Sasaki leaves Seattle, gives Mariners options

This afternoon, a report surfaced that Mariners' closer Kazuhiro Sasaki may not return to the team in 2004, and would instead remain in Japan to take care of "personal issues." If he were to do so, he would renounce his contract, and the Mariners would suddenly have as much as an additional $9.5 million to use to improve the team for the upcoming season.

The Mariners may have known that something like this was going to occur, since they re-signed Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who ended last season as their closer, to a two-year contract with an option, and then signed former Twins closer Eddie Guardado to a one-year contract with 2 option years. Either pitcher could fill the role as the closer for the M's in 2004. In addition, the M's re-signed starter Freddy Garcia for 2004, allowing Rafael Soriano to remain in the bullpen and keep it strong. Left-hander Mike Myers, recently signed to a minor league contract, would then have a roster spot, allowing Kevin Jarvis to remain on the team as the long reliever/emergency starter.

The big question is, of course, what do the Mariners do with that extra salary room? If they knew that this was a possibility, had this already been factored into their decision-making process? Sasaki was going to be the highest-salaried player on the team this season (not counting the signing bonus that Ichiro received when he signed his four-year contract a few weeks ago.) They now have an opportunity to "match" the Angels' high-profile signing of Vladimir Guerrero last week and improve their chances of winning the division. The team has several possibilities.

1) Sign one or more free agents. This could either involve signing the "big name" that many Seattlites have been clamoring for, or spreading the money around to improve the team incrementally.

If they decide to go for a superstar - Greg Maddux and Ivan Rodriguez are still out there - the Mariners would only be able to afford one of them. If they chose to sign Maddux, the Mariners would have an even bigger surplus of starting pitching than they already have, and quite possibly give the Oakland Athletics a run for the money for the best starting rotation in the AL West. The M's would then have the flexibility to trade a starter (most likely Freddy Garcia) for either more offensive help or added bench depth. If they decided to go after Pudge, one of the Mariners' catchers (Dan Wilson, Ben Davis, Wiki Gonzalez) would most likely be dealt, possibly to the Tigers, who are the main competition for Rodriguez's services right now. If I-Rod were signed to a long-term contract, Davis would probably have the most trade value. Other teams possibly in need of veteran catching include the Twins, Marlins, Expos, Cubs and Diamondbacks.

The other "big name" that is out there, but may be a potential risk, is Cuban pitcher Maels Rodriguez. The 24-year-old pitcher has been clocked at over 100 mph, but there are some conflicting reports as to the health of his arm. Originally, Rodriguez's agent was using the contract signed by fellow Cuban Jose Contreras (4 years, $32 million) as the basis for negotiating with other teams, but has since softened that stance. Rodriguez has scheduled a workout for this Thursday to show that he is healthy and ready to go. If the report on Sasaki is true, and Rodriguez impresses the scouts in attendance at his workout, the Mariners would become one of the favorites to sign the flame-thrower, and would most likely either place him in the bullpen or the minors to start the season.

If, on the other hand, the M's choose to spread the money around, there are good complementary players still available on the free agent market, several of whom I pointed out in my previous column: Russell Branyan, Jose Hernandez, Tony Womack and Orlando Merced. These players would certainly help improve a relatively weak bench.

In addition, Travis Lee becomes an interesting option. He is almost definitely looking for a team on which he could start, but with the anticipated retirement of John Olerud after this season, Lee could provide a smooth segue to next season. Lee enjoyed what might be considered a "comeback" season in 2003, hitting .275 with 19 HR and 70 RBI while playing for Tampa Bay. He also stole 6 bases, and flashed a brilliant glove at first base. There are people who think that Lee should have won the Gold Glove last season instead of Olerud. The Cardinals and Pirates are the current suitors for Lee's services, but he could provide the left-handed power bat off the bench for the Mariners for 2004 while giving them a starting 1B for 2005 and possibly beyond. That would also enable the M's to keep Scott Spiezio at 3B for another season while highly-touted prospect Justin Leone gets more seasoning, if needed.

By the same token, Eric Karros could now appear on the M's radar screen. Karros started out as a platoon partner for Hee Seop Choi at 1B in Chicago in 2003, but eventually took the job outright after Choi collided with pitcher Kerry Wood and struggled in his return. While not demonstrating the power numbers he put up for many years on Los Angeles, Karros batted a respectable .286 with 12 HR and 40 RBI. In addition, he was batting behind players like Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou and Aramis Ramirez for much of the season, which did not afford him a lot of run-producing opportunities since these guys were clearing the bases in front of him. The only "downside" to Karros is that he is right-handed, which would limit his power-producing capabilities even more in lefty-friendly Safeco. But he is considered a "good clubhouse guy", and a veteran presence on the Mariners bench would benefit the mostly youthful reserve corps.

2) Trade for an established star player before the season. There are three players who are eligible for free agency after the 2004 season that are definitely available in the right trade: Carlos Beltran, Magglio Ordonez and Richard Hidalgo. If the Mariners were to pursue any of these players, Randy Winn would almost certainly be part of the package, since one of these players would take his spot in the outfield. I would also guess that Ben Davis would be included, since each of the three teams involved could use a young catcher.

In my opinion, Beltran would be the "best" target", primarily because of his unique combination of power, speed and defense. For the past 3 seasons, Beltran has slugged at least 24 HR, driven in over 100 runs, and stolen at least 30 bases. In particular, he hit .307 with 26 HR, 100 RBI and 41 SB in 2003. The speed is even more impressive when you see that in the past three seasons, Beltran has stolen 107 bases and only been caught 12 times! In addition, Beltran is a switch-hitter who could provide another lefty power bat for the Mariners. He would be an ideal No. 2 hitter for the Mariners, batting between Ichiro Suzuki and Bret Boone while providing opportunities for Boone, Edgar Martinez and Raul Ibanez to drive in runs. Since the Mariners are clearing off a lot of payroll for next season, Beltran could be signed to a multi-year deal, avoiding arbitration, and still leaving financial room for another move later in the season if needed. The Royals would probably like to deal Beltran now and get some value for him rather than lose him to free agency and only collect draft picks as compensation.

Magglio Ordonez is another impressive hitter. Prior to 2003, he had four-consecutive seasons of over .300 batting average, 30+ HR, and 113+ RBI for the Chicago White Sox. Due to some lingering injuries suffered through the 2003 season, he finished with 29 HR and 99 RBI, though he still hit a solid .317. Ordonez plays a solid right field, and the Mariners would probably move Ichiro to center to accommodate him. Ordonez would have been traded to the Red Sox for Nomar Garciaparra a few weeks ago had the long-discussed Alex Rodriguez-for-Manny Ramirez trade gone through. As such, the White Sox have shown that they are willing to move Ordonez and his $14 million contract for 2004.

Richard Hidalgo is an interesting, and potentially risky, target for the Mariners. After a breakout season in 2000, when he hit .314, slugged 44 HR and drove in 122 runs, Hidalgo signed a 4-year, $32 million back-loaded contract with Houston. His numbers dropped considerably in 2001, and then he suffered through an injury-plagued 2002, in which he posted a disappointing .235 batting average with 15 HR and 48 RBI in 114 games. He seemed to recover last season, though, raising his batting average to .309, hitting 28 HR with 88 RBI. He is in the last year of his contract, and the Astros have Jason Lane waiting to take over his spot in the outfield. The Astros have indicated that they might be willing to pay a significant portion of Hidalgo's contract as part of a trade, meaning that the Mariners would still have room to make other moves in the future if they acquired Hidalgo and included some medium-salaried players in the deal.

3) Hold onto the money for now, but have the ability to finally make a trading-deadline deal. One of the issues that many Mariners fans have with the front office and corporate management of the team is that they have not made any significant trading-deadline deals for the past three seasons.

Last year, the M's moves consisted of acquiring Rey Sanchez from the Mets and Armando Benitez from the Yankees. The previous year, the only "major" acquisition was Jose Offerman. There are many who feel that had the M's made some sort of "impact" trade in either of the past two years, they might have had a chance to stave off their August and September fades and won the AL Western Division. The problem has been compounded by the fact that the Mariners seem to reach their self-prescribed "salary cap" by the end of spring training. Adding $9.5 million now might finally enable them to make the kind of trade that many M's fans have been wanting. This type of trade would not just be made to prevent a late-season slide, but would be made with the goal of winning in the post-season, and specifically the World Series. A huge impact hitter or perceived "lights out" pitcher would be the target. The three names mentioned above might still be available, as might other big names on teams performing poorly at that time of year.

4) Do nothing and increase the team's profit margin. While this would most assuredly not be the most popular of the options with the Mariners' fan base, it is also not totally out of the realm of possibility. The Mariners are, effectively, run as and by a corporation, and adding $9.5 million to what was already reported to be a profit margin of about $25 million is an attractive opportunity. It would also enable them to more easily swallow the amount of Jeff Cirillo's contract they are currently subsidizing to the San Diego Padres.

The Mariners have a unique opportunity to remake their roster for the 2004 season. Whether they do it before or during the season remains to be seen.

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

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