Seattle Mariners

Analysis: Could Mariners’ search for an outfielder lead them back to Justin Upton?

What about Justin Upton to the Seattle Mariners?

The Atlanta Braves’ apparent willingness to lower its price in efforts to trade Upton is already stirring whispers that he might land in Seattle.

Specifically, it seems the Braves are no longer demanding that Taijuan Walker be included in any such swap. I first saw that news in a report by MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, but some follow-up calls suggest it’s true.

That could be a game-changer.

Now, let me put the qualifier in right here: This is, at this point, largely an exercise in connecting the dots from a lot of industry scuttlebutt.

And it was similar scuttlebutt that labeled the Mariners as heavy favorites to sign free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera … until he reached a three-year deal Saturday with the Chicago White Sox.

So take it on those terms.

But …

The Mariners are looking for a right-handed hitter to play right field and have long coveted Upton, who is very available in the Braves’ ongoing overhaul. Upton has just one year remaining before free agency.

Recall the Mariners actually traded for Upton in January 2013 while he was in Arizona. That deal would have sent several prospects, including Walker, to the Diamondbacks.

Upton squashed the deal by exercising a limited no-trade clause in his contract that included the Mariners. Arizona subsequently traded him to Atlanta.

Fast forward: Upton’s contract no longer allows him to block a trade to the Mariners, who talked earlier this offseason with the Braves about a possible trade.

Those talks stalled because Atlanta wanted Walker included in the deal. But circumstances have changed from two years ago, and the Mariners are unwilling to surrender Walker in a deal for Upton.

It’s not hard to see why.

Two years ago, the Mariners would have gained three years of control over Upton. Now, it’s just one. Also, two years ago, Walker was a prospect (albeit highly regarded) who had not pitched above Double-A.

The Mariners now see Walker as poised to step into their big-league rotation while still being under club control for six more seasons. In short, they’re not interested in trading six years of control for one.

But if the Braves are now willing to accept a package built around lower-level pitching prospects such as Edwin Diaz or Victor Sanchez … that’s a different matter.

Further, because of other trades and signings, the Braves now see the Mariners and San Diego Padres as their best potential trade partners for Upton.

Finally, from all appearances, the Braves appear determined to trade Upton who, still just 27, is an eight-year veteran who batted .270 last season with 29 homers and 102 RBIs in 154 games.

Make no mistake: Diaz, 20, and Sanchez, 19, are legitimate prospects. But Diaz hasn’t pitched above low Single-A Clinton, while Sanchez spent last season at Double-A Jackson.

Add this: Any package to acquire Upton would almost certainly include other pieces from the Mariners’ system. (For example, would the Mariners be willing to put D.J. Peterson on the table? My guess is no.)

It’s also worth remembering the Mariners, whatever their perceived need for a right fielder, believe they already boosted their lineup significantly by signing free-agent Nelson Cruz, who led the majors last season in homers.

Before the Cruz signing, club officials talked of “needing” to do something to improve their attack. There was a sense of urgency. Since Cruz signed, the tone shifted to “wanting” to do something further “if it made sense.”

Privately, some club officials concede they might have reluctantly surrendered Walker, or someone similar, if necessary to land the first big bat on their offseason checklist.

They show no willingness to make such a sacrifice for the second bat even if the status quo projects as a James Jones/Stefen Romero platoon in right field.

But if the key element in landing that second bat is a pitcher such as Diaz or Sanchez … well, the Mariners appear reasonably well-stocked in their rotation for the coming years.

Felix Hernandez is signed through 2019, and the club controls James Paxton and Roenis Elias for five more years, and Walker and a now-healthy Danny Hultzen for six years.

Upton is under contract next season for $14.5 million. While he can walk after the season, the Mariners could extend a qualifying offer (which figures to be roughly $16 million).

Such an offer might aid efforts to retain Upton. But if he signs elsewhere, the Mariners get a compensatory pick between the first and second rounds of the 2016 draft to, effectively, replace a prospect they’d now surrender.

That’s the scuttlebutt, anyway.

One final point to remember: If the Braves find a better offer from the Padres, that would likely increase San Diego’s efforts to trade outfielder Seth Smith.

The Mariners have shown interest in Smith.

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