SEATTLE — It’s hard for the Mariners to look at outfielder Nelson Cruz anchoring the middle of Baltimore’s lineup as the American League Championship Series unfolds and not wonder what might have been.
The Mariners had a deal in place last winter with Cruz, then a free agent, for roughly $7.5 million in 2014 with a club option of about $9 million for 2105…before ownership backed away.
The primary concern, which all clubs shared, was how Cruz, then 33, would respond after being caught and suspended as part of the Biogenesis drug scandal.
Still, officials with several clubs say they stopped viewing Cruz as a potential target because they expected he would bridge any differences with the Mariners.
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“I still don’t know what happened there,” an official with a rival club said. “We were told it was done. And it seemed such an obvious fit for both sides. There was risk, certainly, but…”
But it didn’t happen and, finally, the Orioles offered $8 million to Cruz after spring training started even though they already had plenty of thump. Unlike the Mariners, however, they liked the risk/reward possibilities.
Cruz signed and produced the best season of his 10-year career — leading the majors with 40 homers while driving in 108 runs and batting .271.
That production helped the Orioles survive crippling injuries to Matt Wieters and Manny Machado, and a lengthy suspension to Chris Davis. And the Orioles are now one step away from their first World Series in 31 years.
The Mariners, meanwhile, missed postseason by one game in large part because they never located a run-production, right-handed bat for the middle of their lineup.
That need remains the club’s top priority as it moves through the off-season. But while Cruz will again be a free agent…well, that ship has sailed, right?
“Oh, I wouldn’t rule it out,” one Mariners official said. “We know what we need, and we’re going to go hard after one of those guys.”
Having that guy — i.e., that right-handed power bat — turn out to be Cruz seems an astoundingly long shot.
For one thing, the Orioles (no surprise) show strong interest in retaining him, and he’s a terrific fit in cozy Camden Yards.
But as the Mariners proved last winter, and can currently lament, no deal is a deal until it’s final.
Fallout continues from comments by general manager Jack Zduriencik in his after-season news conference regarding outfielder Michael Saunders.
“The thing with Michael is trying to keep him on the field for the amount of time you’d like to have him,” Zduriencik said. “It’s unfortunate…Some are freak injuries. Some are things that just happen.
“But some of these things need to be handled from a maintenance standpoint to where he puts himself in a position to be able to compete over the course of the season.”
Saunders and his agent, Michael McCann, saw those comments as an unfair knock on Saunders’ work habits in a public forum. Fact is, Zduriencik would likely choose different words if given another chance.
But…the Mariners, right or wrong, do see Saunders, 27, as injury-prone (although he had had more than 900 at-bats in 2012-13). That view makes it hard for them to see him a reliable piece in putting together their 2015 roster.
The Mariners also see a left-handed hitter in a lefty-heavy lineup whose career slash is .231/.301/.685. Further, they see a player who is eligible for arbitration again after making $2.3 million in 2014.
That price figures to go north of $3 million in 2015 because Saunders, while he played just 78 games, set career highs in all three slash categories: .273 average, .341 on-base percentage and .450 slugging percentage.
The Mariners appear committed to Dustin Ackley and Austin Jackson in left and center field. They believe their primary off-season target of a right-handed power bat fits best in right field.
If so, that turns Saunders into a fourth outfielder at $3 million or more, which doesn’t seem a good fit for anybody.
Right-hander Matt Brazis, the Mariners’ minor-league reliever of the year, vultured a victory Thursday for Surprise in the Arizona Fall League.
Brazis, 25, inherited a one-run lead at Glendale but gave up two runs in his only inning on two hits and two walks. He emerged as the winner when the Saguaros rallied for three runs the following inning in a 7-4 victory.
Third baseman D.J. Peterson went one for three with a walk for Surprise. He is 2-for-6 in two games. First baseman Patrick Kivlehan was 0-for-3 but had two walks.
*Ji-Man Choi played left field Thursday and went 2-for-3 with a homer for Aragua in a 4-1 victory over Caracas on opening day in the Venezuelan Winter League.