LAS VEGAS -- While Jerry Dipoto insists nothing was brewing on the trade front Monday for the Mariners after what he called one of the most boring first 36 hours of any Winter Meetings he's attended, the energetic general manager acknowledged Seattle is definitely interested in Japanese free-agent pitcher Yusei Kikuchi.
"We've done a lot of our business," Dipoto said. "We do still have a couple open-ended conversations regarding potential for trades, but I would say nothing that is imminent or even likely at this point. And our free-agent discussions are geared more toward giving opportunity to players to come in and re-establish what they were or, maybe in the bullpen, players who can come in and make an impact now."
In other words, Dipoto isn't biting on any current trade offers for veterans such as Carlos Santana, Mike Leake or his prize right fielder Mitch Haniger. And much of the Mariners' free-agent pursuits this winter will revolve around lower-tier veterans and possibly a position player or two who can help bolster the roster in 2019 after his flurry of longer-term moves earlier this winter.
But Kikuchi, a 27-year-old left-handed starter, is definitely a prominent name on the Mariners' radar. Whether he's interested in Seattle remains to be seen, as he's expected to be pursued by numerous clubs.
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Dipoto said Kikuchi fits in his timeline of pursuing players who could crest together in the 2020-21 range.
"Sure, he's 27," Dipoto said. "I don't know what his interest level is in playing in Seattle just yet, but we are interested and he does fit our timeline. By the time we feel like we get to our next window, he's 29 years old."
Dipoto noted that Haniger is 27, and Marco Gonzales and newly acquired center fielder Mallex Smith are 26, and they all are part of the core going forward.
"That's the age of that center part of our group," he said. "Then the 22-, 23-, 24-year-olds we've acquired that surround them, it makes for an awfully interesting mid-season 2020 look. I don't think Kikuchi is going to be signing a one-year deal, so he should be very capable of being a part of what we're trying to do. Now whether he wants to come here or not, I can't tell you."
Kikuchi was 74-48 with a 2.81 ERA over eight seasons as a starter in Japan. He features a mid-90s fastball and an above-average slider. He is about a week into a 30-day window when he and his agent, Scott Boras, can negotiate with any MLB team as a free agent.
"He's very good. His performance speaks for itself," Dipoto said. "He's got real stuff, and he's had a lot of success in Japan. We've probably scouted him as much as any player in the [Nippon Professional Baseball league] in recent years, just because he's been there for a number of years and we've had a lot of volume."
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Dipoto has stressed all along that he's not blowing up the Mariners' roster, but looking more at a one-year step back to allow a better push forward around a younger core of players with improved payroll flexibility.
That's why he's interested in Kikuchi, as well as hanging on to Haniger, who had a breakout season at age 27 and remains under team control for four more years at a relatively low price before reaching free agency.
Dipoto has said he'd need to be "blown away" to trade Haniger and that hasn't happened, though several teams "have taken multiple passes" at acquiring the All-Star right fielder.
"We've had a handful of teams try and they haven't quite gotten yet to where we'd even consider it," Dipoto said. "We see Mitch as a late bloomer who takes care of himself. He's an athletic guy and represents everything we'd like to gear ourselves toward."
Dipoto has already made six trades in the past month involving 24 players, bolstering the club's future while giving up nine players who played prominent roles in last year's 89-73 season. Among the departed are four former All-Stars -- second baseman Robinson Cano, shortstop Jean Segura, closer Edwin Diaz and setup man Alex Colome -- as well as No. 1 pitcher James Paxton, starting catcher Mike Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia and relievers James Pazos and Juan Nicasio.
But Dipoto's focus has been on creating a new wave of talent that would begin cresting toward that 2020-21 timeline. The fourth-year Mariners general manager also has to fill some pressing holes on his 2019 roster, primarily in the bullpen that was depleted by the trades.
"We're pretty excited by the balance we have [in the lineup]," Dipoto said. "But we are going to have to figure out how to plug some of the holes in the pitching staff. Trading Pax, Eddie, Alex Colome, those are big, big holes to fill. I'm certain we won't be able to fill them as well as those guys filled them. That's just the reality of it.
"But the goal is over the next year-and-a-half, with some of that young talent we've put in place, we can insert something that has a chance to be more sustainable and with far more upside."