Completing the Puzzle: Who Do the Mariners Need to Target in Free Agency?

Jason Bay has ties to the Pacific Northwest, but is he a good fit for the Seattle Mariners?

Though the Mariners signing of free-agent third baseman Chone Figgins  shows that they are serious about competing for the division, baseball’s Winter Meetings have come and gone and the team still has plenty of holes left to fill if they want to have a realistic shot at winning the AL West.

Texas has been busy all week, signing free-agent Rich Harden and acquiring Chris Ray and Mike Lowell (still pending) through trades, turning up the heat on Seattle to keep pace.

The Oakland Athletics were one of the most improved teams in all of baseball during last season’s second half, and figure to be even better in 2010 with all the experience their young players gained down the stretch.

Los Angeles lost Figgins and may be unable to resign their ace Jon Lackey, but the Angels are still dangerous after winning the division by 10 games last year despite battling injuries to key players the entire season.

All four teams in the AL West have a legitimate shot at winning the division next year, with no clear front-runner at this point in the offseason; what will it take for the Mariners to come out on top in 2010?

The addition of Figgins fills Seattle’s need for a third-baseman, but the Mariners still need help at first-base, catcher, left-field, designated hitter and in their rotation (more on this in a later post). Statistically one of the worst offensive teams in the American League last season, Seattle’s superb pitching staff carried the team all year, leading the AL with a 3.87 team ERA. While the pitching will likely regress a bit next year due to the losses of Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn, it’s clear that the Mariners main focus this offseason needs to be on adding offensive firepower; this may prove to be an expensive proposition with four positions yet to be filled.

After Endy Chavez’s season-ending injury the Mariners got virtually no production out of leftfield, with the trio of Bill Hall, Michael Saunders and Ryan Langerhans performing well below replacement level. Jason Bay is imminently available after being unable to come to terms with the Red Sox and has strong ties to the Pacific Northwest, but is seeking a contract in the range of 4-5 years and $60+ million dollars, a deal that would leave the Mariners out of cash and still needing a first baseman, catcher and right-handed DH. Additionally, there are concerns about whether a one-dimensional player like Bay, who hits for power but provides little else, would be worth a long-term investment in a park like Safeco Field that caters towards pitching.

Free-agent outfielder Matt Holliday offers more versatility than Bay but would need a similarly hand-cuffing contract to come aboard (he is represented by Scott Boras after all). A more budget friendly option is former Seattle Mariner Mike Cameron, who despite turning 36 last season, is still a plus defender in the outfield who offers good power and patience at the plate. The Mariners could probably ink Cameron to a one-year deal, limiting the risk if he performs poorly, which would also give Saunders another year to develop in Triple-A Tacoma. Other players to consider in left-field include Randy Winn, Jonny Gomes or Josh Willingham.

A breakout performer last year, Seattle would be happy to bring Branyan back at first base in 2010.

The Mariners got surprising production out of first base last season, with Russell Branyan taking advantage of his first chance to play full-time by slugging 31 HR’s and driving in 76 runs. The early indications seem to suggest that Seattle plans on bringing Branyan back for at least one more year, although he would probably be due a substantial raise over the $1.4 million dollars he earned in 2009. Branyan stated all season long that he owed it to the Mariners to resign with the club because they were the only team willing to give him a full-time role, but it remains to be seen whether that will hold true if another team offers him a lucrative deal.

If Seattle loses Branyan to another team they could replace him internally with Mike Carp, who performed admirably in a short trial last season (.315 in 54 AB’s), or they could pursue free-agent Nick Johnson. Though injury prone, the 31-year-old Johnson has one of the best batting eyes in the game (.426 OBP in 2009) and is a solid defensive first baseman who could fit comfortably into the Mariner’s lineup as their number three hitter. There has also been some speculation that Seattle would consider shifting second baseman Jose Lopez (a defensive liability up the middle) to first base and moving Matt Tuiasosopo (a third baseman in the minors) to second, a possibility now that the hot corner has been filled by Figgins.

Catcher was another gaping hole for the Mariners in 2009, with a disappointing season from Kenji Johjima and young catchers Rob Johnson and Adam Moore struggling to adjust to big league pitching. With Johjima back in Japan, the battle for starting catcher in 2010 will boil down to Johnson and Moore unless the Mariners try to acquire a catcher via free agency or trade. Johnson received praise from the pitching staff for his game-calling abilities but he hit only .213 with 2 HR’s and 27 RBI’s. Moore saw limited action with the Mariners, spending the majority of the season in the minor leagues, hitting a combined .287-13 HR’s-56 RBI’s between Double and Triple-A. S

eattle has been mentioned as a possible destination for free-agent catcher Miguel Olivo, a defensively-challenged backstop who hit 23 HR’s in only 390 AB’s last season. While Olivo has never shown the ability to draw a walk, he has consistently produced good power numbers and is the best player available in a very thin catching market. If the M’s could sign him to an incetive-laden one-year deal, Olivo is probably a worthwhile gamble; if he wants a multi-year deal Seattle is better off allowing Johnson and Moore to develop in the majors.

Could the former Mariner killer become a killer Mariner?

Designated hitter may have been the most popular position for Seattle in 2009, with clubhouse favorites Mike Sweeney and Ken Griffey Jr. manning the post, but it certainly wasn’t the most productive. Griffey’s back and figures to get the majority of at-bats against right-handed pitching; the Mariners hope he can rebound from a sub par return to the Emerald City last year (.214-19 HR’s-57 RBI’s). Seattle needs to find a player who hits left-handed pitching well to platoon with Griffey, but this year’s free agent crop is very thin in terms of quality hitters.

The M’s might have to take a flier on someone coming off an injury or a bad season. Some possible candidates include Xavier Nady, Olivo, Carlos Delgado or even longtime thorn-in-the-side Vladimir Guerrero. While Guerrero’s power has dipped in recent years, he would still be a significant upgrade over Sweeney as a part-time DH, and could become a solid run producer with Ichiro and Figgins at the top of the lineup.

As of today there are still 266 free agents available for the Mariners to sign, so despite the team’s need to fill multiple holes in their lineup, there’s no need to panic–yet. The Rangers’ lastest moves have upped the ante, but Jack Zduriencik has shown himself to be a very capable baseball man, and will work tirelessly to make Seattle a frontrunner for the 2010 AL West title.

The Mariners certainly have issues to address, but the pieces to build a title contender are out there; now it’s just up to the Mariners and their front office to fit them all together.

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4 Responses

  1. Good analysis.

    Well, Jack Cust would be a nice fit as far as cost and production goes. He had a terrible 2009 but still managed a .356 OBP. But his OBP in 2008/2007 was about .385 combined. And he has some nice power. He can spend time in the OF and DH.

    The M’s have great OF speed with Ichiro and Gutierrez so perhaps the outfield can stomach a mediocre fielder if it means more offense.

    If they were able to get Guerrero and Cust that would be great. It would limit Griffey’s at bats though (don’t hit me).

    I want Figgins leading off:

    Figgins
    Ichiro
    Cust
    Guerrero
    Branyan
    Lopez
    Gutierrez
    Wilson
    Johnson (or some other catcher)

    What is Guerrero asking anyway? I don’t think he will be insanely expensive given his age and 2009 stats. Cust should be a bargain for what he can offer. His production over the last three years has been undervalued.

    Nick Johnson is better than Cust or Guerrero at this point. I guess it depends on what he is asking. Maybe he can stay healthy if he just DH’s.

    Going with a Johnson/Cameron combo is the other strategy I think. Better defense that way.

    Or for the best OBP, Johnson and Cust.

    Heck I don’t know!

    The M’s better grab two of those four fast if they want to be in a strong position.

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  3. True words, some true words dude. Made my day.

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    Further east ,
    really enjoyed, like Snow Creek Ski and Hidden Valley Ski Missouri

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