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Seattle eyes talent to complement young core

Morales' contract status a factor in developing Mariners' outfield, pitching

SEATTLE -- With a nucleus of young talent just beginning to make its mark on the Major League roster and two All-Star pitchers already under contract, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik's task in free agency this offseason figures to be finding the right pieces to help take that group to the next level.

For a second straight season, those efforts figure to focus largely on the outfield, where Seattle seems to have several openings heading into 2014. But Zduriencik is also tasked with raising the talent level in the bullpen, adding quality depth behind his young infield and perhaps adding a veteran starter to a rotation that has several top young prospects pushing for jobs behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma.

Zduriencik went the trade route last offseason to add designated hitter Kendrys Morales and outfielder Michael Morse while signing outfielders Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay and veteran left-hander Joe Saunders in free agency. Morales and Ibanez proved valuable additions to the middle of the lineup, but no one in that group was locked up beyond last season, thus there will be a need to bolster some key positions following a disappointing 71-91 season.

With Zduriencik also in the process of hiring a new manager to replace Eric Wedge, this figures to be an important offseason in the club's building process. Some seeds were planted in the past few years, with youngsters like Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino, Brad Miller and Nick Franklin stepping into starting position roles.

The late-season arrival of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton breathed further promise into the pitching staff as well. But those young players need help, and Zduriencik will certainly be looking for a better roster mix after winding up with added power but getting away from speed and defense with many of last season's additions.

Morse, one of the power-first players, was traded in August, and Morales and Ibanez are both free agents. Zduriencik has already said he will make a qualifying offer to Morales, who hit 23 home runs with a team-leading 80 RBIs and .277 average.

That means if Morales does not agree to a longer-term deal in the first five days of the free-agent period, when teams have an exclusive window to their own players, he will be given a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer. Morales has already indicated he will most likely reject such a bid -- as all nine Major League players who received qualifying offers did last year -- in order to seek a longer deal in Seattle or elsewhere. But by making the qualifying offer, the Mariners will be guaranteed a first-round compensatory Draft pick if Morales does sign with another team.

Should Morales depart, Zduriencik will add designated hitter to his offseason list of needs. But the Mariners will have considerable payroll flexibility -- even more so if Morales opts out -- with Hernandez and Iwakuma being the only veterans signed to multi-year deals.

The rest of the young non-free agent players all are under team control well into the future, with Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak the only two who even begin the arbitration phase this year.

Contract issues

Free agents: DH Morales, OF Raul Ibanez, OF Endy Chavez, C Humberto Quintero, LHP Oliver Perez

Eligible for arbitration: 1B Smoak, OF M. Saunders. (LH Charlie Furbush is a likely Super 2 candidate)

Contract options: OF Franklin Gutierrez, ($7.5 million team option with $500,000 buyout), LHP J. Saunders ($8.3 million mutual option with $900,000 buyout)

Areas of need

Outfield: The trade of Morse, release of Bay and impending free agency of Gutierrez, Ibanez and Chavez leaves only Michael Saunders, the recently transitioned Ackley and September callup Abraham Almonte as outfield returnees. And that makes the outfield the most likely place for a free-agent signing or two. The Mariners will undoubtedly be linked in offseason conjecture with the top available outfielders, which include Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Curtis Granderson, Nelson Cruz and Carlos Beltran. The next tier includes Coco Crisp, Nate McLouth, David Murphy and Corey Hart.

Bullpen: This is usually the hardest area of a team to project, but clearly the Mariners could use a veteran addition or two after a young group wore down in the second half in 2013. Rookie Danny Farquhar stepped in as a quality closer after Tom Wilhelmsen struggled, and Furbush and Yoervis Medina were capable setup men. But a season-long elbow injury to Stephen Pryor and struggles by Wilhelmsen and Carter Capps short-circuited what was expected to be a group of young power arms. Perez is a free agent again and has proved to be a valuable lefty if he is not overused. His return could be a priority, along with adding another veteran or two. Carson Smith and Dominic Leone are two more young hard-throwing righties coming up in the system.

Starting pitcher: The presence of Hernandez and Iwakuma atop the rotation and the brief exposure of top prospects Walker, Paxton, Brandon Maurer and Erasmo Ramirez provides promising depth, but Zduriencik might add one mid-rotation veteran to bridge the gap until it is certain the young guns are ready. Jason Vargas, Phil Hughes, Jason Hammel and Dan Haren are among the free agents available, or maybe Seattle goes big after Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the same Rakuten club that Iwakuma pitched for in the Pacific League.

Backup catcher: While the rookie Zunino showed why he is the backstop of the future in 52 games, the Mariners will want a veteran to work with the 22-year-old. Kelly Shoppach, Blanco and Quintero all got some time in that role last season. Shoppach was cut in midseason, Blanco was released last month and Quintero is a free agent, leaving young Jesus Sucre as the only catcher besides Zunino with any MLB experience now that Jesus Montero has been moved to first base.

2014 payroll: The Mariners have stayed consistently in the $85 million to $90 million range the past three seasons, and if Zduriencik has a similar number to work with this offseason, he will have considerable flexibility because only Hernandez ($22 million) and Iwakuma ($6.5 million) are committed to anything significantly above the minimum.

Gutierrez ($7 million) and Joe Saunders ($6.5 million) both come off the books, assuming their options are not picked up, and the club paid $6.75 million to Morse and $8.5 million to Chone Figgins last year even though he was not on the team. Smoak and Michael Saunders enter arbitration for the first time and will most likely combine for something in the $5 million range, while Furbush also will get a bump from the minimum if he qualifies as a Super 2. Morales figures to be a key figure, as he would take up some of the available money -- if he accepted a $14.1 million qualifying offer or agreed to a multiyear deal -- or open up more payroll if he goes elsewhere after making $5.25 million in '13.

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