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December 3, 2012 at 11:01 PM

One thing we can determine from Mariners conduct so far: Justin Smoak should be worried

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik speaking with Seattle-based reporters at the winter meetings in Nashville earlier today.

We’ve heard a ton of rumors involving the Mariners being in on just about every hitter alive via either trade or free agency. And the one thing we can be certain about through all of this is that Justin Smoak should be a bit worried.

I mean, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik keeps saying all the right things about how Smoak looked better in September and will hopefully carry his adjustments over to next season. But you can’t really get around the fact that so many of the hitters the Mariners continue to be linked to happen to be either first basemen or DH types. You don’t usually see that from teams planning to build their futures around first basemen who are former first rounders, were rushed to the majors less than three years ago and still haven’t become arbitraiton eligible yet.

But it’s tough to read it any other way.

“As much as I would love for Smoak to be (improved) — and I love what I saw out of him in September — there’s still some proving he’s got to do,” Zduriencik said to us earlier today. “And the same thing with (Mike) Carp. I mean, Carp a year ago was pretty doggone good. And last year, he was disappointing because of a lot of factors, the injury being one of them.

“So, that’s a bit of an unproven position.”

And it looks like the Mariners want to avoid that if at all possible in 2013.

Some fans didn’t want to believe the Mariners were in on Mike Napoli. But Zduriencik came right out today and admitted he was even though he really didn’t have to.

Some other fans didn’t want to believe weeks ago that the Mariners were talking to the Royals about Billy Butler. And yet, guess what? They are still talking to the Royals about Butler.

Some fans don’t like that the Mariners are being linked to Adam LaRoche. Or to Mike Morse.

There are fans who didn’t like that I wrote they were talking to the Pirates about Garrett Jones.

Doesn’t matter. What matters about all of those guys is that they can play first base. And teams with a young, cost-controllable player at that position won’t do those things unless they feel they have to protect themselves and start considering other options. We’ve been suggesting that in this space for a while now and the Mariners seem to have figured it out on their own: they can’t go into 2013 rolling the dice on Smoak yet again.

So, they’re looking at guys who can play the position. Not always on an exclusive basis. Some of them — like Jones on the cheap end or Nick Swisher on the high side — can play the corner outfield as well. That would seem to suggest the Mariners would still give Smoak some time to find a consistent stroke while the imported hitter spends time at DH, or behind the plate, or the outfield.

Unless, of course, you buy that Smoak was one of the pieces going the other way in a Jones deal. I suppose that could have merely been a request by the Pirates that was turned down.

But you don’t throw big bucks at a free agent or a ton of prospects at a trade to bring in a first baseman unless you envision having to move the encumbent out at some point soon. The Red Sox don’t plan on catching Napoli the majority of the time, but incumbent Jarrod Saltalamacchia is believed on his way out because between Napoli, newly-signed David Ross and relative newcomer Ryan Lavarnway, there are just too many catcher types knocking on the major league door in Boston.

Amd in Seattle, as many have pointed out, there are a bunch of first base/DH types already. So, paying big bucks for another one could mean the end is near for Smoak.

Which brings me to another, somewhat humorous exchange I had via email with a longtime corresponder today.

He was a little peeved at the fact the Mariners might be going after Butler. So, I asked him, who is good enough? Which bat out there is good enough to don the uniform of the last-place Seattle Mariners?

Because if you square-in on every single player they are looking at, you can pick every single one of them apart one-on-one. But when you start to look at things collectively, the big picture of outright dismissal gets quite funny.

Napoli wasn’t good enough for the Mariners. Costs too much and blocks too many great players. Yeah, sure.

Butler isn’t good enough. He’s only a DH and will cost too much in trade returns. Some fans will trade an unproven Class AA pitcher for him and a bunch of junk and expect the Royals to be drooling over it. Sure thing, boss. They would rather see the Mariners acquire Alex Gordon. Yeah, me too. But if the Royals aren’t trading him, you can’t force them to. Tough to overcome that little inconvenience. I hear that some fans will accept Wil Myers, even if the Royals don’t think the Mariners have any major league pitching good enough to deal a prospect they’ve hyped all the way to the moon with the KC fanbase.

OK, then who? Who is good enough for our Mariners?

Josh Hamilton isn’t good enough unless he takes half the years and pay he’s looking for.

Justin Upton isn’t good enough for the Mariners because it will cost too many prospects for him and gosh, he’s the same as Casper Wells, right?

Nick Swisher will never be good enough for the Mariners because he’ll look to see what Hamilton gets and then adjust his rate accordingly.

How about Angel Pagan? I’ve seen some people say he was a target the Mariners should be looking at. Hey, I’ve written myself that he’s a guy who could help the Mariners. How about for four years, $40 million? That’s what he signed for with the Giants. Still good enough for you, or too high rent?

B.J. Upton for five years, $75 million? Heck, Franklin Gutierrez was as good a player the three weeks he got on the field, right? Um, yeah, OK.

Adam LaRoche? Too old for the Mariners.

Mike Morse? Meh, we’ve had him before.

Asdrubal Cabrera? Yeah, if we can maybe not trade one of our best pitching prospects.

Shin-Soo Choo? Not worth it. He’s a free agent in a year.

Garrett Jones? Nah, he’s no better than what we have. But maybe, if we could get him for Mike Carp and Hector Noesi. Uh-huh.

And on and on it goes. Amazing, but if you start to look at the online comments about each and every deal the Mariners are said to have looked at, you’d come to the conclusion that a vocal part of the fanbase thinks that not one of the team’s targets is good enough to bolster a franchise that has finished in last place three straight years with the game’s worst offense. An offense that was one of the worst in the entire history of organized professional baseball in 2010 and 2011 and which improved to only worst in the league in 2012.

I mean, you tell me. Who is good enough for the 2013 Mariners?

I think Zduriencik said it himself today when he told reporters nobody other than Felix Hernandez is untouchable via trade.

In other words, there are plenty of players out there good enough to make the Mariners better both short-term and long-term.

But as I wrote yesterday, the Mariners will have to swallow hard if they hope to bring in somebody who can make an impact. The Mariners aren’t trading Carp and Noesi and getting anybody useful back. They aren’t going to find a nice, economical, two-year, $6 million guy they realistically know they can count on for that kind of coin via free agency.

And they aren’t getting them via trade for the leftover scraps or one unproven prospect, no matter how highly-rated they are by some publications.

That’s just not realistic.

If the Mariners can pull something miraculous off and have it work out like “lightning in a bottle” then good for them. But Napoli just got $13 million per season over three years. Pagan just got $10 million per year over four. The price of players with any perceived value is going up, up, up because of a host of factors, including rule changes to the sport and a huge influx of cash both locally and nationally.

Some of the words I’m seeing spilled out there over proposed trades or free agents have yet to catch up to that reality. The Mariners aren’t about to fleece anybody by dealing their dregs and skimping on the good stuff. They aren’t going to get somebody for pennies on the dollar that they know in their hearts will likely be excellent next year. They can buy low for somebody and pray it works out and sometimes it might.

But this winter was supposed to be about adding more certainty. The best addition the Mariners made last year was John Jaso, who is one of the game’s best pinch-hitters and a solid part-time catcher/DH against righties. The Mariners wanted a more full-time guy this year who could rake with the same consistency over a much longer series of at-bats. They aren’t getting that by offering up Josh Lueke as a trade return this winter.

That’s where we’re at. Don’t take my word for it. Take a look at the going rate for full-time guys who aren’t trying to rebound from terrible years. You aren’t getting them cheap. And the Mariners aren’t getting them without a little pain involved.

To answer my own question, there are many, many guys out there who can help the Mariners. Many players good enough to bolster a last-place Seattle team and help it take that next step.  You can disagree about some. But you can’t discount them all. Not compared to the alternative of staying the course and doing absolutely nothing. Not with an 87-loss team with plenty of payroll room and prospects to go along with it. Not every prospect is going to turn into the next Randy Johnson. And not every position player you have is going to blossom into Johnny Bench with added playing time, or Steve Garvey with one more year.

Sometimes, last-place teams really are as needy as they look like at too many spots that need fixing.

Look, we’re all friends here, with varying opinions and we love our analysis using all types of methods. But sometimes, you can analyze a situation to death and become paralyzed by the fear of making a less-than-perfect move.

But if you don’t like what teams are asking for in trades, you can always spend on free agents. And if you don’t want to pay them the going rate, either, then there’s always next year. And if you’ve played the “next year” card too many times, well, that becomes a real problem.

The Mariners have identified the outfield and first base as two spots that look due for some type of upgrade. Now, it’s their job to get something done. And no, as I said before, it will not be easy. The Mariners are going to have to take some risks this winter. Judging by the reactions I’m seeing, they will not be popular risks in every quarter. But then again, all of these sub-.500, fourth-place finishes are getting old with the shrinking fanbase as well.

Something’s gotta give.

0 Comments | More in Winter meetings | Topics: free agents, Jack Zduriencik, Mike Napoli

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