The Mariners’ interest in acquiring an impact right-handed hitter — at least one — is well known, and has drawn much discussion, for weeks, among the club’s fans.
General manager Jack Zduriencik identified the need to obtain such a bat as the club’s top off-season priority in a news conference just two days after the season ended.
“We will explore every opportunity out there,” he said. “I think we’ll be reasonably aggressive in trying to do something to try to add an offensive piece or two.”
Many potential targets were soon identified, here and among other Seattle-area media outlets, but the Mariners’ pursuit of a right-handed hitter is only now gaining serious traction as a discussion topic in the national media.
So maybe this is a good time for a review.
This much hasn’t changed: Everything points to the Mariners making a determined effort to add a major right-handed bat.
They pursued Victor Martinez before he re-signed with Detroit; they showed interest in Hanley Ramirez before he signed with Boston, and in Billy Butler before he signed with Oakland.
The Mariners took a look at Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas but, apparently, found the bidding too high in their risk/return evaluation. Tomas recently signed with Arizona.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Mariners also took a run at free-agent catcher Russell Martin despite having Mike Zunino, whom they have often characterized as a cornerstone, in place.
Martin chose to sign with Toronto.
OK, who’s left?
While there might be another Martin-like surprise lingering off the known radar, five potential targets stand out: Yoenis Cespedes, Nelson Cruz, Evan Gattis, Matt Kemp and Justin Upton.
All are outfielders. (Yes, Gattis has played catcher, but he projects as a outfielder going forward.) Cruz is the only free agent in the group.
These five comprise what many view as the Mariners’ primary target list. Other possibilities — such as free-agent outfielder Alex Rios, Phillies outfielder Marlon Byrd and others — seem, for now, to be fall-back options.
So what do the Mariners have to offer?
They appear positioned to add payroll. Even after reaching a new deal with Kyle Seager for $100 million over seven years — that should become official next week — the Mariners should be able to shoulder a major salary.
Further, other clubs say the Mariners show a willingness to deal a starting pitcher — Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker draw the most attention. Roenis Elias or even Danny Hultzen are also probably available.
The Mariners appear more reluctant to surrender James Paxton, but they can dip into a deep bullpen if they need to sweeten and close a deal.
The key pieces, of course, are Iwakuma and Walker.
While Iwakuma is 38-20 with a 3.07 ERA in three seasons since arriving from Japan, he is only under contract through next year. An extension is possible, but he’ll be 34 in April.
Walker, 22, has long oozed potential and won’t even be eligible for arbitration for at least two more years. He won’t be eligible for free agency for at least six more seasons.
That makes it unlikely the Mariners would trade Walker in any straight-up deal for a one-year rental such as Cespedes or Upton. Iwakuma looms as a much likelier trade chip in a one-for-one deal.
So what about those five top-tier targets:
***Cespedes: He became somewhat superfluous in Boston after the Red Sox signed Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. So Cespedes is available at $10.5 million for one year before he becomes a free agent.
Actually, he was being shopped before the Red Sox signed Sandoval and Ramirez, which might be a red flag since they gave up ace lefty Jon Lester on July 31 to get him in a multi-player deal with Oakland.
Cespedes, 29, has played primarily left field; he has never played right. That means either he or Dustin Ackley would have to move to right. Neither alternative is ideal.
What is indisputable is Cespedes has big-time power: 71 homers and .464 slugging percentage in three years since defecting from Cuba. Fifteen of those homers came in his 52 career games against the Mariners.
***Cruz: He’s the only free agent in the group, and he received a qualifying offer from Baltimore, which means the Mariners would lose their first-round pick (currently No. 19 overall) next June if they sign him.
Also, Cruz has a three-year offer on the table from the Orioles, which any competitor would need to beat. So the Mariners would likely be required to go four years at $60 million or more and lose a draft pick.
Cruz is 34.
The back story also comes into play here.
When Cruz was a free agent a year ago, and coming off a drug-related suspension, he reached agreement with the Mariners on a one-year deal for $7.5 million with a one-year option for about $9 million.
The Mariners’ ownership vetoed the deal. He then signed a one-year deal with the Orioles for $8 million and led the majors with 40 homers.
***Gattis: He is the least accomplished but, perhaps, the most intriguing name on the list. Only 28, he hit 43 homers and posted a .487 slugging percentage over the last two years.
Many scouts expect those numbers to jump once he makes the move from catcher to full-time outfielder. He also comes with four years of club control and won’t even be eligible for arbitration until next winter.
Word is the Braves prefer to keep Gattis; they much rather deal Upton. So any deal is likely to require a major return; that probably means Walker.
***Kemp: The Mariners have long liked him, and some believe he is now No. 1 on their list. The plus is he comes, at age 30, with five years of club control and, unlike Cruz, won’t include the loss of a draft pick.
Kemp also played 59 games last year in right field, which is where the Mariners would prefer to put any newcomer.
The negatives: He missed much of 2012-13 because of injuries after his breakout 2011 season, although he bounced back this season by playing 150 games and batting .287 with 25 homers.
Kemp’s contract calls for $107 million over the next five years. While steep, that’s not quite as mind-boggling as it once was in light of some recent signings.
Further, the Dodgers acknowledge a willingness to eat some of Kemp’s salary depending on, and in relation to, what they receive in return.
***Upton: The Braves are determined to deal Upton who, at 27, will make $14.5 million next year before becoming a free agent. They also want a bigger return than they received in sending Jason Heyward to St. Louis.
Many industry analysts predict the Braves will lower their demands.
The Mariners once tried to acquire Upton from Arizona in a January 2013 swap that involved Walker, but Upton killed the deal. His contract, at the time, included the Mariners in a no-trade clause.
That’s no longer the case. (His four current no-trade clubs are the Cubs, Indians, Brewers and Blue Jays.)
Upton certainly provides thump. He was a Silver Slugger recipient this season after hitting 29 homers with 102 RBIs and compiling a .491 slugging percentage.
And while he spent much of the last two years in left field, he played right field extensively earlier in his career.