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Mariners in position to make noise at Winter Meetings

With payroll flexibility, desire to upgrade, Seattle could pursue big signing

SEATTLE -- When Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners' brass descend on Walt Disney's Swan & Dolphin Resort for next week's Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., they'll be far more interested in shopping than sightseeing.

Although the Winter Meetings are sometimes more about rumors and reports than actual wheeling and dealing, Zduriencik and the Mariners are in position this offseason to make some moves in free agency. Seattle could be one of the teams creating news when executives from all 30 Major League teams gather from Monday through Dec. 12.

With only two returning veterans -- ace pitchers Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma -- consuming much beyond the minimum payroll levels at a combined $28.5 million for 2014, the Mariners have some financial flexibility to pursue players this offseason as they attempt to turn around a club that finished 71-91 in 2013, and hasn't made the postseason since '01.

Zduriencik has done well in restocking the farm system in his five years as general manager, with some of those youngsters now beginning to pay off at the big league level. But he'd like to supplement that effort and speed up the process with some key veterans, and that means finding the right matches this offseason, whether at the Winter Meetings or beyond.

Seattle already made one move this week in signing free-agent utility man Willie Bloomquist, pending a physical exam, and Zduriencik figures to be in the middle of the action at Disney World on several fronts.

"Like all clubs, we're having a lot of dialogue with agents and other teams," Zduriencik said. "We're just trying to improve the club. You don't know where discussions will lead, and obviously it's early. We have some specific needs we'd like to address. And we do have a little more payroll flexibility, but prices are going up as well."

The Mariners cleared about $35 million off their books when contracts for veterans Franklin Gutierrez, Joe Saunders, Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez and Chone Figgins expired, and they've indicated a willingness to go beyond last year's $90 million payroll range if the right opportunities arise.

For that reason, Seattle has been mentioned in connection with seemingly every top available free agent, from Robinson Cano to Jacoby Ellsbury to Nelson Cruz, to top pitchers Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez. But it should be noted that many of those rumors are fueled by agents looking to create the best market for their clients by drumming up potential competition.

"A lot of it is premature," Zduriencik said. "We've had nice dialogue with a lot of people, but it's a dance until the other person says yes. A lot of it is posturing and agents feeling out the market. A lot of us aren't sure where markets will end up on certain players. There are so many rumors and half-truths. You just have your discussions and see where things go."

The obvious area of need for the Mariners is the outfield, where Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders and Abraham Almonte are the only returnees from the end of last season. Ellsbury, Cruz, Shin-Soo Choo, Curtis Granderson and Carlos Beltran are the premier free agents, and all will be highly coveted on the open market.

"You're going to have five on the club, so certainly it's an area you can target to upgrade," Zduriencik said. "We have a fairly young outfield group, and Ackley is just learning the position. There are certainly pieces available there. A lot of things that are written don't have legs, but there are outfielders available. We'll certainly look at all the options."

But Seattle has other needs as well. A veteran backup catcher is important, given rookie Mike Zunino is the only returning backstop. And while the infield returns youngsters at every position -- with Kyle Seager at third, Brad Miller at short, Nick Franklin at second and Justin Smoak at first -- Zduriencik isn't ruling out additions there as well, and he already made one move to improve the depth with Bloomquist's agreement.

"I wouldn't say we're set," the GM said. "Seager has certainly established himself as a good player. The rest of the infield, Smoak still has some things to prove, though we like what we've seen. And the three kids in the middle, if you include Carlos Triunfel, are guys who have a lot to prove yet. We like what we've seen, but we're not going to give anything to them."

The same holds true with the pitching staff, where Hernandez and Iwakuma return as one of the best 1-2 tandems in baseball, and youngsters Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer are all capable of challenging for rotation berths. But Zduriencik isn't hiding the fact he'll pursue another veteran starter to bolster that mix, and history shows it's easier to lure top arms to Safeco Field than big bats.

"I am interested," Zduriencik said. "There's no question. I've made it clear. Pitchers like to throw here. It's a good place for them. You're weighing acquisition cost against what you're trying to do to help offensively. It's part of that puzzle, but I do think a legitimate quality starter would be of great value, for two reasons. No. 1, it's a proven player. And No. 2, it would help take pressure off those younger kids. At the end, you weigh all of that."

While Garza, Santana and Jimenez have been mentioned as the cream of the crop, there are other available hurlers like Bronson Arroyo, Bartolo Colon and Scott Feldman who might look favorably on a Safeco Field situation at a more reasonable cost, which would allow pursuit of more offensive help as well.

So stay tuned. The holiday season is at hand. And the Mariners definitely have some shopping to do.

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.

Seattle Mariners