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11/29/11 12:01 AM EST

Mariners eyeing free-agent dance partners

Hot Stove expected to fire up at Winter Meetings

SEATTLE -- When Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners brass head to Dallas next week for the Winter Meetings, they'll be looking for ways to improve an offense that ranked last in the Major Leagues in most categories last season.

Their biggest splash, of course, would be jumping into the Prince Fielder sweepstakes. But while the Mariners are definitely interested in the slugging free-agent first baseman, it remains to be seen whether they do a full dive into the pricey Prince pool.

Though the club hasn't publicly announced its 2012 player budget, it's expected the Mariners will spend somewhere in the same $95 million range as they have the past two seasons. With current players under contract and expected arbitration raises, that leaves about $15 million in available payroll this coming year for a team looking to build around a youthful nucleus.

Fielder figures to cost more than that just by himself, with agent Scott Boras seeking a long-term deal that will set up the 27-year-old for most of the rest of his career. Early media speculation has Fielder seeking something in the eight-year, $200-million neighborhood.

Thus, the looming question: Do the Mariners have enough resources to get into the Fielder conversations?

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"That really depends," said Zduriencik, beginning his fourth season as Seattle's GM. "There are so many factors there and no one knows where that number will end up. As much as you might have desire to go down a path, the length and dollars tie into that.

"There's no question we could use a big bat in the middle of our lineup, but where is your limitation and threshold? We'll go down that road and experiment and see where it ends up, but until things get more definitive, we'll just have to wait and see."

Zduriencik has more on his wish list than just one big bat, but he already filled in one box by acquiring catcher John Jaso from Tampa Bay in a trade for reliever Josh Lueke on Sunday.

He's also interested in landing a backup shortstop to provide depth behind Brendan Ryan, who is coming back from a neck injury that cut short his 2011 season.

He'd like to find a veteran reliever to bolster a bullpen that is extremely young. And he doesn't rule out adding a starting pitcher to help bridge the gap on a staff where promising prospects are on the horizon.

"Every club in baseball looks for pitching," Zduriencik said. "We're relatively young in the 'pen, so a veteran guy there would be interesting in the right situation. And you're always looking for starting pitching."

As for better bats, Zduriencik said there are some "interesting pieces out there" in free agency beyond the big trio of Fielder, Albert Pujols and Jose Reyes. But much of the free-agent dance is just beginning, with the tempo expected to pick up when executives from all 30 Major League clubs gather at the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas from Dec. 5-8.

"Agents are still feeling things out to see where the market will be," said Zduriencik. "It's a little soft shoe right now to see where this will all go."

The obvious places to add offense for the Mariners would be left field, designated hitter or third base. Mike Carp figures to fill either the DH or left-field spot, leaving the other open for competition from a host of young prospects or a veteran addition.

If Chone Figgins isn't traded, he'll compete with youngsters Kyle Seager and Alex Liddi for the third-base job barring a free-agent addition there.

Most of the top free agents remain unsigned, including established hitters like Josh Willingham, David Ortiz, Carlos Pena, Michael Cuddyer, Ryan Ludwick, Vlad Guerrero, J.D. Drew, Raul Ibanez and Jason Kubel. And the Mariners have never shied away from the international market, which this year includes highly regarded Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki.

It all should add up to plenty of intrigue in Dallas next week, when more of the pieces start falling into place. And that in itself is part of the tango with Fielder and other free agents.

"One thing you have to be careful of is how long does this thing go on," Zduriencik said. "Does it take you past Christmas or to a time when other resources dry up? So that is all part of it ... dollars, years of contract and how long you can wait."

Three years ago, Zduriencik engineered the blockbuster 10-player, three-team trade that brought Carp, Franklin Gutierrez and Jason Vargas to Seattle during the Winter Meetings. Two years ago, he put the pieces in place for the Cliff Lee trade with the Phillies and the free-agent signing of Figgins.

Last year was a bit quieter, with not a lot of wiggle room in the Mariners' budget. But clearly Zduriencik isn't afraid to wheel and deal and he's already busted one move to acquire Jaso this offseason.

Whether the Mariners can be a player in the Fielder pursuit or a factor in other free-agent or trade talks remains to be seen, with the first answers figuring to emerge when the Hot Stove officially heats up in Dallas.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.