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Mariners seeking offense at Winter Meetings

Impact bat the focal point, but club won't rule out adding a starting pitcher

SEATTLE -- It's no secret what's on top of general manager Jack Zduriencik's agenda as he and the Mariners' brass head to Nashville, Tenn., for the Winter Meetings next week.

After finishing last in the American League in scoring for a fourth straight season, the club has already announced it will move in the fences at spacious Safeco Field next year in order to help a 75-87 team that did rank fifth in the league in runs on the road in 2012.

But the Mariners also would like to upgrade a young club that lacked a veteran run producer in the middle of its lineup, and Zduriencik has a little payroll room now that Ichiro Suzuki and his $18 million contract are off the books. The Mariners have indicated a willingness to increase their budget from last year, when an original figure in the $90 million range wound up closer to $83 million after midseason trades.

"If we can help ourselves, certainly we will," said Zduriencik. "Offense would be a focal point, but if there are other avenues, if we could add a starting pitcher, who knows what might present itself both for this year and with the bigger picture in mind. Sometimes the best-laid plans of mice and men go awry, so you have to go to the next plan."

The right-field spot that Ichiro manned for the previous dozen seasons seems the logical place to add someone with more pop, though Zduriencik isn't limiting his search to corner outfielders.

"Our target is to try to do something to add offense," Zduriencik said. "If it's a corner outfielder, that's great. If it's a different position, we'll have to make some decisions on how the lineup will look. I think we have a degree of flexibility if we can get the right piece."

The club has met with free-agent catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli, whose versatility and veteran presence could make for an interesting match. The Mariners are also actively talking trade, which is the route Zduriencik took a year ago when he moved promising young right-hander Michael Pineda to the Yankees for catcher Jesus Montero.

Thus, Zduriencik figures to be busy in Nashville, where the Meetings take place Dec. 3-6 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort. But action won't be limited to the Music City.

"I think this will be an interesting week as we get closer to the meetings," he said. "Momentum starts to build from here on out. A lot of agents are out there gauging clubs' interest, having discussions. They kind of gear the Winter Meetings as a platform to move forward, but we've seen stuff happen before the Meetings and we'll see things after."

Zduriencik said "this isn't a scenario where there are unlimited dollars" and he isn't going to put all of his eggs in one big free-agent basket. He's already acknowledged that Seattle doesn't figure to be a player in the Josh Hamilton derby, with the former Rangers star expected to push for a contract in the seven-year, $175 million range.

Instead, the Mariners will look to bolster their roster in several spots and continue building around a young core that includes Montero, Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders and, of course, Felix Hernandez.

Zduriencik has already used some of his available payroll to re-sign right-handed starter Hisashi Iwakuma and left-handed reliever Oliver Perez, plus adding veteran infielder Robert Andino in a trade with the Orioles for Trayvon Robinson.

Iwakuma agreed to a two-year, $13 million extension after a promising first season in the Majors and helps solidify the rotation behind Hernandez and Jason Vargas, with youngsters Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer expected to battle for spots as well.

But Zduriencik isn't ruling out adding another veteran starter in order to take the pressure off promoting pitchers before they're ready.

"No doubt about it, if the right piece is there that we think makes us better, we'd certainly engage in those conversations," he said. "You look at our upper-level prospects -- Hultzen, Walker, Paxton, Maurer, [Andrew] Carraway -- none of them are proven at the big league level. As much as we like them, we're not sure what we'll get in Spring Training.

"There's not an urgency for that to happen. We have to look at what is best for the player, because they'll be with us for years to come. It wouldn't surprise me if one or even two of those guys make the club. It also wouldn't surprise me if they need time in Triple-A to get ready."

It also shouldn't surprise anyone if one or more top prospects are involved in a trade for a bat. Having a little payroll flexibility isn't just of value in free agency. It also gives Zduriencik the ability to take on some salary in a trade, instead of just operating on a prospect-for-prospect deal like the Montero-Pineda swap.

"We've had ongoing discussions, but what we're all finding is how valuable young, inexpensive players are to clubs," he said. "We've had a lot of interest in our players. I'm not saying the right match has arisen yet, but there's a lot of interest in our young kids. People see the upside.

"We've worked hard for these four years, chugging uphill, and are at the point now where we're looking at a very bright future. So I do think in all these discussions, there's this balancing act between wanting to do something now and wanting to do the right thing for the organization for the long run.

"The best thing to do is continue to stay the course, and if we can augment what we're doing, where it looks like the best thing for us, then that's what we will do."

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