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December 2, 2012 at 9:10 AM

Mariners have work cut out for them if aim is to significantly improve at winter meetings

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik needs to make some tough, risky choices via trade or free agency if he hopes to vault team forward. Photo Credit: AP

Well, it’s that time of year again. Time for the Mariners to head off to the annual baseball winter meetings — this time, in Nashville — while carrying the hopes and dreams of a fanbase on their back. Five years ago, the Mariners came to Nashville and then-GM Bill Bavasi used the meetings to lay groundwork for the Erik Bedard trade.

Clearly, that deal did not work out and Bavasi was subsequently fired. In the aftermath of the deal, which saw outfielder Adam Jones dealt to Baltimore along with pitcher Chris Tillman and several others, many Mariners fans have been understandably “gun shy” about seeing more young prospects dealt to bring proven MLB players back to Seattle in return. But as the meetings get underway this week — and I’ll be there later today to cover them for you — the Mariners are going to be hard-pressed to get significantly better without fundamentally changing an approach both they and a vocal part of the fanbase has been reluctant to alter.

They will either have to:

a) Spend a lot more money on payroll

b) Trade away young prospects for proven players

In this morning’s paper, I outlined some of what GM Jack Zduriencik faces as he looks for that elusive mid-order bat he has failed to bring home the last three consecutive winters preceeding league-worst offensive seasons. And make no mistake, this will be a challenge. It’s stating the obvious to say that top free agents are going to make the Mariners “overpay” with more money, more years, or both, to go to a geographically isolated Seattle area that has played last place baseball since 2009 ended. With salaries for players of all levels being driven up by new revenues from both national and local television deals.

Former Washington Nationals GM Jim Bowden, now a radio analyst for Sirius XM, spelled it out rather nicely on 710 ESPN Seattle the other day when he estimated the free agent market has seen a 10 percent bump and that payrolls might have to climb 20 percent higher for teams to stay even on a competitive level with where they thought it might cost them heading into this winter. In other words, if you budgeted for a $90 million payroll — which the Mariners are telling people behind the scenes is roughly the number they can climb to — you now need to spend close to $110 million to get the players you thought you could land and actually get better than your opponents who are also upgrading.

I agree with Bowden on that front and have thought for years the Mariners needed a payroll in excess of $100 million just to overcome the money taken up by both Ichiro and Chone Figgins. Now, even with Ichiro’s $18 million off the books, that number has all but been eaten up by Bowden’s estimated 20 percent inflationary impact on payroll ($18 million being 20 percent of $90 million). In other words, field a $90 million payroll in 2013 and it will be the same for the Mariners as if Ichiro was still here and being paid what he was last season.

The natural fallback plan, if the Mariners do not want to take payroll any higher than they’d already planned, is to secure the needed talent upgrades via trade.

But here, we run into Problem No. 2.

The Mariners are unlikely to secure anybody of consequence via trade without parting with some of the top young talent they have spent the past several years stockpiling via higher-end draft picks as a result of all their last-place finishes. Unfortuately, some of the fan estimates of what the Mariners need to part with in order to land a bat like Justin Upton, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and others appear to be woefully off-base. The idea I’ve seen floated around in rumors that the Mariners could simply package pitching prospect James Paxton and some spare parts to Kansas City for Butler is almost laughable.

As has been written here before, the Royals want pitching they know can help them now, which means that any deal involving Paxton for Butler would likely have to include somebody like Jason Vargas as well. And maybe only as a starting point. Would the Mariners have the stomach for that? Probably not. But you aren’t going to get a proven bat from any team for unproven prospects alone.

There are fans who want to see the Mariners land Upton from Arizona, but without parting with multiple prospects like a package of Paxton, or Taijuan Walker, along with infield prospect Nick Franklin. Well, I can tell you now, if the Mariners won’t go there as a starting point, they are almost certainly not going to get Upton.

Again, I’ll side with Bowden on this one. In his radio interview, Bowden stated that the cost of Upton would require something like a package of Kyle Seager, Franklin and Walker. Two years ago, when I first advocated the Mariners going after Upton, I estimated they would need a prospects package of something like any two of the Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Michael Pineda trio (all the equivalent of three first-round draft picks, though Pineda was an international signing), as the focal point of a larger offer. So, no, I don’t think Seager-Walker-Franklin is out-of-whack with reality given that they involve lower-down picks (only one lower-end first rounder) than those other players were two years ago, which is understandable since Upton’s deal now only has three seasons remaining instead of five.

How many of you would make that deal? Somehow, I don’t see the chorus being unanimous.

Moving Seager creates another hole at third base. And there are still many — too many, I think — fans who view Walker as untouchable.

But hey, folks, that could be what it takes to pull that trade off.

Bowden doesn’t see the Mariners making that move, either. He is advocating the Mariners going after Indians infielder Asdrubal Cabrera and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo.

Again, though, I keep hearing from fanswho wouldn’t dream of making that move. Some say that Choo being a year from free agency means it isn’t worth giving up a top prospect for him. Others say they are loathe to see the Mariners deal young prospects for two players the team virtually gave away to Cleveland in the Bavasi years.

I find that latter point ludicrous. The Bavasi years ended nearly a half-decade ago. We are entering 2013 and if the Mariners can add significant talent to their roster, they should not allow themselves to be haunted by the Bavasi boogeyman. What happened in 2006 with Choo and Cabrera should have no impact on what the Mariners do with them today.

Hey, the Mariners don’t have to go that route. I’m not saying it’s all-or-nothing. I have laid out a variety of scenarios in which the team can improve with significant add-ons via trade or free agency.

It’s this idea that they can do it cheaply — either in actual dollars or the quality of players traded — that we all have to get over.

This isn’t going to be pain-free. More specifically, this is not going to be a process for the risk-averse.

If the Mariners think they can get a top free agent or proven bats via trade without taking on more risk than they have since the Figgins signing three years ago, they are probably better off continuing to shop the lower tiers for bargain players. If they think they can keep playing it safe, balancing their budget books and growing franchise value while somehow contending at the same time, well, heck, I guess some teams have caught lightning in a bottle in recent years and they might be the next one-off fluke.

Maybe bringing in the fences will also turn a bunch of marginal hitters into future all-stars overnight and that will erase much of the need to take more risk this winter.

We just saw the Orioles defy the odds. I won’t tell you that’s impossible.

But if you’re looking for something a bit more probable, the Mariners likely won’t find that if they keep playing it safe. No, they are not the proverbial “one bat away” from being pegged as a pre-season contender. They are multiple. But if you get that one bat now, that’s one less that needs to be acquired going forward. Same rules applied last winter and the winter before.

This is not a great year for free agents, I’ll give you that. The good ones carry a little more risk than in previous winters and could still cost huge money. But people knew a year ago that this would be the case. Sometimes, you have to jump on things early to avoid being painted into a corner down the road because of too much waiting.

And as I wrote last winter, the route the Mariners have chosen to stay on thus far likely won’t see them contend seriously before at least 2014 and more likely, 2015. That’s about how long it will take to keep waiting on an organic youth movement and little else — like some big trades and signings — to drastically alter the equation. Remember, that’s not a guarantee. There will be nobody waiting at any “finish line” to crown the Mariners with anything in April 2015. By then, other teams will likely have changed and even upgraded as well.

What I’m saying is, without major changes to this dynamic, you’ll be risking far more than the Mariners have thus far by betting real money on them doing anything memorable before 2015. Maybe even before 2016, or 2017. There are no guarantees this rebuild will work out in the end.

The only thing waiting for the Mariners in 2015 will be — hopefully — a renegotiated local TV deal and a huge cash infusion. If the plan is to wait things out until then, well, we’ll have a better indication of it after these meetings and once this winter draws to a close.

But make no mistake: for the Mariners to get significantly better, they will likely have to seriously up their risk-taking quotient this off-season. Whether by free agency, or via trade, it won’t be easy for Zduriencik to speed up this rebuilding process without some sleepless nights of coming to grips with risky moves he’ll need to make. Some of those sleepless nights might be in Nashville this week.

We’ll know soon enough.

Comments | More in Winter meetings | Topics: free agents, Jack Zduriencik, trades

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