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Morales now final big bat on open market

PEORIA, Ariz. -- With outfielder Nelson Cruz agreeing to a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles on Saturday, former Mariners designated hitter Kendrys Morales is the biggest remaining hitter on the free-agent market. And the question now seems to be whether Seattle will be interested in bringing him back or not.

Morales turned down a $14.1 million qualifying offer in order to seek a deal on the open market. Cruz did the same and wound up settling for $6 million less with the Orioles as time began running out.

Seattle had been linked to Cruz in media speculation throughout the offseason and general manager Jack Zduriencik said at Mariners FanFest last month that he'd love to have Cruz in his lineup. But it appears neither side felt strongly enough about it being a good fit with the Mariners to get into the sort of long-term contract that likely would have been necessary.

Cruz, 33, has far better numbers at home in Texas than on the road during his career with the Rangers and there were questions how his bat would play in Safeco Field, which can be tough on right-handed hitters. The Mariners did move the fences in last season, but no one will confuse Safeco Field with Camden Yards in terms of a place for a right-handed hitter to put up numbers before re-entering free agency next year.

Morales, on the other hand, is a switch-hitter who proved last year he can produce at Safeco Field as he led Seattle in batting average (.277), doubles (34), RBIs (80) and extra-base hits (57). The Mariners talked to Morales and his agent, Scott Boras, last fall about a long-term extension, then made the qualifying offer when nothing got done.

Morales' situation in Seattle could hinge largely on the health of Corey Hart. If Hart can play the outfield, as he's done in the opening days of camp while coming back from a year off with two knee surgeries, that opens up the DH spot considerably. Justin Smoak and Logan Morrison are splitting first-base duties early in camp and Morales would provide a strong presence at DH.

But if Hart can't play the outfield full-time, he'll need to get at-bats at DH or first base, which would limit Morales' options.

Morales produced equally from both sides of the plate last year, which would be helpful for a Seattle lineup that is heavily left-handed at this point.

Manager Lloyd McClendon has previously noted the team's shortness of right-handed hitters, but on Saturday said "we certainly have options. There's opportunity. We'll see how things play out."

Switch-hitters can help balance any lineup, but McClendon said that comes with a big qualifier. The Mariners currently have Smoak as a switch-hitter, along with shortstop Nick Franklin and outfielder Abraham Almonte, neither of whom is guaranteed a roster spot.

"I think when you talk about having switch-hitters in your lineup, they need to be productive," he said. "I don't need switch-hitters just to be switch-hitters, I need guys to be productive. But it certainly helps if you can have a couple of those guys in your lineup. That's a nice asset to have."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.
Read More: Seattle Mariners, Kendrys Morales, Nelson Cruz