Looking Ahead: M's will have money to spend in '05

Several high-priced players on the Mariners figure to be elsewhere after the season, leaving the M's with money to spend heading into next winter. After years of settling for the second-tier talent on the free agent market, 2005 could be the year the M's make a big splash by going after one of the premier players in the league. InsidethePark.com's contributing writer Jared Poppel says that player could very well be Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra.

No one can say that the Mariners haven't been busy this off-season. They've turned over a significant part of the roster already, with more changes pending. Gone are Mike Cameron, Arthur Rhodes, Jeff Cirillo, Mark McLemore, Greg Colbrunn, John Mabry, Rey Sanchez, Brian Sweeney and Armando Benitez. Carlos Guillen may not be far behind. And now let's welcome to Seattle: Raul Ibanez, Eddie Guardado, Scott Spiezio, Quinton McCracken, Kevin Jarvis, Wiki Gonzalez and Dave Hansen. The welcome mat may roll out for Rich Aurilia and Marvin Benard soon as well. The clubhouse manager has a lot of sewing to do with all the new names on the uniforms.

Mariners fans (including myself) have been crying for major changes to the roster, especially on the offensive end. And Bill Bavasi has made changes, but one has to wonder: are these changes necesarily geared for 2004? I'm not so sure.

After looking at the way the roster is now configured, I think that the Mariners are willing to simply be "competitive" again in 2004, but have an eye toward making a "big bang" in the form of a major acquisition for the 2005 season. And I believe that the target is Nomar Garciaparra.

No… I'm not kidding.

Let's take a look at some facts:

1) The Mariners have positioned themselves to jettison a LOT of salary for 2005, especially now that they have gotten rid of the Jeff Cirillo "albatross contract." John Olerud ($7.75 million), Edgar Martinez ($7 MM), Dan Wilson ($3.5 MM), Freddy Garcia ($6.875 MM), Kazuhiro Sasaki ($8 MM), Quinton McCracken (effectively $2.025 MM), Kevin Jarvis ($4.25), and Dave Hansen ($750,000) are not signed beyond this season and probably won't be back. That's over $40 million off the payroll right there. Joel Pineiro, Gil Meche, Rafael Soriano, Willie Bloomquist and Julio Mateo will get some of that in raises and arbitration, to be sure, but not more than a few million. So, at the very least, one can make a very strong argument that the M's are definitely lining up for at least one major free agent acquisition of some sort for next season.

2) Bret Boone is signed through 2005, and if he maintains his current level of play, there's no reason to think he won't be retained, so 2B is secure. The entire outfield (Ichiro Suzuki, Randy Winn and Raul Ibanez) are signed through the 2006 season, plus the Mariners have youngsters like Jamal Strong, Chris Snelling and Shin-Soo Choo ready to fill in when needed. Scott Spiezio is also signed through 2006, and will most probably move over to 1B once Olerud is gone to make room for Justin Leone at 3B for 2005. If Ben Davis is still here (I hope), he will be the catcher, or maybe it will be Wiki Gonzalez or Ryan Christianson. Jamie Moyer and Ryan Franklin are under contract for 2005, and the Mariners control Joel Pineiro and Gil Meche through arbitration, as they will Rafael Soriano. They also have plenty of prospects to fill out the rotation (Clint Nageotte, Travis Blackley, Jeff Heaverlo, etc.) The bullpen is set with Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Eddie Guardado and Julio Mateo. That leaves SS and DH as potential open spots in the lineup next season. So if the Mariners are going to make a major free agent signing, it would most probably be at one of those positions (barring a trade.)

3) Reports are that Rich Aurilia is only going to sign a one-year contract (with 2 option years.) Jose Lopez is NOT ready for prime time yet, and won't be by next season. If the Mariners were able to sign a big-name shortstop to a long-term deal, Lopez would become very attractive trade bait to fill other holes on the roster, or they could move him to 2B to anticipate Boone's possible departure after 2005. So another argument could be made that the M's are definitely keeping their SS options open for 2005 and beyond.

4) Right now, Nomar Garciaparra appears to be one of the most attractive offensive free agents going into the next off-season. Orlando Cabrera will also be available, but he's probably not going to get the kind of contract that Nomar will command. On top of that, the M's still would have an option on Aurilia. So, the Mariners would have plenty of options at SS in 2005.

5) From a public relations perspective, I think the M's are beginning to realize that they need to make some kind of "splash" very soon in order to maintain their high attendance and season ticket base. As a season ticket holder, I can tell you that I heard a lot of grumbling about "not coming back" this past season, especially after the July 31 trading deadline came and went again without a major deal occurring. Signing a big-name free agent would go a long way toward showing that the M's management is looking to change their mindset from "competing" to "winning", which would, in turn, bolster the confidence and loyalty of their fans.

6) The Mariners are still smarting about losing Alex Rodriguez to Texas in 2000, as well as the futile pursuit of Miguel Tejada this winter. Getting a premier SS in Seattle would alleviate some of that pain.

7) Michael Garciaparra, Nomar's brother, is a Mariners farmhand. One should never underestimate the value players place on family. That fact could go a long way in influencing his decision.

8) I'm pretty sure that despite buying that house on Cape Cod, Nomar would welcome a return to the West Coast, even up in Seattle. He is originally from Bellflower, CA, and the return to a more moderate climate might suit him.

In other words, I think that the facts point to the Mariners looking to sign a premier free agent for 2005. I also think that, given the makeup of their roster, they will go after a top SS in the free agent market next season, and Nomar figures to be the best SS, if not the best overall player, in that market. The drool is starting to form as I think of a Boone-Nomar DP combo.

I can dream, can't I?

Jared is available for feedback at marinersinsider@yahoo.com.

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