11/29/10 10:00 PM EST
Mariners figure to be quieter at Winter Meetings
By Greg Johns / MLB.com
At last year's Winter Meetings, Zduriencik finalized the Chone Figgins' free-agent signing and laid the groundwork for a Cliff Lee trade that culminated a week later, while Seattle was also linked to rumblings and rumors about nearly every big-name free agent on the market.
So what should we expect from the Mariners general manager when the 2010 Winter Meetings commence next Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.?
"I think it'll be more of a wait-and-see approach," Zduriencik said. "We'll see how things unfold. Our ears are wide open. "
The Mariners don't figure to be big spenders in free agency this time around, with the majority of their player payroll already tied up and a core of young players arriving that will be given a chance to show what they can do.
It's a different scenario than 2009, when Seattle had close to $50 million in salary coming off the books with the departures of Adrian Beltre, Miguel Batista, Kenji Johjima, Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard.
Now the Mariners already are locked into about $60 million in contracts for six returning players -- Figgins, Gutierrez, Ichiro Suzuki, Felix Hernandez, Jack Wilson and Milton Bradley. But Wilson and Bradley each missed more than half the season with injuries and Figgins and Gutierrez slumped at the plate as well, thus the club's offensive woes.
The Mariners have promising young prospect Justin Smoak at first base, Dustin Ackley on the way at second, Michael Saunders returning in left field, Adam Moore behind the plate and Michael Pineda challenging for a spot in the rotation, but they remain unproven.
Thus Zduriencik will need to be creative in coming up with ways to either move or add veterans to the mix on a club that figures to hold fairly steady to the $91 million player payroll of last season.
Designated hitter figures to be one area of potential upgrade for an offense that scored the fewest runs in the Major Leagues, if Zduriencik can work around the return of Bradley and his $12 million contract for 2011. It would also make sense to bring in a veteran catcher to work with Moore, who must show if he's ready to step up after hitting .195 in 60 games last year.
The same holds true in left field, where Saunders batted .211 in 100 games.
Zduriencik must decide how deep his youth movement can go and where to bring in help.
"Some of the younger players will get an opportunity in Spring Training. I hope they're prepared," he said. "Does Adam Moore answer the bell? He had an opportunity to play last year. The challenge is in his lap. Does he emerge as the everyday catcher? That's yet to be determined.
"We liked what we saw from Smoak when he came back from Triple-A last season. We're excited about the future of Pineda and like what Ackley has done. And with a lot of the vets, it's a question of how do they bounce back. We still have our work cut out for us."
Zduriencik said there are some "interesting pieces out there" in free agency. The club could bring back DH Russell Branyan or seek left-handed pop from someone like Brad Hawpe in free agency, or create an opening for additional offensive strength by working the trade market.
Zduriencik cautions that it takes two to tango, but says he'll be ready to move in any direction if the right opportunity presents itself.
"I've had dialogue with some clubs and agents," he said. "We've had some interesting discussions, but you never know which ones have legs because you never know how many other clubs are involved. "
Seattle has been mentioned among the parties pursuing free-agent relievers Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier, but Zduriencik sounds fairly solid on his current bullpen.
"I think we'll give some of our young guys an opportunity to see what they can do," he said. "Last year at the end, we had [Dan] Cortes who did some impressive things. We like Anthony Varvaro and Josh Lueke and we'll see what [Mauricio] Robles does. With David Aardsma and Brandon League, that's a pretty good place to build with."
It seems likely the Mariners will try to bring in a veteran starter either via trade or free agency to bolster their rotation, with Brandon McCarthy and Jeff Francis -- both with a history of arm problems -- the kind of low-risk, high-upside pitchers being mentioned.
"Everybody feels they need more pitching depth," Zduriencik said. "Obviously, Felix is a great place to start and [Jason] Vargas and [Doug] Fister have come on nicely. If we just stay within, it should be competitive. Obviously, we'll keep our ears open on any other possibilities."
But in the end, this seems like more of a Winter Meetings where the Mariners will pick and choose their spots with free agents and trades while primarily putting stock in the upcoming talent from their own system.
"It's not an easy task because everybody wants instant results," Zduriencik said. "I'd love for fans to understand that when players get to the Major Leagues, there's not a guarantee for instant success. There's a learning curve, whether it's Saunders, Pineda, Moore, Ackley, Matt Mangini ... whoever it might be. It takes time to develop players into bona fide Major League guys. That's a process that takes patience, good drafting, scouting and development."
That doesn't sound like a guy ready to trade the farm. Instead, it's a GM digging in for the long haul, while keeping his ears open to any moves that will help that process along. Zduriencik has proven willing to wheel and deal in the past, he's just going in with the belief his best chips right now are the ones coming up through the system.
"I'm wide open and interested to hear what other clubs and agents have to say," he said. "We'll just let it unfold, see what makes sense and determine the best fits for us."