General manager Jack Zduriencik won't be flush with cash this offseason, but he figures to have a little more flexibility than last year when his free-agent spending was limited to catcher Miguel Olivo and designated hitter Jack Cust.
The Mariners haven't announced a player payroll budget for 2011, but they've consistently stayed in the mid-$90 million range the past three seasons, and that figures to be the ballpark figure again despite another season of declining attendance at Safeco Field in the wake of a second straight last-place finish in the American League West.
The club has about $26 million in payroll coming off the books with the departures of Milton Bradley ($13.3 million), Jack Wilson ($5 million) and Cust ($2.5 million), as well as about $6 million that was owed to Carlos Silva and Yuniesky Betancourt last year.
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However, about $11 million of that will be eaten up by pay raises due to returning players under contract. The biggest chunk of that is the $7.5 million hike for Felix Hernandez, whose deal increases to $19.2 million in 2012. Franklin Gutierrez, Olivo and Brendan Ryan also will receive a combined increase of $3.5 million.
Pitchers Jason Vargas and Brandon League figure to get sizable pay raises in the arbitration process, though those should be offset as the club chose not to tender an offer to injured closer David Aardsma, who earned $4.5 million last year but won't be ready to pitch until at least midseason as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. The right-hander cleared waivers and is a free agent.
When all the math is done, there appears to be roughly $15 million of available payroll if the budget remains on par with last season. Zduriencik must decide how to parlay that into the right help for a club that finished 67-95 and featured the least-productive offense in the Major Leagues for a second consecutive year.
Though the Mariners used last season as a tryout for 18 rookies, manager Eric Wedge says 2012 will be about winning. And while there are young pieces now in place at some positions, there are obviously spots that can be upgraded.
"You're always looking to add," Zduriencik said at season's end. "We've got to look at where we are offensively."
The club could try to put all its money toward one bopper, with many fans clamoring for pursuit of free agent Prince Fielder. That certainly would be a coup, but it's worth remembering that there's no assurance Fielder would choose a rebuilding Seattle team, nor is it an easy choice for any franchise to commit a huge long-term contract toward one player and hope he remains healthy and productive for the duration of that megadeal.
The Mariners have had a number of free-agent letdowns in the past, the latest a four-year contract for Chone Figgins that now hinders the current budget. Figgins still has two years at $18 million left on the deal he signed in 2010 while coming off a difficult season in which he lost his starting role and hit only .189.
With Hernandez, Ichiro Suzuki and Figgins already budgeted for a combined $47 million next year, the Mariners more likely will pursue shorter deals for veterans in left field, third base, designated hitter or the starting rotation who could supplement the young nucleus of players the team is building around.
Zduriencik might be more inclined to wheel and deal on the trade market this winter, looking to move Figgins or even Gutierrez, who is owed $13 million over the next two years, in order to create more flexibility. Seattle has young depth in the outfield and the pitching staff that could be used to bolster areas of need.
All that will play out in the coming weeks, with action figuring to heat up as the Winter Meetings approach in Dallas from Dec. 5-8.
The Mariners have six free agents of their own -- Josh Bard, Adam Kennedy, Wily Mo Pena, Luis Rodriguez, Jamey Wright and Aardsma. All except Aardsma were non-roster invitees who signed Minor League deals last year and could return under similar circumstances, with Wright and Bard seeming the most likely to receive Major League offers at this point.
Free agents: C Josh Bard, IF Adam Kennedy, DH Wily Mo Pena, RHP Jamey Wright, RHP David Aardsma, IF Luis Rodriguez
Eligible for arbitration: RHP Brandon League, LHP Jason Vargas (Likely Super 2 eligibility: RHP Shawn Kelley)
Areas of need
Third base: Unless the Mariners decide to give Figgins one last shot, rookies Kyle Seager and Alex Liddi are the top contenders. Both showed flashes last year. Liddi offers the power potential the Mariners crave and Seager is a solid hitter who rose quickly through the system. It's not a strong year for free agents at this position beyond the Cubs' Aramis Ramirez, so Zduriencik might either need to get creative in a trade or bank on the youngsters developing.
Left field/designated hitter: These two positions are intertwined, since Mike Carp proved he belongs in the lineup somewhere next season and figures to fill one of these roles. The club has a handful of young left-field candidates, including Casper Wells, Carlos Peguero, Michael Saunders, Trayvon Robinson and Greg Halman. But Zduriencik might try to supplement either in left or at DH by adding a veteran free agent if he could land a player like Josh Willingham or Ryan Ludwick.
Starting pitcher: The Mariners have two top-end starters in Hernandez and Michael Pineda and a solid veteran in Jason Vargas, plus a host of up-and-coming young talent. But unless they want to push a rookie like Danny Hultzen or James Paxton into the rotation immediately alongside Blake Beavan and/or Charlie Furbush, it might make sense to sign a short-term veteran to bridge the gap until help arrives. Would it be crazy to bring a 49-year-old Jamie Moyer back to a team building with youth?
Catcher: Olivo has one more year on his deal, but the Mariners are thin at this position and could look to add some veteran depth. Adam Moore is coming back from knee surgery, but there are some intriguing free agents as well. The Pirates' Ryan Doumit, a switch hitter who excels from the left side, would seem a perfect fit if his price was right.
2012 payroll: The Mariners haven't announced their player budget, but it's reasonable to expect something in the neighborhood of last year's $94.5 million. The club has about $26 million coming off the books with players gone from 2011, but also has about $11 million due for salary increases for returning players. Arbitration-eligible pitchers Vargas and League will likely get about another $4 million in raises, which should be offset, as the team did not tender an offer to the injured Aardsma. So it would appear, as a very general estimation, that Seattle has about $15 million in available payroll to pursue offseason additions.