Rosenthal: Desperate Mariners must consider all free-agent options

Desperate Seattle Mariners must consider all free-agent options this offseason.

Earlier this offseason, I wrote conflicting accounts about the Mariners’ interest in free-agent first baseman Mike Napoli, first saying they were “in,” then saying they were “out.”

Well, after checking with additional sources and circling back to others, I have concluded that they are indeed “in.” And while I have no idea whether the Mariners ultimately will land Napoli, their pursuit of him makes absolute sense.

The Mariners’ wish list includes, to varying degrees, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo. The team also wants to add a starting pitcher and a closer, but offense is the priority. The Mariners are casting the widest net possible, fearing they still might get shut out.

In recent offseasons, the M’s failed to land Josh Hamilton and Prince Fielder in free agency and Justin Upton when he rejected a trade. Hitters look at Seattle and see the following: Bad team. Pitcher-friendly ballpark. Undesirable geography, particularly for players from Latin America who want to be close to home.

The Mariners need to change the conversation, establish a winning culture under new manager Lloyd McClendon, establish an identity. Problem is, all of the free-agent hitters they are pursuing – with the possible exception of Ellsbury, a native of Oregon - would accept comparable offers from more competitive teams before coming to Seattle.

Which isn’t to say the Mariners are destined for another barren offseason. The best way for them to get free agents is to overpay, and circumstances may line up for them to do just that, whether it’s the right decision or not.

None of the Mariners’ young hitters projects as an impact slugger, except maybe catcher Mike Zunino. General manager Jack Zduriencik, entering a make-or-break season, needs to make something happen. And certain free agents may jump at the Mariners’ dollars.

Scott Boras, the agent for Choo and Ellsbury, generally directs his clients toward market-driven contracts. And who knows, maybe Napoli would grow frustrated with the Red Sox’s desire for short-term deals, and bolt for the money.

The Mariners had interest in Napoli last offseason, but wanted him partly as a backup catcher. Sources say the team backed off due to the condition of Napoli’s hips, which later became an issue in his negotiations with the Red Sox. Now that Napoli is a first baseman, coming off a season in which he played 139 games, the second-highest total of his career, the landscape is different.

Of course, the signing of Napoli could mean reduced playing time for first baseman Justin Smoak, who - as the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade - remains a key figure for Zduriencik. The Mariners also could re-sign Kendrys Morales, a Boras client whose market figures to be depressed by the team’s qualifying offer.

At this point, the M’s cannot afford to be picky, cannot dismiss any option. They are like the poor guy in high school who keeps getting rejected by girls he asks to the prom. Whichever hitter says “yes” will become instantly more attractive.

The Red Sox, after learning last offseason that Napoli suffered from avascular necrosis in both hips, reworked his three-year, $39 million deal into a one-year, $5 million contract that eventually reached $13 million with incentives. If the Mariners offer Napoli three years or more, the risk-averse Red Sox might turn away.

Then again, it’s difficult to read the Mariners, who always seem to be in some form of disarray. Their previous manager, Eric Wedge, said he would not stay with the team even if offered a five-year contract. Their GM, Zduriencik, is the definition of “embattled.” And their longtime club president, Chuck Armstrong, resigned on Monday, saying he wanted to enjoy his family.

Two sources used the same word to describe the Mariners’ current approach – “desperate.” Desperate teams shift course. Desperate teams spend money. Desperate teams are capable of just about anything.

A number of rival executives question why the Angels traded not just outfielder Peter Bourjos but also outfield prospect Randal Grichuk to the Cardinals for third baseman David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas.

The answer might be that the perception of Bourjos is greater than the reality.

Bourjos, 26, has appeared in only 156 games the past two seasons, producing only a combined .659 OPS while dealing with a hamstring injury and a wrist problem that eventually required surgery.

Freese, 30, was more productive over that period, even though he regressed last season, struggling in particular in April (after missing time with a strained lower back) and then again in the postseason.

Add it all up, and the move became almost a necessity from the Angels’ perspective, according to sources with knowledge of the team’s thinking.

The Angels’ biggest need is starting pitching, but they also had a vacancy at third base. Bourjos did not have enough value to bring them a controllable starter. Some of the teams that liked him in the past no longer had a need. Others, like the Phillies, did not have enough to offer.

Meanwhile, the free-agent market at third base is extremely thin. Freese projects to earn $4.4 million in his second year of arbitration, according to Matt Swartz of The Angels could have signed Eric Chavez, soon to be 36, for say, $2.5 million to $4 million. But they preferred the potential for a bounce-back season from Freese, who had an .839 OPS in 2012.

Bourjos, projected to earn only $1.1 million in his first year of arbitration, is more affordable than Freese, and comes with an additional year of club control. But the Cardinals apparently took the position that he wasn’t all that accomplished, prompting the Angels to include Grichuk in the deal.

Grichuk, 22, hit 22 homers and had a .780 OPS at Double-A Arkansas last season despite playing in a pitcher-friendly league and pitcher-friendly park. He is a good defender with a strong arm, but his plate discipline could limit his major league potential – in 542 plate appearances last season, he drew only 28 walks.

Salas, 28, will at least add to the Angels’ bullpen depth – he was sort of an odd man out for the Cardinals last season, but has averaged nearly a strikeout per inning in the majors. The ‘pen, in fact, could develop into a strength – the Angels are in agreement with free-agent righty Joe Smith on a three-year, $15.75 million contract, pending a physical.

Did the Angels get robbed in the Freese deal? Time will tell. But they had their reasons. Teams always have their reasons, no matter how questionable a trade might appear.

The Diamondbacks, deep in young infielders and starting pitchers, possess enough prospect power to trade for virtually any starter they want. So, while they’re still talking to the Cubs about right-hander Jeff Samardzija, they’re also looking into other possibilities.

The trade market for starters looks rather vast, including or potentially including the following:

  • Rays lefty David Price.
  • Tigers righties Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello.
  • Reds righty Homer Bailey.
  • Red Sox righty John Lackey.
  • Athletics lefty Brett Anderson.
  • Marlins righties Jacob Turner and Nate Eovaldi and some of the team’s younger prospects.
  • Brewers righties Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo.

The D-Backs, sources say, know what it would take to land Samardzija, a pitcher they have targeted since last summer. Their fear is that if they jump too soon, they may miss out on an even better opportunity.

The Cubs are drawing numerous inquiries on Samardzija, but other teams also are sorting through their trade and free-agent options, and no deal appears imminent, sources say.

The Blue Jays, one possible suitor, might be reluctant to part with young pitching again after going down that path last offseason in trades with the Mets (R.A. Dickey) and Marlins (Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, et al). Samardzija is under control for two more years, and if the Cubs cannot sign him to an extension, why would anyone expect that the Blue Jays could pull off such a thing?

The Angels, who have an obvious need for a pitcher such as Samardzija, do not match up with the Cubs, sources said. The Cubs want young starting pitching and the Angels don’t have it, outside of righty Garrett Richards, who projects to be a key member of their rotation.

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