SEATTLE -- Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has always been a much bigger proponent of acquiring talent via trades than free agency during his time in Seattle, and that doesn't figure to change this offseason.With the Mariners still locked into big contracts for Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager,
SEATTLE -- Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has always been a much bigger proponent of acquiring talent via trades than free agency during his time in Seattle, and that doesn't figure to change this offseason.
With the Mariners still locked into big contracts for Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, among others, Dipoto could pick his spots in the free-agent market but will likely rely heavily on trades to unravel their roster questions.
That process appears ready to start quickly, as sources confirmed Wednesday night that a five-player deal sending catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Guillermo Heredia to the Rays for speedy young outfielder Mallex Smith was close to being finalized.
• Mariners, Rays near Zunino-Mallex deal, source says
The Mariners didn't confirm that report, but Dipoto made it clear earlier at the General Managers Meetings in Carlsbad, Calif., that trades will again be his preferred method of talent acquisition.
"We'll see where we go," Dipoto said. "We've not been huge players in free agency to begin with. A lot of that will be defined by what we wind up doing by trade. I'd never say never, but I'd say that's not our first path."
• Dipoto dispels 'teardown' talk for Mariners
Dipoto said payroll isn't the issue for a club that ranked eighth among MLB's 30 franchises in Opening Day player salaries last year at about $165 million, but the Mariners need to get younger and more flexible with their roster after trying to build around higher-priced veterans the past few years.
Seattle already has $119 million committed for 2019 to seven returning veterans: Hernandez, Cano, Seager, Mike Leake, Dee Gordon, Jean Segura and Juan Nicasio.
"At the end of the day, one of the things that is a benefit to us is we do have an ownership group that has always and continues to give us resources," Dipoto said on MLB Network. "And we work in a market that supports our team. We're maybe ahead of the Joneses there.
"In as much as scaling back makes sense for us from a talent and competitive perspective, we're really not looking at this as much from a financial perspective. But we are cognizant of the fact that with a handful of our performing players, some more significantly paid than others, we have to find a way to balance that group with a young influx of talent that right now we just don't have."
In other words, the Mariners aren't just planning to shed payroll and start from scratch, as would happen with a "total teardown" that some fans are pushing for after the club missed the postseason for the 17th straight season despite an 89-73 record.
Instead, Dipoto seems to be eyeing more of a step-back plan that focuses on moves aimed not toward 2019, but a longer window that coincides with the maturation of the younger core of players like Mitch Haniger, Edwin Diaz and Marco Gonzales, all of whom have at least four years of team control remaining.
With Nelson Cruz's $14 million salary off the books this year and Hernandez with just one season at $27 million remaining, the older core's time is running out. But still, Cano has five seasons and $120 million remaining on his contract, and Seager is owed $57 millon over three seasons.
Those large contracts are difficult to trade. Dipoto's additional challenge is that his farm system isn't filled with top prospects knocking on the door, so he may need to move some of his younger Major League talent with limited years of team control remaining to add some talent with longer shelf life.
James Paxton, who has two more years before hitting free agency, could fetch a considerable prospect haul in a trade. Zunino and reliever Alex Colome are in the same boat as players who will be free agents in two years and thus could have maximum trade value now.
Dealing any of those players would be a tough decision, but Dipoto notes the current approach hasn't been good enough to get over the playoff hump and the team must be open to reworking the roster to improve future possibilities.
Similarly, that would appear why re-signing the 38-year-old Cruz in free agency doesn't appear a priority, given his window is likely one or two more years and the Mariners are taking a longer view when making moves and allocating money this winter.
"We have too much talent not to be competitive," Dipoto said. "Now we have to figure out a way to marry the competitive window and our talent."
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.