This year is pivotal for Seattle Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik and his rebuilding plan. A few shrewd moves in free agency could inch this team closer to respectability—while one particularly monumental move could jump-start this team's 2013 contention hopes.
Fear not, Mariners fans. Although the regular and post seasons are over, the drama of October has nothing on the off-season.
Did I say "big players"?
This is perhaps the most pressing question on the minds of Seattle Mariners fans: can the M's sign Prince Fielder?
First, consider that the team has roughly $26 million coming off the books (with more on the way next year).
What could the Mariners possibly fit into a $26 million-sized hole in their payroll? Well, that happens to be about what Fielder stands to earn per annum. Granted, the Mariners will have to account for salary increases to Felix Hernandez, Franklin Gutierrez, Brendan Ryan and Miguel Olivo—about $11 million in all—while Jason Vargas and Brandon League also stand to benefit handsomely in salary arbitration.
However, it is reasonable to expect that Jack Zduriencik will try to move up to three of these players if the deal is right. Vargas, Gutierrez and League all have trade value, and while the Mainers would love to keep the trio, expect at least one, if not all of them, to be dealt for cheap talent.
The M's have shown the ability to be a top five payroll team before (the first half of the 2000's), and plummeting attendance in a stadium that averaged over three million fans for nearly a decade could be enough to catalyze management into action. They've already softened on their attendance-relative payroll structure for next year's team—maintaining in the mid $90 million range.
Zduriencik would have to be fairly sure of Fielder, still only 28, in order to hitch his wagon—and fate—to the young slugger. But if there was anyone in baseball Zduriencik has done his homework on, it's certainly Fielder. Zduriencik was the Director of Scouting for the Milwaukee Brewers when they drafted him seventh overall in 2002.
As it turns out, that was a pretty good move.
Perhaps the most provocative of twists to consider is that the Mariners' rebuilding plan must show signs of contention by 2013 if the Mariners are to continue with this model.
After that time, Felix Hernandez will have only two years remaining on his contract, meaning that his trade value will begin to depreciate the longer the M's continue to sit on him—potentially the most valuable commodity on all of baseball given his age, contract, and ability.
If the Mariners are forced to part with him, it would mean essentially rebooting the current rebuilding plan—already in it's third year.
Having Fielder's power-lefty presence in the Mariner lineup would go a long way to ensure that Hernandez plays the end of his contract in Seattle.
Although the Seattle Mariners are thrilled with much of Miguel Olivo's contributions, their catching situation is far from resolved.
Olivo turns 34 next season, and he wore down in the second half last year after catching 130 games. The M's should try to cut that number nearly in half next year, both because they need to keep Olivo fresh, and because they need to prepare to make a transition at the position.
Ryan Doumit turns 31 next season, so he could potentially buy the Mariners about four years to find their oft-sought "catcher of the future," if they are so lucky.
Doumit had two good halves in the 2011 season, but they were sandwiched around a stint on the 60 day disabled list for a fractured ankle—the latest in a string of injuries that have cast the catcher as being perhaps less than durable.
If he stays healthy, however, the career .271 hitter can be a relative force at catcher, hitting for both average and power from both sides of the plate—a tremendous advantage at Safeco Field for those hoping to leave the yard.
The Mariners still hope that perennial successor Adam Moore seizes the job and never looks back, but as they discovered last season—when he was unable to challenge Olivo after tearing a meniscus in his knee—it would be unwise to depend on it.
A club like the Mariners can never have too many good catchers in the mix.
Interestingly enough, it seems likely that if the Mariners can't agree to terms with Ryan Doumit, they may turn their sights on his Pittsburgh Pirates teammate, Chris Snyder. Both are free agents with appeal.
Snyder may fit into the budget a little easier, and while he doesn't offer the firepower that Doumit would, he is generally regarded as a good fielder, and an excellent handler of pitchers.
He also has injury concerns, however, after having back surgery in 2011 that limited him to just 34 games.
If the Mariners whiff on Prince Fielder, they may look elsewhere to bolster their DH corps with veteran leadership.
It seems the Mariners may go big or go home in free agency—don't expect them to have interest in David Ortiz or other aging sluggers still commanding top dollar. If history holds true, they will relegate themselves to the next tier of free agents, doing just enough to keep the ship afloat while maintaining a steady profit.
Jason Kubel looks like a perfect mid-market option and exactly the kind of player Seattle should be interested in at a relative bargain. He bats from the left side (almost a requisite for a DH at Safeco Field), has good power (Kubel averaged 23 homers from 2008-2010), and is a career .271 hitter.
After missing over two months to injury in his contract year, the Mariners could walk away with a very solid player at a sensible price.
Seattle's wayward son has a chance to validate years of pining from his hometown fans this offseason. It's certainly more likely now than at any time in the past, when Cleveland seemed intent on making him the face of their franchise.
While many clubs will be interested in Sizemore, he isn't likely to generate anything in the neighborhood of the superstar deal he once seemed destined for. He could probably be had for an incentive-laden deal that would protect the club if he failed to meet clauses for plate appearances or games played.
Expect Sizemore to receive a two-to-three-year deal that could earn upwards of $10-13 million per year if he meets his incentives. In Seattle, it's possible he could even grant a slight hometown discount.
If he can stay healthy, the total value of such a deal could make the club that signs him look really smart. Remember, this guy is a two-time Gold Glove-winning center fielder, three-time All-Star and a former Silver Slugger recipient. At 29, his best years are, in theory, ahead of him if he can stay on the field.
And, as is a recurring theme in Mariner free agent targets, he bats left-handed.
The M's still love the potential of Franklin Gutierrez, but his "scholarship," as GM Jack Zduriencik referred to some players' sense of entitlement, is likely over. Gutierrez may get another chance to make good on his eye-popping potential, but it's also equally likely that Zduriencik will explore every opportunity to make this club better going forward—including in center field. Don't be surprised if he sees a deal too good to pass up for a young budding star like Sizemore. Gutierrez still has trade value, so it's unlikely the M's would have to simply cut bait if they decided to go another direction.