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December 4, 2012 at 5:32 PM

Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Jason Bay, Raul Ibanez…what does it all mean for the Mariners?

Writers from several countries in the media room at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, site of the baseball winter meetings.

Got it confirmed from a source late this afternoon that the Mariners have indeed contacted the agent for Raul Ibanez about a possible return to Seattle for a third go-around with his initial franchise. Ibanez spent last season with the New York Yankees and hit some pretty big post-season home runs for them.

Earlier today, I confirmed through a different source that the Mariners were “close” to a deal with Jason Bay. Remember, being “close” is not the same as being “done” so let’s not pencil anyone into the lineup just yet.

But what the heck is going on? Ibanez is 40. Bay is 34. Not exactly a youth movement.

And then, there was the report by Jon Heyman of CBS earlier today that the Mariners are going hard after free agent center fielder Michael Bourn. While I have not directly confirmed that via a source, I can tell you that Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik did nothing to dissuade me from thinking he was going after Bourn when I questioned him in front of other Seattle writers about whether upgrading with an established leadoff hitter had entered his thought process. Zduriencik actually smiled and wondered aloud where I could possibly be going with the questioning, which had everyone else in the room laughing as well.

Like I said, he did nothing to throw anyone off the trail.

So, is there a tie-in between Bourn and the Mariners shopping for the likes of Bay and Ibanez?

I think there just may be. In fact, if the Mariners do ink an older, lower-cost bat, it will spell the end of the team seeking two higher-priced additions. Instead, the Mariners might choose to go after one prize on the bigger end of the scale — which would explain all the increased chatter we’re hearing about Bourn, Josh Hamilton and Nick Swisher lately.

All along, it’s been assumed the Mariners might upgrade with one new player for the outfield and a second one who could play first base and DH.

But given the pricetags we’ve seen so far — in both dollars and trade return requests — for that plan to pan out, what would stop the Mariners from bringing in two outfielders, one of them premium and the other at a lesser cost? Nothing, replied Zduriencik, adding that it’s a possibility

 Then, he threw this in there:

“Sometimes, you get the multiple-position guy who can play the outfield and first base.”

And for me, that opens up a whole different avenue to explore.

The Mariners won’t sign both Bay and Ibanez. It would have to be one or the other.

But here’s why they would.

For one, if the Mariners were to go after free agent Swisher — and with word today that Boston is about to sign Shane Victorino,  it removes a serious Swisher competitor — then they could consider him playing more first base at times and use Ibanez or Bay as outfield additions, with Michael Saunders in the opposite corner. When Swisher plays right, you could have Bay or Ibanez in left if Saunders needs a rest.

You could also use either as a DH if Jesus Montero falters.

But Bourn is where things get really interesting with Bay or Ibanez and the team’s entire approach.

Bourn can’t play first base, so there would be zero upgrade there if he’s added. But what about Ibanez and Bay?

We know they can play the corner outfield and that left field part  should be a bit easier in Seattle now with the fences coming in. But what about moving one of them to first base at times? That’s been a consideration with Ibanez since his Seattle days and he has played there in the majors. Bay hasn’t done it yet, but neither have John Jaso or Montero and there’s been talk of that, so why not do the same with Bay in that regard? He’s more athletic than either of the catchers. I wouldn’t rule it out. Adam Kennedy did a lot of things he’d never tried before when playing here two years ago, so anything’s possible.

When he discussed the possibility of signing two outfielders today, Zduriencik also mentioned that: “One piece may be bigger than another” which would fit the theory of his going after both a big splash in Bourn, Swisher or Hamilton and then an older, cheaper outfielder.

Having Ibanez or Bay would give the team another year to see how Justin Smoak pans out while having a backup plan for first base in case he flops. A backup plan that would still involve getting on the field in both the outfield and at DH.

Obviously, if Swisher comes in, then first base is covered if Smoak fails and the older outfielder would play the corners more.

But with Bourn, it all changes for both the infield and outfield.

Bourn would likely become the everyday center fielder and Franklin Gutierrez would slide over to right field, which is the position he manned for the Cleveland Indians in 2007 and 2008 prior to coming to Seattle.

I asked Zduriencik if he could ever envision Gutierrez going back to right field.

“I think you’ve got to keep everything on the table,” he said. “Today, if we were to open up with this ballclub, Guti’s our center fielder. You also have to understand and realize that things happen in spring training. Things happen through the course of the year. If you’re forced to ask players to make an adjustment, then that happens. But right now, that isn’t on the table. Right now, we know he’s a very good center fielder — a Gold Glove center fielder — and that’s a positive. But as you go through making your club better, no matter what position it is,we all have to evaluate and a player has to evaluate where he’s at and what makes the club better.”

I’ll take that as a “yes” and that Gutierrez could move to right.

Then, you would also have either Ibanez, or Bay, or somebody like them, sharing time in the outfield corners and at first base and DH.

Clearly, Ibanez bats left-handed and Bay is right-handed, so there would not be specific platoons in every scenario. The Mariners would have to pick one and decide who is more useful.

Like I said, this is one way to make the team better and I think this could be a solution if the Mariners can’t come up with two above average bats. It’s possible Gutierrez rebounds and has a great year and you wouldn’t need to play Bay or Ibanez in the outfield much. But a great year for Gutierrez would likely require him being limited to five days per week in any event because of his lack of overall durability. Mariners manager Eric Wedge had planned to do this even before Gutierrez had his bout with stomach issues that scuttled his 2011 season and his injuries in 2012.

The big benefit to this arrangment with a lower-cost, older player, would be freeing up the resources to land the impact outfielder many were starting to think was out of Seattle’s price range. The Mariners, at present, do not have an ideal leadoff hitter in their midst and Bourn certainly fits that description. Bourn also provides the type of true center field defense the Mariners have gotten used to from Gutierrez but never benefit consistenly from because he can’t stay on the field.

If the season began tomorrow, Dustin Ackley would likely lead off. But the Mariners don’t consider that the best place for him.

Bourn is more of a true leadoff man and has averaged 44 steals in 58 attempts over the course of his career. His career OBP is .344 and was at .349 and .348 the past two seasons while his Gold Glove caliber defense in center ranks up with Gutierrez’s — except Bourn can stay on the field.

And don’t forget, Gutierrez has only one year left on his deal, plus an option that might not get picked up unless he has a breakout year.

So, this team needs a longer-term leadoff hitter and likely a future center fielder as well.

If not Bourn, the Mariners could also use this arrangment to try to land Swisher or even Hamilton as well and adjust the pieces accordingly.

Now, with Bay, you’ve got a guy who hasn’t hit for much power or hit much of anything at all the past few years. But health has been a big part of that and you’d figure — hopefully — that the Mariners checked him out ahead of time and are convinced there’s more to him. In his prime, Bay had big power and revamped Safeco Field might be a better fit for him that CitiField in New York, but that’s a risk.

Ibanez never had trouble hitting for power in Seattle and still clubbed 19 homers in a reduced role for New York last year. Remember, he’d be coming here as a part-time player at multiple positions.

Both he and Bay are also strong clubhouse presences and that’s something the Mariners have been concerned about since Miguel Olivo and Kevin Millwood left. Olivo in particular had a major clubhouse impact and the team would like a little more veteran leadership inside the room if it can get it.

Yeah, all of these scenarios I’ve listed can get a little confusing, but just keep a few basics in mind.

By seeking smaller upgrades out of a more veteran bat, the Mariners can free up money to pursue more prime-time players that might be priced out of their desired range.

Opting for more veteran “protection” in the infield and outfield instead of a pricier, loing-term fix, allows the Mariners to give some younger players like Smoak a chance to still develop but also be replaced if he falters.

Anyhow, that’s my attempt to explain it. I’m not advocating for anybody, just telling you what the Mariners are doing. It’s possible they have some other older outfielder in mind that I haven’t heard about. I already mentioned Garrett Jones as a right field/first base trade possibility two days ago and today, we saw a report the Pirates were still offering him to Seattle for Taijuan Walker.

Anyway, a whole bunch of names and a lot of combination possibilities. Welcome to the winter meetings.

I can guarantee you the Mariners have made contact with the older players I’ve mentioned. We’ve been hearing all day how they’re suddenly in on some of the biggest-name, highest-price guys. This might explan how it all ties together.





Comments | Topics: free agents, Jason Bay, Michael Bourn


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