Seattle Mariners

Analysis: Looking at the Mariners’ potential off-season targets

The Hot Stove that warms baseball fans throughout the winter is about to heat up.

Technically, free agency is already underway, although those players can only negotiate with their former clubs until late Monday — specifically through 9 p.m. (PST).

Even so, the rumor mill is already grinding away.

The Seattle Mariners are on record as prioritizing the need to bolster a run-challenged attack that ranked 11th among the 15 American League clubs in scoring.

“We will explore every opportunity out there,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “I think we’ll be reasonably aggressive in trying to do something to try to add an offensive piece or two.”

And club president Kevin Mather is on the record as saying Zduriencik will have a payroll sufficient to improve a club that, at 87-75, fell one game shy of ending its postseason drought.

So, no surprise, the Mariners are already linked to numerous players as possible acquisition targets through trades or free agency. Our initial list is 10 names (in alphabetical order):

Billy Butler, designated hitter, pending free agent: Kansas City faces a Saturday deadline to pick up a $12.5 million option on Butler for 2015. Everything suggests the Royals will instead exercise a $1 million buyout.

“I hope it's not my last game as a Kansas City Royal,” Butler said after the Royals lost Wednesday to the San Francisco Giants in the seventh game of the World Series. “But it’s a business, and you have to realize that.”

The Mariners have long liked Butler and are among a handful of clubs that could accommodate him as a full-time DH. That alone could make him the most likely guy on this list to become a Mariner.

Butler should be affordable. Industry estimates say he is unlikely to get more than $6 million-$7 million a year and not for more than two years. But there's a reason for that: His production is down sharply over the past two years.

The upside is Butler, a right-handed hitter, could bounce back big if slotted between two impact lefty bats in Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager.

Melky Cabrera, outfielder, free agent: He appears rehabilitated from his 2012 drug suspension, and he’s a switch-hitter who could slide into right field. And he’s still just 30 years old.

But the Toronto Blue Jays are expected to make a qualifying offer ($15.3 million). If so, the Mariners would lose their first-round pick by signing Cabrera, and he seems likely to get a three-year deal for at least $35 million.

Add this: Cabrera says he wants to stay in Toronto and, barring that, prefers to play for a club located on or near the East Coast. It doesn’t sound like he’s coming to the Mariners.

Yoenis Cespedes, outfielder, Boston: Word from the Red Sox is they’re willing to trade Cespedes, whom they acquired July 31 from Oakland for Bellarmine Prep grad Jon Lester, and who has one year remaining on his contract at $10.5 million.

The Mariners, maybe more than any other club, has seen (and felt) the punishment of Cespedes’ power right-handed bat. So, yes, he would give their lineup some oomph. So this is a rumor worth tracking.

But here’s the question asked by potential suitors: Why are the Red Sox looking to deal this guy after just two months? That big right-handed bat should be a natural fit at Fenway Park.

Nelson Cruz, outfielder, free agent: The Mariners, as is now known, could have had him a year ago on a one-year deal for about $7.5 million with a $9 million club option for 2015.

Cruz was, at the time, a free agent returning from a drug-related suspension, and ownership nixed a possible deal. In hindsight, that was a hauntingly bad move.

Now, he’s back on the market after signing a one-year deal with Baltimore and leading the league with 40 homers. The Orioles want to retain Cruz and are expected to extend a qualifying offer before Saturday’s deadline.

If so, that means the Mariners would likely need to offer at least three years at close to $50 million and lose their first-round pick next year to bring Cruz to the Northwest. Seems unlikely.

Michael Cuddyer, outfielder, free agent: The big question is whether Cuddyer, who will be 36 by opening day, is healthy enough to risk major dollars. Shoulder and hamstring problems limited him this year to 49 games.

If healthy, he could be exactly what the Mariners are looking for — he batted .332 this season after winning the National League batting title at .331 in 2013. He could play right field, first base and DH.

The Rockies aren’t expected to extend a qualifying offer, which could make Cuddyer one of the most-sought free agents on the market — especially if industry estimates of two years for $20 million are correct.

It will be surprising if the Mariners don’t make a serious push.

Torii Hunter, outfielder, free agent: The question with Hunter, at 39, is how much his legs have left and how much want-to he still possesses — although he now seems open to returning for another season.

His offensive numbers remained solid this season at Detroit, but most advanced defensive metrics say he’s declined sharply from the player who won nine consecutive Gold Gloves from 2001-09.

Kansas City appears interested in Hunter, in part, to log some time as DH in place of Butler. Hunter could also help fill the leadership void likely created by James Shields’ departure as a free agent.

Hunter could be a good short-term gamble for just about any team, including the Mariners. It’s likely he’d settle for a one-year deal, although it could push $10 million-$12 million.

Matt Kemp, outfielder, Los Angeles Dodgers: There’s been nothing recently to suggest the Dodgers are looking to trade Kemp, who just had a nice bounce-back season after two injury-plagued years.

So why is he on this list?

The Mariners have always liked Kemp, 30, and even appeared interested in acquiring him while he battled those injuries — despite a platinum-level contract that still calls for $107 million over the next five years.

And the Dodgers still have too many outfielders.

Victor Martinez, designated hitter, free agent: If the Mariners compiled (and were willing to release) a wish list, there’s a good bet that Martinez would be at the top.

He’s a switch-hitter who just led the American League with a .409 on-base percentage while hitting a career-high 32 homers. He’s mostly a DH these days, although he can play first base.

Prying him away from Detroit will be tough. The Tigers have already extended a qualifying offer, which means the Mariners would need to win a bidding war and accept the loss of the first-round draft pick.

Martinez wants a four-year deal. Are the Mariners willing to pony up at least $60 million and maybe more — along with the loss of a draft pick?

Alex Rios, outfielder, free agent: It’s hard to know what to expect from this 33-year-old whose 11-year career has been marked by big surges and extended stalls.

His upside positions him as a productive fit for the Mariners in right field. He batted .280 over the last year-plus at Texas, but he had just four homers this season in 521 plate appearances.

Defensive metrics also aren’t particularly kind to Rios.

Many clubs, including the Mariners, seem likely to view him as a fall-back option. Scouts suggest he could be a reasonable one-year risk at up to $10 million. Few if any like the idea of a two-year deal.

Yasmani Tomas, outfielder, free agent: The wild card in the mix is this Cuban defector whose value seems to be escalating in the wake of success by his countrymen.

Initial reports suggested the Mariners has interest in Tomas, but they now appear focused on other areas. Recent reports suggest Tomas could beat the seven-year, $72.5 million deal that Boston gave Rusney Castillo.

If true, the Mariners are likely to look elsewhere.

Short hops

Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma will join teammate Cano on a major-league select team for an upcoming series of five games this month against Japan’s national team (Samurai Japan) in Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo. ... The Mariners reinstated utilityman Willie Bloomquist from the 60-day disabled list in a move that boosted their 40-man roster to 34 players. The South Kitsap High graduate, 36, underwent season-ending surgery Aug. 9 on his right knee after suffering a micro-fracture July 23 while running out a ground ball.

bob.dutton@thenewstribune.com

blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners

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