that requires filling behind the plate for 2013. After that, chances are, Napoli will represent a better option going forward than one of either Montero at DH or Smoak at first base — assuming they are still with the organization.

And the Mariners understand this better than some fans apparently do.

Otherwise, they would never have flown Napoli in here last week.

You do that because you have hopes of signing a guy. And you do it with full knowledge that the market will inevitably require a commitment that goes beyond two and even three years.

The Mariners have done it. And I’ve just explained why.

0 Comments | More in Free agents | Topics: catchers, Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak

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