Something tells me the next few days will be pivotal — perhaps even career-defining — for Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik.
A year ago this week, Zduriencik signed second baseman Robinson Cano, the prize of the 2013 free-agent class. Although Cano was as productive as advertised, the Mariners need to complement him with a right-handed power bat or three, and they're not going to find one among this year's group of free agents.
Zduriencik's challenge is substantial, because right-handed sluggers have become as coveted as left-handed starters once were. Half of the teams in baseball are searching for hitters capable of providing offensive balance to lineups that lean left.
You've got to give up a chip to acquire a chip, of course, and here is where Zduriencik has an edge over the competition.
Despite injuries that prevented them from simultaneously contributing to the Mariners' rotation until September, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton remain uncommonly valuable trade pieces.
They're young but more accomplished than typical prospects; they've got contracts that will keep them under a club's control for several years, and each projects to be at least a No. 2 starter. It's not a question of whether Zduriencik will trade either Walker or Paxton.
The question is — When? I suspect a major deal will go down during the winter meetings, scheduled to begin Dec. 7.
The other question is — Which one? Presumably it's Walker, offered two years ago to Arizona in a trade outfielder Justin Upton nixed by invoking a contract clause sparing him the indignity of relocating to the Pacific Northwest.
Upton, who ended up with the Atlanta Braves, has taken Seattle off his "hell no, I won't go," list. If Zduriencik and the Mariners owners are inclined to forgive and forget, the veteran undeniably fits.
He's durable, hits with authority from the right side (29 homers, 102 RBIs last season) and as an outfielder, unlike the Dodgers' Matt Kemp — another right-handed power hitter on the trading block — he's not an accident waiting to happen.
Upton also is on track to be a free agent in 2016, which complicates things. If he were to bolt after one season, while Walker turns into an All-Star, anything short of a Mariners World Series appearance next October would find the trade as mocked as the debacle (no need to list the participants in the exchange — you know who they are) former general manager Bill Bavasi arranged with the Baltimore Orioles.
Another trade scenario, also involving Atlanta, could be for Evan Gattis, a right-handed hitting catcher who also can play the outfield. Gattis put together a decent slash line last season (.263/.317/.493) while hitting 22 homers, and he isn't eligible to become a free agent until 2019.
It's fair to wonder why Atlanta general manager John Hart apparently is taking offers for Upton and Gattis. But consider the state of the franchise: The Braves are in the process of a transition, literally, from downtown Atlanta to a new ballpark in suburban Cobb County, set to open in 2017.
A roster overhaul, predicated on acquiring high-ceiling players in their mid-20s who figure to be polished by 2017, makes sense for the Braves.
At the same time, trading talented but ultimately unproven players makes sense for the Mariners. Cano is 32, at the peak of a career that likely won't produce more than three or four stellar seasons. Ace Felix Hernandez turns 29 next April, and while it's too early to worry about his inevitable regression, the shelf lives of all pitchers are tentative.
The 2014 Mariners came one game short of qualifying for a wild card berth in a postseason that sent two wild card teams to the World Series. A window was open, and the window figures to stay open in 2015.
That the Mariners finished on the fringe of the playoffs is not privileged information. Zduriencik's fellow general managers realize he's desperate to deal, so I don't expect him to perform wizardry.
I merely expect him to swing a blockbuster trade before the conclusion of the winter meetings. The trade won't get unanimous approval, and there's a chance it won't even get the consensus approval of Mariners fans.
Put simply, the trade will cost an arm, if not a leg.
But Jack Zduriencik has to do what he has to do. He's approached a four-way stop where turning right puts him on a road fraught with potholes, and turning left puts him on a road that might meander into a dead end.
This way, that way, those are his choices.
Exercising caution, while proceeding forward with his fingers crossed, is not an option.