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With the GM meetings concluded and a handful of Brayan Pena-type free agents having found their way to new teams, it seems safe to say that the offseason is under way. It’s not thoroughly under way, of course, since Marlon Byrd is the biggest name to sign and no trades have taken place, but all the managers have been hired and things are heating up on the rumor front. Big things are coming for every team, except the Mets, probably, because the Mets don’t do big things.
The Mariners are one of many, many teams looking to make a splash this winter, and they’d like to do that in the outfield. This represents a good basic strategy by the team, as they currently employ roughly zero outfielders who should be starting in the major leagues. It has long been speculated that the Mariners will go hard after Jacoby Ellsbury and/or Shin-Soo Choo, the consensus top two outfielders available on the free market. Early rumors have tied them to both, as expected, then cautioned that the team may be keeping their distance, as not expected. For all practical purposes, there has been no movement of significance on the big fish front.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Insert every other available outfielder on the planet. The Mariners have been linked in the early going to virtually all the free agent outfield guys, and a handful of trade targets such as Matt Kemp and Dexter Fowler. They’ve been linked to Jhonny Peralta, with the caveat that he’d be switching to left field. They’re in on Nelson Cruz, and they’re in on Carlos Beltran. I’m sure there are some available outfielders the team doesn’t covet, like Juan Pierre I hope, but then again these are the same Mariners who gave Raul Ibanez a nice major league guarantee a year ago. These are the Mariners that want Kendrys Morales and Billy Butler. These are the Mariners who want a free agent closer, for some reason.
It’s easy to see a headline about the Mariners having “zero interest” in a dynamic talent like Jacoby Ellsbury and declare the offseason a disaster. Instinct tells us that the Mariners having interest in Nelson Cruz is an indication that the Mariners are still hopelessly broken and spiraling towards an offseason every bit more nightmarish than the hellscape that was one year ago. Sure, it may seem that the Mariners are saying they prefer mediocre, overvalued players over excellent players who border on superstardom. We all would rather the Mariners sign Choo than Jason Kubel or whoever.
Here’s where it gets tricky. The big name guys aren’t expected to sign until during or after the winter meetings, which are still many weeks away. There won’t be a lot of movement until then, and if years past are any indication then the market may be in for a re-shaping in the wake of big December deals. We just saw Marlon Byrd sign for two years and $16 million, which is a lot of money. A year ago Torii Hunter signed in November, and now his contract looks great for the Tigers. With power being in such high demand, the outfielders the Mariners are getting a sense of now might be in position to make a lot more money if they wait for the big guys to sign their astonishing nine-figure deals. To strike early may now be more of an opportunistic move than in years past.
Make no mistake, overpaying middle-of-the-road players is still not a good idea. Signing Nelson Cruz or Kendrys Morales to the money they want in the early going is not smart, and there are reasonable arguments to be made that signing these type of no-defense old-guy-skills players is a bad idea at any price. But what the Mariners appear to be doing is evaluating the market, which is what any smart team would do. It’s what every team is doing, probably, and what it does for the M’s is help them keep up with the rest of the pack information-wise.
There’s a chance that casting a wide net and being diligent creates an opportunity for the team to swoop in and come away with a nifty deal for Carlos Beltran or some other talented player who wants to get their free agency resolved early on. There’s also a chance, a very real chance, that the Mariners decide to overpay anyway, or that they spend their money on a player who simply isn’t any good. Last year, remember, they made a nice move for a good player and then continued to make redundant moves for basically the same player, stockpiling a mediocre skill set and creating a log jam that helped to cripple the team. The Mariners have taken early steps toward approaching the free agent market the “right” way. Now all they have to do is not make bumbling mistakes, and everything should turn out peachy.