With the World Series now a distant memory and the calendar having turned to November, it's time for free agency.
Two months ago, I put together a list of players the Mariners could use, but I came to the general conclusion that the market is lacking talent, and that the M's aren't likely to spend much, if any, money this offseason.
When my editors asked me to put together a list of quality free agents the Mariners can fit into their budget, I'll confess that I struggled with the question.
Can the Mariners find the right mix of quality players for the right price?
Before I could even give it too much thought, the Mariners perhaps surprisingly took control of the situation by re-signing veteran pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Oliver Perez.
Does this mean general manager Jack Zduriencik will get the chance to spend some money?
To be honest, it's still hard to tell. For today, though, I'll take it as an encouraging sign that the organization isn't going to sit quietly in the corner this winter, and, for the purposes of this discussion, will at least come close to matching their payroll from this year.
So how much money does that give us to play with?
According to Geoff Baker at The Seattle Times the Mariners should have roughly $16 million following the Iwakuma and Perez signings:
The Mariners ended the 2012 season with decisively less payroll on the books than they had at the beginning of the year, thanks to the jettisoning of Ichiro and Brandon League via trades and the free agent departures of Miguel Olivo and Kevin Millwood. Even with the weekend signings, Zduriencik appears to have about $16 million in additional payroll room to play with if his goal was simply to match last season's opening amount of roughly $85 million.
That doesn't leave us a ton of money, but with the current list of players available, let's see what we can piece together with the hopes of making the Mariners at the very least an entertaining and competitive ballclub.
Following a rough start, Iwakuma finally got his footing, as Sports Illustrated's Ben Reiter explains:
In his first year in the U.S., Iwakuma was mediocre as a relief pitcher—his ERA was 4.75 in that role—but a revelation after the Mariners inserted him into their rotation at the beginning of July. In 16 starts he went 8-4, with a 2.65 ERA and a 1.232 WHIP, and he showed much better command in that role, nearly doubling his strikeout-to-walk ratio (from 1.53 to 2.79). There is no doubt, however, that he benefited from pitching at Safeco Field (his ERA was 2.49 at home, 4.20 on the road). Both he and the Mariners have reason to have him continue to do so.
However, I think Reiter oversimplifies the situation a bit. Iwakuma is potentially more than a veteran middle-rotation pitcher capable of eating innings.
That to me is what I would hope the Mariners are getting at bare minimum, with perhaps the odd chance that he can flirt with a performance that builds upon his output from this past season.
Call it wishful thinking, but for those unwilling to take that leap, Iwakuma is another pitcher the M's can pencil into their rotation who can buy them some time with regards to the future.
For as much as we all would love to see the likes of Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton pitching with the big club next year, having Iwakuma means the M's can take their time and consider the presence of the three youngsters at spring training next March a luxury, rather than a necessity.
After signing Iwakuma, general manager Jack Zduriencik wasted little time in inking veteran reliever Oliver Perez the very next day to a one-year deal for $1.5 million, with another $600 thousand in performance bonuses.
This works nicely if you believe that Perez is a solid spare part to have in the bullpen and you assume/fear that someone else would make him an offer he couldn't refuse.
As Zduriencik explained to Geoff Baker at the Seattle Times:
"He did a very nice job in helping solidify our bullpen after his call-up last summer," Zduriencik said. "As a veteran left-hander and one that had adjusted very nicely to his new role, we are looking forward to his contributions as we go into the 2013 campaign."
Early on last season, I figured that Perez would make his way to Seattle before the end of the season, but I never envisioned him actually shaping up as someone the M's could truly rely upon in their bullpen.
What concerns me is that Perez has a fairly mediocre track record when expectations are placed upon him, as evidenced in previous stops with Pittsburgh and New York. One minute he's a pleasant surprise; the next minute he's a guy you can't ship out of town fast enough.
Fortunately, the M's only gave him a one-year deal at a manageable price.
If he bombs, so be it. If he succeeds, he can keep doing what he did towards the end of last year and perhaps be dealt at the trade deadline, if the situation makes sense.
This is the part of the story where things are supposed to get interesting, as the signings of Hisashi Iwakuma and Oliver Perez were sensible, but relatively dull.
The reason you really clicked on this article is to see which affordable free-agent option I suggest the Mariners throw money towards—I mean, sign.
All joking aside, can you imagine how many antacids Zduriencik is consuming these days?
Rather than join Zduriencik in pouring a heaping helping of Pepto-Bismol on my corn flakes, let's understand that what I'm proposing here is pure speculation with zero-percent chance of actually occurring in this universe.
While it seems the Mariners have money to spend, will anyone be willing to take it?
The Seattle Times' Larry Stone seems to think the odds aren't quite as bad as they would seem:
Assuming an approximation of last year's payroll, $25 million in available funds should be enough to bring in two fairly big-ticket ballplayers (or one huge name like Josh Hamilton, or one big name and two medium names, or various other combinations of new talent). And you've got to figure that one of them would come off that top 50 list.
Perhaps someone will take the now remaining $16 million, but once again the question is who.
Crazy at it sounds, perhaps Mike Napoli could kill a few birds with one stone.
Right now, the Mariners have three players to cover first base, catcher and designated hitter on any given day: Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero and John Jaso. Each showed promise last year, but each comes with serious question marks.
Is Smoak capable of playing at the major league level?
Is Montero really a catcher?
Is Jaso capable of playing every day?
Understand that signing Napoli doesn't solve those problems and he comes with issues of his own, not to mention a potentially high price tag that would probably eat up at least half-to-two-thirds of your remaining budget.
But if he's willing to take an offer slightly under $10 million per year for three years, the M's can find a variety of uses for him in a flex role as they sort out their lineup for next season and beyond.
Speaking of beyond, what about Mike Zunino?
With Miguel Olivo gone, the M's will need a third catcher until Mike Zunino is ready to play in Seattle.
Dave Cameron at USS Mariner put together an interesting post on how the M's should handle the situation, and how having Montero at catcher isn't helpful.
I'm still on the fence with that issue and feel that adding Napoli to start occasionally makes sense for the M's, while they figure out what to do with Jaso and Montero behind the plate.
Honestly, though, the real goal in bringing Napoli on-board is to cover Justin Smoak. While it was nice to see Smoak finish strong in September, I feel that we've been down this road before and need to have a backup plan other than Mike Carp.
So is Napoli going to be the guy who single-handedly helps the Mariners turn the corner?
Doubtful, but odds are even slimmer that Montero, Smoak and Jaso are all going to succeed before Mike Zunino finds a meaningful role with the M's.
Napoli, as a right-handed bat, can at the very least (assuming he's healthy) add 20 home runs and 70 RBI to a lineup in need of serious help and a veteran's presence.
I know what you're thinking: "Grady Sizemore, really?"
Sure! Why not bring Grady home to the Pacific Northwest, after he barely played 100 games over the past three seasons?
When it comes to the outfield, the M's seem keen on taking the classic "throw paint against the wall" approach to see what sticks.
We could very well go into spring training next March with Michael Saunders, Franklin Gutierrez, Mike Carp, Casper Wells, Trayvon Robinson, Eric Thames, Carlos Peguero and now Scott Cousins all competing for at least four spots.
That, my friends, is a lot of mediocrity to sift through, even if we take a leap of faith and assume that Saunders continues to improve upon last season, Gutierrez and Carp rebound from injuries, and at least one of the remaining players shows enough redeeming qualities to grab a reserve role.
Still, shouldn't the M's set their sights higher than the rapidly decaying Sizemore?
Weeks ago, I posted my thoughts on who the M's could take a long look at this winter, but came to the realization that the odds of landing a Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn or Nick Swisher are slim, and that eventually Jack Zduriencik is going to be looking at the likes of Delmon Young, Shane Victorino, Cody Ross, etc. instead.
When comparing Sizemore against other fiscal options, the question becomes: Which option makes the most sense?
Player A: $75 million, five years
Player B: $40 million, four years
Player C: $7 million, two years
Perhaps you can get lucky with Player B and find lightning in a bottle with the likes of Shane Victorino, but I'd rather take a flyer on Sizemore as Player C with an incentive-laden deal, hoping to stay within a shoestring budget and perhaps see what options are available on the trade market this winter when it comes to outfielders.
By now you've probably given up all hope for the Mariners (as well as for me) and find yourself simply asking: "Who exactly is Hiroyuki Nakajima and why should I care?"
Similar to Hisashi Iwakuma, Nakajima is a player who, following a failed contract negotiation during the posting process, returned to Japan with the hopes of becoming a free agent the following year.
Not to oversell Nakajima, but he is a smart, fundamentally sound ballplayer who hits to all fields, has a fair amount of power, and can cover a number of infield positions.
He is a seven-time All-Star and three-time Best Nine Winner, with two Gold Gloves and was a key cog on the 2009 World Baseball Classic winners, .364 while driving in seven runs.
Having seen him play for three years in Japan, I can firmly attest he is more than capable of being an everyday player in the U.S. and quite possibly a steal for a mere $2 million dollars to post.
Since then, Nakajima just went back to the Seibu Lions and led them to a playoff berth while narrowly missing out on the Pacific League batting title with a stat line of .312, 13, 74 in 136 games.
Perhaps that doesn't mean much, especially since the Mariners already have a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop in Brendan Ryan. However, I thought the same thing last year when the Mariners could have pursued Norichika Aoki to help in the outfield alongside Ichiro.
"But didn't Tsuyoshi Nishioka flame out with the Twins?"
"And wasn't Munenori Kawasaki just released by the M's?"
Yes, but like a lot of things in life, there are no guarantees here.
The reasons that I have Nakajima listed here are twofold.
One, I actually think he can play an important role in what the Mariners are trying to do in 2013 by helping out on the left side of the infield, especially if Brendan Ryan still can't hit or stay healthy, Carlos Triunfel or Nick Franklin stays in the minors, or if either Dustin Ackley or Kyle Seager struggles.
Similar to Mike Napoli, Nakajima provides the M's some flexibility if one of the players in question fails. Plus, a three-year contract for $9 million, which would equate to $3 million per year, would still have the Mariners roughly in budget with last year (give or take a million), based on the prior deals for Hisashi Iwakuma, Oliver Perez, Grady Sizemore and Napoli.
But the point I really want to drive home goes beyond Nakajima.
Perhaps more than any other organization in baseball, the Mariners and their fans understand that Japanese players can succeed on the other side of the Pacific playing in America.
For an organization in desperate need of finding talent while struggling to compete against the big spenders in baseball, the M's need to continue their efforts scouting players from Japan, along with other markets throughout the globe.
It's good to see the organization committing resources to a new baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, but tangible results from that endeavor will likely take years to have any effect on the field in Seattle.
Honestly, I'm not sure the current front office has time to wait on that project, as the team needs talent ready to play now.
Don't get me wrong. For every Ichiro, there is at least one Mune Kawasaki. But hopefully Zduriencik and his scouts can keep an eye on a country where quality major league players still exist and could be signed for a reasonable price, as we saw last year with Iwakuma.
While it's a shame that Japanese positional players in recent years have earned a bad rap, let's not forget that Japan won both World Baseball Championships with more than just solid pitching.
Instead, let's see if the Mariners can turn a cultural misconception into an advantage by at least talking to players like Nakajima, and perhaps at the same time avoid throwing too much money at MLB players that are either too old, too frail or just plain incapable of making a difference in Seattle.