What do you believe the Mariners' primary offseason focus will be in terms of trades and acquisitions?
-- Jared J., Federal Way, Wash.
My expectation is this offseason will be similar to last year in terms of general manager Jerry Dipoto looking to continue raising the "floor" around his strong core group of veterans, adding depth and improving talent wherever possible, as the Mariners will look to continue building on the 10-win jump in 2016.
The obvious areas of focus are the corner outfield spots, shortstop, first base and a lefty in the bullpen. I don't expect the volume of deals we saw last year, but Dipoto is always active on the trade market and has a better idea now of what he's got and what he needs. I'm sure there'll be plenty of new faces by the time the Mariners report to Arizona in February.
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I know the Mariners went over budget last year, especially with bringing back Hisashi Iwakuma. But after barely missing the playoffs and the new ownership in charge now, will there be a payroll increase so we can see some bigger offseason acquisitions?
-- Phil C., Blaine, Wash.
The Mariners aren't saying what their payroll plans are after hiking the Opening Day budget to a team record $142 million last year, up from $123 million in 2015. But it's safe to assume they'll be in the same general area given the locked-in contracts of Félix Hernández ($26 million), Robinson Canó ($24 million), Nelson Cruz ($14 million), Iwakuma ($14 million) and Kyle Seager ($10.5 million), with the possibility of some increase as the newly aligned ownership group looks to make its mark after coming so close this past year.
But that veteran core of five already adds up to $88.5 million. Toss in Steve Cishek at $6 million and Seth Smith, if he's extended his option at $7 million, and you're already over $100 million for seven players. Their three top arbitration players -- Leonys Martin, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton -- figure to add about another $12 million. So my caution again would be not to expect some blockbuster $25-million-a-year free agent signing for one superstar, as they did with Cano, but to spread the resources around to bring in several key contributors either through free agency or trades that can help take them to that next level.
With Yoenis Céspedes opting out of his deal with the Mets, do you see any likelihood of the Mariners pursuing him or of him being willing to come to Seattle?
-- Chris D., Kirkland, Wash.
I know these are always the fun conversations every offseason, but no, I don't see the Mariners being in play for a guy who will likely command $25 million plus per season. Seattle already has two of the 15 highest-paid players in baseball with Hernandez and Cano. It's very difficult to field a balanced 25-man team if you skew too much of your payroll to just a couple players. As noted above, I don't see them fishing in the deepest free-agent waters this year.
How is Nelson Cruz doing since hurting his arm? No surgery?
-- Kami B., Longview, Wash
Cruz's left wrist bothered him the last few weeks of the season, but he never sat out until the final game and it was just a situation that required rest, not surgery. The only offseason surgeries for the Mariners were for Walker's right foot, Cishek's hip labrum and Tony Zych's shoulder. Walker and Zych are expected to be fine by Spring Training, and Cishek is also hopeful of being ready, though his timeline is a little tighter.
With the weak free-agent pitching market, do you see the Mariners making Paxton available in the right scenario?
-- Matt A., Boise, Idaho
I don't rule anything out with Dipoto when it comes to trades, but I would be very surprised to see them move Paxton for the exact reason you mention. Decent starting pitching is going to be tough and expensive to come by this winter. So unless they can get a quality starter plus more in return, it doesn't make much sense to trade a high-upside lefty they've already got who is under team control through 2020 and figures to cost less than $3 million this year in his first season of arbitration.
Is Vidal Nuño going to be the main left-hander out of the bullpen going into 2017 or is Dipoto going to find someone else?
-- Thomas B., Tacoma, Wash
Expect that to be an area of focus this winter after the Mariners patched their way through the second half following the trade of Mike Montgomery to the Cubs for Daniel Vogelbach. Nuno is a solid lefty, but David Rollins and switch-pitcher Pat Venditte are the only other southpaw relievers on the 40-man roster at this point. I could also see Aríel Miranda getting a shot there if he doesn't land a rotation berth next year, much like Montgomery's role this season.
How big a priority is it for this front office to get a starting shortstop this offseason?
-- Joel P., Forks, Wash.
The fact they tried hard to acquire Zack Cozart from the Reds at the Trade Deadline spoke volumes. They haven't given up on Ketel Marte, but the 23-year-old had a disappointing year and could be in line for the sort of "step-back" approach used last year with Mike Zunino and Paxton. A veteran like Cozart or someone similar could help anchor the infield and make the difference in a team knocking on the door, so I think that is a definite possibility.