The only real question facing the Mariners as the deadline for tendering contracts arrives at 9 p.m. Friday is what to do with veteran catcher Jesus Sucre?
The Mariners project Mike Zunino as their starting catcher, and they acquired veteran Carlos Ruiz from the Los Angeles Dodgers in Nov. 6 trade to serve as Zunino’s backup.
Clubs typically only carry two catchers on their 25-man roster.
So where does that leave Sucre? He is not only out of options, which means he can’t be sent to the minors next season unless he clears waivers, but he is also eligible for salary arbitration.
General manager Jerry Dipoto was non-committal earlier this week when asked about Sucre, saying only that the Mariners are continuing to weigh various possibilities.
The clock is ticking.
Any unsigned player who isn’t offered a contract prior to the deadline immediately becomes a free agent who can sign elsewhere with no compensation to his former club.
With Sucre, the issue is the lack of options.
He spent parts of the last four seasons in the big leagues but played only 90 games in that span. Even if his salary goes to arbitration, industry projections show he is only likely to get about $600,000 — the major-league minimum is $507,500.
Ideally, the Mariners would again like to assign Sucre, 28, to Triple-A Tacoma as insurance against an injury to Zunino or Ruiz. They also have no viable in-house alternative to Sucre for this role, but that means getting him through waivers.
The choice appears to be this:
***Sign Sucre prior to the deadline or, failing that, extend an offer and accept the risk of binding arbitration. Then send him through waivers at a later date.
If he clears waivers, no problem. He can be sent to Tacoma on an outright assignment. If Sucre gets selected by another club, begin searching for another veteran with major-league experience who is willing to sign a minor-league deal.
Here’s where it gets dicey: When do the Mariners put Sucre on waivers?
Do it too soon, and another club with catching problems might select him — perhaps just for a look in spring training but in the hope that it can slip him through waivers at a later date.
(The Mariners did just that last March in selecting Rob Brantly off waivers from the Chicago White Sox and then putting him on waivers just before the season started. When Brantly cleared, the Mariners assigned him to Tacoma.)
But wait too long in sending Sucre through waivers and, if another club selects him, the pool of viable replacement candidates with options remaining and/or willing to accept a minor-league deal might be thinner than desired.
***Allow Sucre to become a free agent Friday night by not making a contract offer. The Mariners, at that point, could then try to sign him to a minor-league deal or begin looking elsewhere for a replacement they can assign to Tacoma.
Club officials prefer Sucre to any likely alternative because he knows the staff and, in the past, has proven amenable to filling the projected role.
The Mariners have 31 other unsigned players on their 40-man roster — and all are expected to receive contract offers.
That list includes six who, like Sucre, are eligible for arbitration: outfielder Leonys Martin, shortstop Jean Segura, first baseman/outfielder Danny Valencia, starting pitcher James Paxton and relievers Evan Scribner and Nick Vincent.
Their remaining 25 unsigned players lack the service time necessary for arbitration. Clubs can renew contracts on those players for (with few exceptions) any amount at or above the $507,500 minimum.
The Friday deadline only requires that a club tender a contract offer. It doesn’t mean that an agreement must be in place. But an offer to an arbitration-eligible player means the club accepts the risk of an arbitration hearing if the two sides can’t reach a negotiated settlement.
For that reason, clubs often choose not to offer contracts to marginal arbitration-eligible players if they can’t reach an agreement prior to the deadline. Injured players or those whose value has declined are also often non-tender candidates.
The pool of non-tendered players creates a subclass of lower-priced free agents on the eve of the Winter Meetings, which begin a four-day run Monday in Washington, D.C.
VENDITTE TO TACOMA
Switch-pitcher Pat Venditte is returning to Triple-A Tacoma on an outright assignment after clearing waivers.
The Mariners designated Venditte, 31, for assignment Nov. 23 in order to clear space on their 40-man roster following a five-player trade with Arizona.
Venditte allowed 10 runs in 13 1/3 innings over seven big-league appearances following an Aug. 27 recall from Tacoma. He is 2-2 with a 4.97 ERA in 41 career games with three clubs.
The Mariners acquired Venditte from Toronto in an Aug. 6 trade for minor-league infielder Tim Lopes. Venditte gave up one run in 8 1/3 innings in five games for the Rainiers before getting recalled to the big leagues.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners