M's Winter Shuffle

This very well could end up being be the busiest offseason in the Mariners' existence, as roster decisions need to be made at nearly every position. The team would like to keep payroll around the $90 million range while getting younger and maintaining success on the diamond. InsidethePark.com's Jason A. Churchill takes a deeper look at each of the decisions the M's will have to make before pitchers and catchers report in late February.

The Seattle Mariners are heading into an off-season where the team faces an extremely high number of difficult decisions, including the replacement of recently resigned General Manager Pat Gillick, the man in charge of making many of these decisions.

The front office will handle things with fully capable baseball people such as VP of Scouting and Player Development Roger Jongewaard, VP of Baseball Administration Lee Pelekoudas, and VP of Player Development Benny Looper. Looper and Pelekoudas are both candidates for the vacant GM position. Pat Gillick has remained with the club as a consultant and will continue to do so until a GM is hired, sometime within the next week to ten days. The club has already replaced hitting coach Lamar Johnson with soon-to-be Hall of Famer Paul Molitor and first base coach John Moses with former major-leaguer Mike Aldrete.

The decisions facing the front office will not be easy. Several key players from the roster are either free agent eligible or arbitration eligible, giving the M's with the task of fielding a competitive team without stepping over the self-imposed payroll cap that seems to be stonewalled in the $90-94 million range.

Here is the status of the roster, their 2003 salaries, and a projected likelihood that the player will remain with the team in 2004.

Free Agents:
RP Shigetoshi Hasegawa- $1.8m- 60%- Probably seeking 2+ years at 3 mil per season.
RP Arthur Rhodes- $3.5m-33%-Return dependent on the club's ability to cut some payroll, and Rhodes' desire to return.
RP Armando Benitez-$6.75m-0%-With the depth in the pen with back-end options, Benitez simply isn't a fit.
SS Rey Sanchez-$1.3m-20%-Return will be based on the team's ensuing pursuit of Japanese SS Kazuo Matsui.
CF Mike Cameron-$7.4m-25%-Team's desire for a left-handed contact and RBI man may make Cameron and his likely $7 to $8 million price-tag expendable.
C Pat Borders-$500k-25%-Retirement or a repeat of 2003. Club would be nuts not to want him back in some capacity.
DH Edgar Martinez-$4.0m +incentives-80%-Mulling retirement but all signs point to his return.
IF/OF Mark McLemore-$3.15M-25%-Unlikely to return as team attempts to get younger.
RP Giovanni Carrera-$400K-10%-Failed experiment as middle reliever won't be back.

Arbitration Eligible:
SP Freddy Garcia-$6.875m-33%-Projected arbitration salary is upwards of 8 million. This is one of two contracts the M's will seek to turn into hitting.
SP Ryan Franklin-$425K-90%-Unless he is included in a trade for a hitter, Franklin will be back.
SP Joel Pineiro-$440K-100%-Kid Krypton will be back in 2004…with a 250% raise.
SS/3B Carlos Guillen-$2.5m-65%-May be M's 3B in 2004…could help him stay healthy.
RF Ichiro Suzuki-$4.675m-100%-Wants a multi-year deal…and he will get it.
LF Randy Winn-$3.3m-75%-Winn's final year of arbitration before his Free Agent eligibility starts after 2004.
C Ben Davis-$1.0m-75%-Team could decide that Davis isn't worth the projected 2+mil salary to keep him.
SP Gil Meche-$325K-100%-Meche will be the teams #3 starter in 2004.

Signed for 2004:
SP Jamie Moyer-$6.5m-100%-The craft left-hander is the ace.
RP Kazuhiro Sasaki-$8.0M-100%-First shot as the closer, but it isn't a guarantee he will keep it.
2B Bret Boone-$8.0m-100%-The team's offensive rock is back for 2004, the third year of a vested four-year deal. 2004 is a big year Boone.
1B John Olerud-$7.7m-100%-Ole's steady glove will be back at first…will his bat return too? Stay tuned. 2004 is likely Olerud's final season.
3B Jeff Cirillo-$6.725m-0%-Yes, that says 0%. ZERO. One way or the other Cirillo will not be in an M's uniform come spring training, even if it means the team eats most or all of the 15 million he is owed through 2005.
C Dan Wilson-$3.5m-100%-Could be Wilson's final year.
1B/OF Greg Colbrunn-$750K-100%-A healthy 2004 for Colbrunn could be huge for M's.

Team Controlled Contracts:
RP Rafael Soriano-$300K-100%-could be the teams fifth starter, the main setup man or the closer.
RP Julio Mateo-$303K-100%-Pleasant surprise in 2003, returns in similar role for 2004.
IF Willie Bloomquist-$300K-100%-Made strides in 2003 and will see similar role in 2004.

The Mariners weaknesses are glaring after a 2003 season that eerily mirrored the collapse of the offense in 2002, and the team looks to add to the offense in a few positions while getting younger in the process. To do this, and keep the payroll around the 90-94 million mark, they will have to be creative in adding the right players and shedding the proper contracts.

If the M's can get any team to bite on 3B Jeff Cirillo, even if it entailed the M's paying 90% of his guaranteed contract, it would benefit the team in two ways; opening up a spot on the 25 and 40 man rosters, and saving the team 10% of the 15 million Cirillo is owed over the next two seasons. Anything helps. It's possible that the M's could attach a decent prospect to Cirillo to try and get a team to bite and/or pick up a little bit more of his contract. What team in need of a third baseman or bench help wouldn't take a chance on Cirillo for under a million a year and get a decent prospect in the deal?

The most interesting idea for adding a hitter without adding any net salary is by trading former ace Freddy Garcia. Garcia is arbitration eligible and stands to see a 2004 contract for around eight million dollars. Garcia's struggles and inconsistencies over the past season and a half have hurt his trade value quite a bit, but he still holds enough luster as a starting pitcher to land the Mariners a solid hitting outfielder. The rumors at the trade deadline in July last season were centered on left-handed hitters, Trot Nixon in Boston and J.D. Drew in St. Louis. Neither deal worked out, but either could be re-visited this winter. Drew is arbitration eligible and stands to make somewhere around five million in 2004. The Cardinals might want a prospect or cash in a deal like that due to the salary differences, but are one of several teams in need of starting pitching. Boston is less likely to deal Nixon after his big postseason, but due to their need of a starting pitcher to back up Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, the Sox might see Nixon as expendable. Nixon is set to make six million in 2004, the final year of his contract.

It's believed that Garcia has possibly pitched his last game in Seattle, mostly due to his expected salary, and will not be with the team in 2004. A trade here is most likely, however if the M's get backed up against the wall they will not hand Garcia to anyone for a lot less than they deem Garcia's value. The Braves taught everyone that lesson last winter with Kevin Millwood.

With the likely departures of Mark McLemore, Armando Benitez, Giovanni Carrera, Rey Sanchez, and possibly Arthur Rhodes and Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who the team would like to retain, the new GM will have his work cut out for him simply filling out a roster. DH Edgar Martinez and his agent Willie Sanchez have stated the 41-year-old's intent to return in 2004, and seemingly the ball is in the Mariners' court.

Replacing left-hander Arthur Rhodes, who struggled for most of 2003, will not be easy. His work as the main lefty was critical to the M's success the past four seasons and his competitiveness and intensity will be missed. Rhodes' price tag might be similar to his 2003 salary of 3.5 million and that might be a bit steep considering the teams other needs. Candidates for the left-hander roles for 2004 include a slew of free agent left-handers such as Gabe White and Mark Guthrie, and Mariner prospects Matt Thornton, a former first-round pick, and Bobby Madritsch, who spent all of 2003 at Double-A San Antonio.

The team would prefer to retain Hasegawa, and the right-hander is usually sensible during contract negotiations. The M's could go two years on Hasegawa but would likely stagger the salary for 2004. 2003 was Hasegawa's career year and could net him a hefty raise.

The arbitration cases of Ryan Franklin and Joel Pineiro should be taken care of without any problems. Both are in their first year of arbitration eligibility.

The arbitration cases of Carlos Guillen and Randy Winn could end up differently. Either, or both for that matter, could be dealt and one could even possibly get non-tendered. The team may find themselves in a spot where Winn's projected five million arbitration salary for 2004 or Guillen's expected four million arbitration salary for 2004, gets in the way of the teams offseason goal and see the benfits of letting the player go for nothing and using the payroll space in other areas.

Guillen, if retained, could be the team's 3B in 2004, a position that he played well the final two months of 2003 after returning from injury. M's 3B prospects Justin Leone and Greg Dobbs will be given a long look this spring.

Winn is less likely to be traded or non-tendered and after a very solid 2003 should return in 2004.

The SS position is the key to the entire off-season. With free agent Miguel Tejada out of the equation, due to expected 10+ million per year salary demands, Japanese phenom Kazuo Matsui becomes the M's #1 free agent target. Matsui, a switch-hitter, has power from both sides, a strong glove, and Ichiro-like speed. The M's as well as the Yankees, Dodgers, Mets, Red Sox, and Orioles are said to be the teams most interested. Known as ‘Lil Matsui in Japan, the superstar shortstop could command a higher annual salary than fellow Japanese import Hideki Matsui who received a three year contract worth $21 million.

Matsui's addition would set up the rest of the offseason with the Guillen shift to third or his pending trade or non-tender and Leone or Dobbs taking over.

Mike Cameron's return depends on how the team feels as they look for more consistency and pop, preferably from the left side. If Cameron is not re-signed, Ichiro is the most likely candidate to shift to CF, a position he has played in Japan. Outfield candidates include free agent Raul Ibanez, a former Mariner, and trade possibilities are J.D. Drew of St. Louis, Trot Nixon of Boston, Geoff Jenkins of Milwaukee, and Lance Berkman of Houston. Some believe there is a slight possibility of the return of prodigal son Ken Griffey, Jr. back to Seattle.

Should Garcia indeed be traded, Rafael Soriano and Rett Johnson will be at the top of the list to grab the last spot in the rotation. If Johnson were to win the spot, Soriano is a candidate to close as well.

The only question that matters right now is who will be the new General Manager. The known candidates are in-house possibilities Lee Pelekoudas and Benny Looper, Montreal Expos GM Omar Minaya, Bill Bavasi, director of player development for the Dodgers, former GM of the Anaheim Angels and current A's assistant GM, Paul DePodesta, and Al Avila, the assistant GM in Detroit. Brian Cashman, the Yankees GM, and Yankee front office executives Mark Newman and Gordon Blakely have yet to be interviewed despite speculation that the M's would ask for permission to do so. According to the latest reports, Florida Marlins assist GM Dan Jennings is apparently not a candidate. DePodesta has yet to interview and it is not known whether the club intends to do so or not.

Whomever the club decides on will have a tough job ahead of him.

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