Alternatively Speaking

With the much deserved attention being paid to a pair of right-handed arms from Cleveland and Miami, the two most sought after starting pitchers on the open market this winter, the Mariners have very little room for error. The club could conceivably do everything right over the next three months and come up from their free-agent dive without a catch named A.J. Burnett or Kevin Millwood.

Instead of the battle between the two, we'll take a gander at who else might be on the Mariners' radar this winter.

The great debate between the top two pitchers available can be discussed here at USS Mariner's Millwood v. Burnett analysis, a thorough exchange of the good and bad of each hurler, and who might be the best get for the club.

What direction might the club steer toward should they whiff on the afforementioned pair?

"Well," says the intelligent, creative wanna-be GM. "There are alternatives."

"I guess there may be," says the diehard hometown fan. "But, like who?"

The Mariners do have other options, though not many are for sale in the free agent aisle.

With secondary targets such as Matt Morris, Jeff Weaver, John Thomson and Jarrod Washburn, Bill Bavasi may choose the trade path to secure a more capable frontline starter to team up with Felix Hernandez.

Among the potentially available are San Francisco's Jason Schmidt, who may become available when the Giants decline their option for 2006. If Schmidt's final year is picked up, the 33-year-old Northwest native could remain a trade possibility.

Washington's Livan Hernandez may be expendable as new ownership steps in and attempts to build from scratch. San Diego may be inclined to deal right-hander Adam Eaton, another Seattle-area native, with bigger named free agents such as Trevor Hoffman and Brian Giles to consider.

St. Louis will likely have to choose between re-signing Morris, exercising their option on right-hander Jeff Suppan, and retaining right-hander Jason Marquis, who is arbitration eligible.

While the Mariners are certainly seeking a frontline type, none of these names fit the bill of a dependable top-of-the-rotation pitcher. But how many of those are in the league? And how many of those are available via trade or free agency?

There are some creative routes that Bavasi could look into, such as a deal for Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw Odalis Perez, whom the club tried to lure last winter as a free agent.

The M's may be forced to take on a contract to add a necessary arm, but payroll space is something the club has. Options are limited and beggars can't be choosers, or something like that.

Another possibility may be Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Javier Vazquez, who has the choice to demand a trade after being dealt from the New York Yankees prior to the 2005 season in the midst of a multi-year contract. If Vazquez invokes this right, Seattle might become a heavy player for the 29-year-old.

Schmidt would have excited anyone a year ago, coming off a second straight Cy Young-type effort and a 3.20 ERA after posting a 2.34 ERA in 2003.

But injuries and a loss in velocity damaged Schmidt's '05 output (4.40 ERA, 172 IP), burying his value to both the Giants and any team looking to acquire him.

Through 2004, Schmidt was sitting in the mid-90s with his fastball and displayed a sharp breaking slider – both thrown with plus command. For most of this past season, the former Braves and Pirates hurler was topping out in the 89-92 mph range and the crisp slider and sharp command were nowhere to be found.

The M's would have to be 100% convinced that Schmidt's health was not a long-term risk, if he becomes a free agent and they inquire about his services.

Perez, 28, made just 19 starts due to an oblique injury suffered in August and a shoulder injury in late May.

Neither injury is serious, but the questions about Perez's durability remain. Is he worth the $8 million a year the Dodgers signed him for last offseason?

Perez has topped 200 innings just once in his four seasons as a full-time starter and has tallied more than 12 wins only once. But the lefty is a solid arm when he is in the rotation, as evidenced by his career 1.24 WHIP, .256 BAA and 3.86 ERA.

Perez may be a little bit tougher to pry from LA's finger as the still shiny new ownership pushes for a winner in tinsel town. Or, they may want to shed the salary and put it to use elsewhere as their prospects push through the system.

Vazquez is scheduled to make $12 million for the next two seasons, a hefty price for an underachieving starter, but the D'backs received cash from the Yankees to aid in the payment of Vazquez when he came over in the Randy Johnson deal.

If Arizona is willing to either send a good portion of the $5-9 million they received from George Steinberenner, the Mariners might be a willing trade partner. Another possibility is Joel Pineiro being included in the deal. His $6.3 million off the books would make Vazquez's contract equal out to be a shade under $9 million per season through 2007.

Vazquez was 11-15 in his first year in the desert, sporting a 4.42 ERA in 215.2 innings pitched. The league batted .266 off the former Expos star.

His numbers don't impress on the surface, but a closer look might change the mind. Vazquez posted a 192-46 K/BB ratio, a solid 1.25 WHIP and just over eight strikeouts per nine innings.

Vazquez, for the right price via trade, might be a sound option for Seattle. His mediocre season in the Bronx (4.91 ERA) can easily be stacked up as an aberration. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Vazquez is just two seasons removed from a 230-inning, 241-strikeout season in Montreal.

While the U.S. doesn't offer much in the free agent market, Japan might have a gem that Seattle can drag in from the Seibu Lions. Daisuke Matsuzaka is expected to be posted this winter, and he could draw interest from the M's if they deem the price to be reasonable enough to allow for more additions this winter.

If Matsuzaka comes at a price much higher than $7 million per season, regardless of the posting fee, Bavasi would likely have to get special permission from ownership to go above and beyond the payroll limitations to ink the 25-year-old right-hander.

Equipped with a low-90s heater and a slider he calls the "gyroball", Matsuzaka has No. 3 starter type stuff. Many questions remain unanswered of Japan's best pitcher, most concerning the talent translation between Japan and the U.S., and the workload of young Daisuke, known to reach 170 pitches or more in several outings in his career.

As an M's fan, if you wake up Christmas morning and A.J. Burnett and Kevin Millwood are cashing their first checks from a team outside the city of Seattle, it's not the end of the world. There aren't many frontline starters on the market, and the Mariners aren't the only club in need of help on the mound.

The organization is at a cross roads and this winter is just as important as last, if not more. The front office, from GM Bill Bavasi on through CEO Howard Lincoln, is probably more desperate for the right players than they were a year ago.

You might see something happen that has never happened before in Marinerland. The M's may actually get creative, toss a three-way deal down the throats of the Mojo Maniacs, or spend a little bit more money than anyone thought was even possible.

Nah, forget it. Go foot the bill for Burnett or Millwood, add Matsuzaka or Washburn, retain Moyer, dump Pineiro, sign Jacque Jones or deal for Junior and… well, in other words, pretend you're the recipient of the third most baseball generated revenue totals in the game since 1999.

Oh, wait, they actually are the third richest franchise in that category. Sometimes, late at night or during the wee hours of the morning, it's so easy to forget that Safeco Field isn't just a simple doe crossing a crick in the forest. She's a blue-ribbon cash cow, and has been since day one.

Hmmm. The M's have options. Money isn't much of an obstacle, and the trade market bares fruit. The only question is, can the M's reach the ripest of the bunch?

The intelligent, creative wanna-be GM says, "they can get it done… if they have the gut."

The diehard Mojo Maniac thinks to himself, "at least they have the guts – they did last winter."

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