Mariners go to Meetings seeking starter
Surplus of relievers could be dealt to bolster team's rotation
SEATTLE -- A 10-win improvement and second-place finish in the American League West brought respectability back to the Mariners this past season following three straight last-place finishes. But work still needs to be done for the team to become a playoff competitor in 2008.
The organization believes a sound offensive foundation is in place and the addition of at least one starting pitcher could go a long way in moving to the top of the division, which has been ruled by either the Angels or Athletics for the past six seasons.
"Our focus, right now, is on starting pitching, without a doubt," general manager Bill Bavasi said. "We need to improve our offense at second base, either by going outside [the organization] or with what we already have, make sure we have solid left-handed bats coming off the bench, and break in a young guy [Adam Jones] in the outfield. But mostly, we have to focus on making sure we take care of our starting pitching."
Bavasi said offers have been made to some free agents and there are trade proposals on the table, but he would not be specific about either subject.
The pursuit of strong arms, which included a trip to Japan by a contingent of club officials (including Bavasi) to reel in free agent right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, continues in Nashville, Tenn., next week during the four-day Winter Meetings.
As always, Bavasi is keeping his game plan in a top secret file.
While a second-place finish last season was a step in the right direction, it marked the sixth consecutive season the Mariners missed the playoffs.
"There definitely is a sense of urgency, compared to years past," Bavasi told MLB Radio during the GM meetings in Florida, "but we think we have the club at a point where, if we can add a starting pitcher and have a couple get better, we have a pretty good chance in our division.
"We do have a tough division," he added. "But we have some serious expectations, and we'd like to see them met this year."
With so many MLB teams looking to improve their pitching, exactly how the Mariners accomplish their task remains to be seen. The free-agent market appears stocked with more Jeff Weaver-type starters -- including Weaver -- than top-of-the-rotation-caliber hurlers.
"I can only speak [for] ourselves, but we have to find one [starting pitcher] -- but two [would be] better," Bavasi said. "Felix [Hernandez] needs to get a lot better real fast, and he can. We need for him to become the impact pitcher that is not available on the market.
"We also need for [Horacio] Ramirez to turn himself around. We don't think he is a lost cause by any means, and this is just the kind of pitcher that can be affected by a guy like [new pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre]."
Seattle has been linked in various reports to free-agent right-handers Livan Hernandez, Kyle Lohse, Carlos Silva and former Mariners All-Star right-hander Freddy Garcia. But none of them knock your socks off.
Mariners fans drool over the thought of Twins left-hander Johan Santana being acquired in a trade that would put him in the same rotation as right-hander Hernandez. But the cost would be prohibitive, and Bavasi is not inclined to mortgage the franchise's future.
It appears that the Mariners are determined to give former first-round Draft choice Jones a chance to become a fixture in the outfield, presumably in right field, and at the same time hope that first baseman Richie Sexson has a huge comeback season.
"We think we're at a point we haven't been in the last four years -- where we can add a quality player to our club every year from our Minor League system," Bavasi said. "The first one would be Jones. We think he can step in and leave [Raul] Ibanez in left, Ichiro [Suzuki] in center and Sexson at first."
Teams needing relief pitching, or a second baseman, would be wise to check with the Mariners. Even with young right-hander Brandon Morrow expected to move from late-inning relief to the rotation, there could be an abundance of middle and long relievers -- and they may be available in a trade.
"I would say there is a small list of players we would not trade," assistant GM Lee Pelekoudas said. "We are open to a lot of things and haven't turned a blind eye to anything."
That being said, the keys to Seattle's offensive improvement last season figure to be untouched.
Second baseman Jose Lopez, an All-Star in 2006 but a disappointment the second half of that season and most of last season, could be available. With 23-year-old Yung Chi Chen making a superb showing in the Arizona Fall League, the Mariners might be willing to move Lopez for a pitcher.
But that's about it among regulars.
"Position players we are going to be very careful with," Bavasi said. "If we can move a relief pitcher, where we feel we may have some excess, then we would do that for starting pitching."
Get in line.
"Everybody is always looking for pitching," Pelekoudas said. "I don't think it is any more pronounced this year. I think there are probably some clubs out there willing to give up pitching, which is a little surprising, but the cost to acquire that pitching is awfully, awfully high."
Among starting pitchers that have been rumored as possible trade material are right-handers A.J. Burnett (Blue Jays), Tim Lincecum (Giants), Ben Sheets (Brewers) and Dan Haren (Athletics), along with left-handers Dontrelle Willis (Marlins) and Scott Kazmir (Rays).
Pelekoudas said the organization continues to explore trades and free agency for ways to improve.
"The free-agent market isn't as attractive as you would like," he said. "We'll just have to keep working on both angles."
That's what happened at the Winter Meetings a year ago. The Mariners signed right-fielder Jose Guillen to a one-year contract, and the well-traveled veteran responded with a solid season, batting .290 with 23 home runs and 99 RBIs. Seattle also acquired Ramirez in a trade with Atlanta and right-handed reliever Sean White from Pittsburgh.
The groundwork also was laid for a trade with the Nationals that brought switch-hitter Jose Vidro to the Mariners.
"We took some gambles last year, and for the most part, they worked out," Pelekoudas said.
As for the Mariners' mission this year: "Basically, we just need to shore up the pitching staff a little, work on the bench and be ready to go."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.