Most around baseball aren't expecting the Seattle Mariners to make the wholesale changes to the roster necessary to make them a real contender in the American League West in 2012. Prince Fielder, one of the biggest free agent bats on the market this season, has ties to Mariners Executive Vice President and General Manager of Baseball Operations Jack Zduriencik, but the investment required to land a bat like Fielder—likely upwards of $150 million over at least six years—doesn't make sense to many because, as they would put it, the M's are more than one big bat away from contention. That point is probably true, but as the offseason is about to get into full-swing Monday when the Winter Meetings get underway in Dallas, I wouldn't be so swift to dismiss Seattle as players for Fielder's—or any other big free agent's—services.
When asked directly about Fielder earlier this offseason, Zduriencik said, "Until things get more definitive, we'll just have to wait and see." Certainly that just sounds like a classic case of ‘GM-speak', but it could actually be a clue as to the team's plans. 2012 will be the third full season for the Mariners under Zduriencik's watch, and while his contract was extended recently, don't think that Jack is naïve enough to rest on his laurels and take another ‘wait-and-see' approach to the upcoming season. Baseball is a fickle game, and fans demand results on the field, the major league field, or they demand change. With the recent influx of quality youth in the big leagues at prime positions—most notably Dustin Ackley at second base and Michael Pineda in the starting rotation—and with a farm system busting at the seams with talent like Nick Franklin, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen, the Mariners are in a stronger position than they have been in quite some time to go out and build a contending team.
Things getting "more definitive" could mean that trades are in the cards. At the Winter Meetings, general managers certainly talk to free agents, but it is also a place where trades are consummated and the structure of the team for the upcoming season becomes more apparent. As Zduriencik has shown in the past, he has a propensity for creative, complex, multi-team deals which land the club talent as both the J.J. Putz and Cliff Lee trades were drawn up at the Winter Meetings. I fully expect Jack and the Mariners to be involved in at least one such deal this winter, and if the return nets the club the right kind of player(s), it would make the likelihood of the Mariners pursuing Fielder and/or other big free agents more reasonable.
As the club heads into these wheeling-and-dealing months, it has some pieces that will certainly be attractive to other clubs. Closer Brandon League is coming off of an All-Star campaign and is team controlled for '12 (through arbitration) at what will be a relatively low price in comparison to what the free agent relievers have signed for this season and last. Jason Vargas could be an attractive cheap, short-term option to other clubs as well. They also have the youth in the minor leagues, primarily in the pitching department, but the club has stacked up a nice surplus of corner outfielders that could be part of a deal, too. Kyle Seager and Alex Liddi both flashed some talent late last season, and Mike Carp posted an OPS over .900 during July and August and compiled 30 extra base hits in a half season to propel himself to potential starter status at first base, designated hitter or left field. And, of course, there is still Chone Figgins.
The Mariners and Zduriencik will have some options, and with the Texas Rangers likely losing their best starting pitcher (C.J. Wilson) for the second straight offseason (Cliff Lee), they are no sure thing in the American League West. The expanded playoffs for 2013 are just around the corner and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in baseball has some concerned about teams' abilities to build strong farm systems. The Mariners certainly have one of the 10 or 12 best systems as things stand today and dealing from a position of strength to fill Major League weaknesses is what player development is all about. And it is how successful teams build consistent winners.
Zduriencik is confident that his plan is working, and he should be, because it is. But he also knows that ownership doesn't have the option of accepting too many seasons of big loss totals. Coming off of their fifth campaign of 90-plus losses in the last eight seasons, the team needs to make noticeable on-the-field improvements in 2012 for Jack to be safe going forward. The time is now for the Mariners to strike and work to build on their young core of players to start putting a consistent winner on the field.
Prince Fielder may very well be the bat they get, but he may not. And while he is assuredly the biggest name that the club could land this offseason, he isn't the only one out there--particularly when we start talking about trades. Cincinnati's Yonder Alonso is a bat that has been tied to the Mariners a few times and the Reds are known to be looking for pitching. Chicago White Sox outfielder Carlos Quentin is said to be on the block and they, too, are looking for young pitching. The Dodgers are in cost-cutting mode and aren't pleased with their first baseman, James Loney. Carlos Pena is a free agent bopper who has at least 28 home runs and at least 87 walks in each of the last five seasons. Any of those players could head to Seattle to try and jump-start the Mariners offense. But regardless if the get is Fielder or someone else, the pieces that they can put around any new bat will determine whether or not this winter's moves can lead to success in the wins column in Seattle.
So remember that these meetings aren't "Fielder or Bust". Seattle's young core of players is right on the cusp of success, and it won't necessarily take the addition of one of the biggest bats on the market to push them over the top. It's all about the final, complete product. And that product will certainly be supplemented through trades.