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GM has flexibility to bolster offense in free agency

SEATTLE -- Now that the World Series has ended and the 2012 season officially is in the books, teams immediately can begin looking ahead with the opening of the free-agency period.

Teams can start signing free agents beginning after 9 p.m. PT on Thursday.

For the Mariners, there certainly will be increased opportunity this offseason to make some additions, thanks to a Major League roster that doesn't have nearly as much payroll committed to veteran players with the departure of Ichiro Suzuki, Brandon League and Miguel Olivo.

Of their returners, only Felix Hernandez ($19.5 million), Chone Figgins ($8 million) and Franklin Gutierrez ($7 million) are under contract at substantially more than the Major League minimum.

The club does have five more players who are arbitration-eligible, including veteran left-hander Jason Vargas, who figures to land a significant pay raise from last season's $4.85 million, along with shortstop Brendan Ryan, catcher John Jaso and relievers Shawn Kelley and Josh Kinney.

But the rest of the club is filled with pre-arbitration players, which means general manager Jack Zduriencik has some payroll room to add a few veterans in the right spots. And after a fourth straight season with the fewest runs scored and lowest batting average in the American League, it's not hard to identify the biggest area of need.

"Obviously we'd love to get a bat someway, somehow, whether through free agency or trade," Zduriencik said. "I have flexibility on where that guy could play. That's just one of our priorities, to bring in a veteran presence, someone who can help us. You never know what's around the corner that can help in any area. We're going to be open to do what we can to improve the club."

Ichiro was making $18 million last year, League was at $5 million and Olivo $3.5 million, so that's $26.5 million gone from a payroll that started the season at about $85 million.

Five Mariners now become free agents -- Olivo and pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma, Kevin Millwood, Oliver Perez and George Sherrill.

Of that group, Iwakuma and Perez figure to receive the strongest pursuit from Seattle in the five-day exclusive signing window for players to return to their current teams. On the sixth day after the World Series' conclusion, players are free to sign with any club.

Millwood is pondering retirement, Sherrill had Tommy John surgery in April, and the club chose not to enact a $3 million option that would have retained Olivo for another year.

As for the free-agent and trade markets, the most obvious move for Seattle would be to pursue a proven veteran who could play one of the corner-outfield spots in Ichiro's absence and possibly a first baseman to challenge Justin Smoak.

"My eyes and ears are wide open this offseason," Zduriencik said.

The Mariners already announced they're moving in the fences next year at Safeco Field, which should help both the offensive numbers and the potential of attracting a veteran hitter or two.

Contract issues

Free agents: Iwakuma, Millwood, Olivo, Perez, Sherrill.

Eligible for arbitration: Jaso, Kelley, Kinney, Ryan, Vargas.

Club options: Olivo ($3 million, already declined).

Out of Minor League options but under team control: OF/1B Mike Carp, Gutierrez, Kinney, OF Trayvon Robinson, Ryan, Vargas, OF Casper Wells.

Areas of need

Outfield: The trade of Ichiro opened up a corner-outfield spot. Michael Saunders and Gutierrez figure in at center field and one corner spot, if Gutierrez can prove healthy. There are a slew of internal candidates for the other spot or two, including Wells, Carp, Robinson, Eric Thames and Carlos Peguero. But this seems a logical place for the team to add a proven veteran with some of Ichiro's vacated payroll. There are some top-end outfielders on the free-agent market with Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher heading the list, then a second-tier group with Shane Victorino, Torii Hunter, Melky Cabrera, Cody Ross, Angel Pagan, Ryan Ludwick, Delmon Young and even Ichiro still looking for a job.

First base: The uncertainty over Smoak lingers after he hit just .189 through the first five months of the season before finishing with a strong September. Though Smoak has been regarded as one of the key pieces going forward, the Mariners won't wait forever. If Zduriencik wants to bring in a veteran, Carlos Pena is one of the few on the free-agent market. Or he could take a run at 1B/C Mike Napoli of the Rangers. Carp also provides an internal option and could be a valid contender if healthy.

Starting pitching: With Millwood and Iwakuma both hitting free agency, the Mariners have two openings in their rotation. There are some strong prospects waiting in the wings, with rookie Erasmo Ramirez as well as Minor League standouts Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer. They'll likely want to add at least one veteran to the mix as well, and Iwakuma could simplify that process if he re-signs. Iwakuma pitched for $1.5 million last year and likely would require a significant raise and multi-year deal, but any quality veteran that signs will be seeking a similar situation.

2013 payroll

The Mariners haven't made their projected payroll public, but they opened last year at about $85 million and figure to be in that ballpark again. With $35 million committed to Hernandez, Gutierrez and Figgins, and around $15 million needed to lock up their five arbitration-eligible players, that leaves a potential $30-35 million to pursue either free agents or veterans via trades. Some of that could go to Iwakuma or another pitcher, but the bulk should be available to pursue a middle-of-the-order outfield bat and perhaps some depth in the infield.

Seattle Mariners, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kevin Millwood, Oliver Perez, George Sherrill, Jason Vargas