The Seattle Mariners’ leaders travel to Dallas and baseball’s annual winter meetings with plenty of needs – knowing it may be the wrong year to find everything they’re looking for.
They go armed with a young closer they’re willing to trade, Brandon League, who saved 37 games and had a 2.79 earned-run average. The free-agent market, however, had at least nine more experienced closers available.
Four of those - Heath Bell (Marlins), Jonathan Papelbon (Phillies), Joe Nathan (Rangers) and Jonathan Broxton (Royals) – have signed in the past month.
And while that still leaves plenty of teams looking for late-inning relief, there are still arms such as Ryan Madson, Francisco Cordero, Francisco Rodriguez and Matt Capps available on a cash-only basis.
So the Mariners, who finished in fourth place in the American League West with a 67-95 record in 2011, arrive with a bargaining chip that may not bring the return they’d hoped for.
Where does that leave them?
Working with a payroll similar to last year, Seattle figures to have about $15 million available – with Felix Hernandez ($19.5 million), Ichiro Suzuki ($18 million) and Chone Figgins ($9 million) taking up about half the budget.
The good news could be that the Mariners need offense, and two of the most productive hitters in the game – Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder – are free agents.
The bad news? Behind those two, the drop off is swift.
Among the remaining free-agent hitters are names such as Michael Cuddyer, Aramis Ramirez, Johnny Damon and Jason Kubel.
If Seattle wanted to go after the best designated hitter not named Fielder, it could pursue Boston free agent David Ortiz. Convincing him to leave the American League East to play for a noncontender in the Northwest, however, appears more than a long shot.
Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik may, however, be able to unload Figgins this month – although he’ll have to send along most of the remaining $18 million on his contract.
Who’d take Figgins?
The Washington Nationals need a leadoff hitter, and if Figgins came cheaply enough, they might be willing to move a few marginal players or lower-level prospects. That’s the kind of deal the Mariners will be pursuing, knowing that anything they save on Figgins’ contract can go toward filling their needs.
Zduriencik has said those needs include offense - the Mariners batted .233 in 2011 and their DHs hit .226 with nine home runs and 57 RBI.
On the GM’s wish list is also a veteran starting pitcher, a left-handed reliever and a backup shortstop.
While much has been made of Zduriencik’s relationship with Fielder, whom he has known since Fielder was in high school, it’s doubtful that’s going to help much.
For one thing, the Cubs are talking to Fielder, and Fielder has a personal relationship with that team, too – new manager Dale Sveum was his hitting coach.
The word is that Pujols most likely will return to St. Louis, but that Fielder isn’t going back to Milwaukee for the Brewers’ latest offer of $120 million over six years.
Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, has been seeking $200 million over eight years.
If bidding gets that high, Seattle is out.
What the Mariners do have that other teams covet is young starting pitching: Michael Pineda, Dan Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Blake Beavan among them.
If the Mariners are going to make a splash with a trade, they almost certainly will have to include a package of pitchers and other prospects that could include Alex Liddi, Nick Franklin, Kyle Seager, Johermyn Chavez and Carlos Peguero.
That package might also include closer League.
Who still needs a closer? Well, the Red Sox, Mets, Reds, Twins, Blue Jays and Padres are all looking, although San Diego couldn’t afford even Mrs. League.
One possibility to watch: League in a package for Cincinnati first baseman Yonder Alonso, a 24-year-old left-handed batter whose future may be blocked by teammate Joey Votto, the 2010 National League MVP.
Zduriencik isn’t the kind of GM to let ideas sit quietly in the corner.
Before the meetings end next week in Dallas, he will have talked to every team with a possible match – and either landed or ruled out whichever free agents he covets.