LAS VEGAS – With the stunning Bellagio Resort and Hotel as backdrop, it would be easy to use gambling clichés and metaphors to discuss the Seattle Mariners’ role in the baseball winter meetings this week here on the Las Vegas Strip.
But could any of the moves the Mariners might make over the next four days be construed as a gamble?
Not when you are as bad as the Mariners were the past season.
How bad? Historically bad, as in the first team with a payroll of more than $100 million to lose more than 100 games.
Perhaps the worst thing the Mariners could do the rest of this offseason is stand pat. But that’s about as likely as the neon on the Strip going dark for a night.
Since he was hired, new general manager Jack Zduriencik has shown a willingness and assertiveness to make changes, be it related to philosophy or personnel.
He’s already made changes to the roster, optioning out pitcher R.A. Dickey, adding young prospects Greg Halman and Mike Wilson to the 40-man roster and signing slugging infielder Russell Branyan to a free-agent contract.
It is logical to expect more in the next few days. But Zduriencik is playing it pretty cool going into his first winter meetings as a general manager.
“Open-minded, I think, is the best way to put it,” Zduriencik said. “It takes two to tango. I’m not in the mood to give anybody away. I’m in the mood to improve this ballclub. If there is a move that could help this ballclub short term as well as long term, certainly I’m going to entertain that.”
Unlike last year, where then-GM Bill Bavasi made it his personal crusade to add an ace pitcher, the Mariners come in with different needs and different wants.
Said Zduriencik: “We lost 101 games, so there are quite a few areas we can improve on.”
Pitching is not the problem. If anything, the Mariners have a surplus. If Erik Bedard can come back healthy from minor offseason shoulder surgery, the Mariners would have six starters: Bedard, Felix Hernandez, Carlos Silva, lefties Jarrod Washburn and Ryan Rowland-Smith and midseason convert Brandon Morrow. Part-time starter Miguel Batista, who led the Mariners in wins in 2007, is also still under contract.
There are some caveats here. Based on his awful performance last season (4-15, 6.46 ERA) and his gargantuan contract, Silva has little if any trade value. Washburn had some good moments last season but, with a contract that will pay him $10.3 million this season, he’s far from the top of anyone’s wish list. Batista is in the same situation after struggling with injuries and inconsistency all through 2008 and being owed $9 million in 2009. Both players could be dealt in a minor deal or a package, but they won’t command much in return.
The Mariners likely will avoid dealing Morrow, the team’s top draft pick in June 2006, because they think he has only scraped the surface of his potential. Hernandez also seems to be off limits. And, of course, Ichiro Suzuki isn’t going anywhere.
“There are a few keepers here,” Zduriencik said. “Certainly a few keepers.”
If the Mariners could trade away some pitching, they would be looking for some offensive production. The signing of Branyan was meant to address their anemic .389 slugging percentage last season.
With Raul Ibañez likely to leave in free agency, the need for offense will only increase. Zduriencik’s former team, the Milwaukee Brewers, could be a trading partner. The Brewers are laden with hitters in both the major and minor leagues, but likely will lose their top two starters – Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia – in free agency.
Perhaps the most coveted Mariners on the trade market are third baseman Adrian Beltre and closer J.J. Putz.
Beltre is coming off his second Gold Glove season, and while his offensive numbers dipped slightly, he remains a valuable commodity to a team such as the Minnesota Twins, who tried to acquire him last season.
Putz’s value is down a little because of the many injuries that plagued him last season, but he is viewed as a cheaper alternative for teams in search of a closer than the likes of Francisco Rodriguez.
“People have inquired about them, yes,” Zduriencik said of Beltre and Putz. “They’ve inquired about other people as well.”
But no real deals have been offered yet.
“It’s been calling me, asking me about it, and ‘Would you be interested?’ ” Zduriencik said.
That’s likely to change soon.
Zduriencik is making no promises but says he’ll be active.
“Will I be going in with expectations? I would say yes,” he said. “There are possibilities that things can happen. It depends on what other ballclubs have to say. Am I expecting to have conversations with several ballclubs? Yes I am.”
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483
THIS WEEK AT THE WINTER MEETINGS…
What to watch for
• Who will sign free-agent stars Manny Ramirez and CC Sabathia, and how much will they pay? That will set the market for other free agents, such as Mark Teixeira and Bob Abreu.
• Jake Peavy isn’t going to be pitching for the Padres, but who is going to trade for him?
• Ken Griffey Jr. has supposedly lost more than 10 pounds and is looking for a job. Is there a Mariners reunion in his future?
• How active will the Mariners be? They don’t have many coveted players, but there are a few who could command something in return. What the Mariners do will show a lot about how new general manager Jack Zduriencik plans to move forward with the team.
Up for grabs from the Mariners
Adrian Beltre, 3B
• With his glove, his power and one year remaining on his contract, teams still want him.
J.J. Putz, RHP
• Health is a concern, but teams might take a chance on this closer for a reduced price.
Yuniesky Betancourt, SS
• His value was much higher two years ago, but some teams are that desperate.
Ryan Rowland-Smith, LHP
• He’s young, he’s competitive, he’s left-handed and he came on strong last season.
Who won’t be traded by the Mariners
Ichiro Suzuki, OF
• Principal owner Hiroshi Yamauchi would never allow such a thing.
Felix Hernandez, RHP
• Still the jewel of the Mariners’ pitching future and the ace of the staff.
Brandon Morrow, RHP
• Can’t give up on a guy who has been shuffled around in his team role so much.
Carlos Triunfel, SS
• Many teams will inquire about this minor-leaguer’s availability; many teams will find out he’s not.