Latest on M’s pursuit of Price, Zobrist

 Although we’re still two weeks away from the July non-waiver trade deadline, as expected, the trade rumors picked up in a big way yesterday with reports that the Seattle Mariners have been engaged in talks with the Tampa Bay Rays over the past few weeks. Jon Morosi of Fox Sports reported on Twitter that the M’s and Rays have been discussing a deal that would send super-utility player Ben Zobrist and ace starter David Price to the Emerald City. Seattle has been connected to Price since the offseason and it’s been widely rumored that the Rays are ready to move their top starter in the right deal.

Shortly after Morosi reported the trade talks, Jon Heyman of CBS Sports came out to say that the M’s have actually been focussed on Zobrist and rather trade talks could expand to include Price. It’s no surprise to hear that Nick Franklin is reportedly involved on the Mariners end of things as the Rays reportedly had interest in the young infielder back in February. In between the updates from Morosi and Heyman, Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill tweeted this interesting bit as well.

Zobrist’s name has come up more frequently in trade rumors the last little while as his club finds itself 9.5 games out of a playoff spot and have occupied the basement of the American League’s East division for much of the season. The 33-year old has what the Mariners need in a bad way: right-handed pop. Zobrist has hit 20 or more home runs in three of the past five seasons and offers an extreme amount of versatility — he’s been a plus defender in right field and at second base according to UZR, and is also capable of providing adequate play in the other outfield spots as well as shortstop and third base. He could also chip in at first base, but hasn’t seen action there since 2010 and presumably the M’s would prefer to use him to plug an outfield hole or take over at short should Brad Miller struggle.

[pullquote]Ben Zobrist, a switch hitter, boasts a career .285/.357/358 triple-slash at Safeco Field and is batting .352/.420/.511 versus left-handed pitching in 2014.[/pullquote]

Corey Hart has yet to provide the right-handed punch to the lineup and even if he does, the club could still stand to add another bat. Zobrist is in the midst of a down year of sorts with a .266/.352/.401 line, but his 117 wRC+ is right on pace with his career mark of 118. He is a classic line drive hitter that shouldn’t be harmed too much by the confines of Safeco Field. He also owns a 12.2 percent career walk rate compared to a 15.9 strikeout rate which would be benefit to the lineup. Zobrist isn’t a huge base stealer — his highest total of 24 was back in 2010 — but he does offer slightly above average wheels on the base paths that can get you an extra base or two when it counts.

On the financial side of things, Zobrist is owed just $7 million for the 2014 season and will make $7.5 million in 2015 before his club can elect to exercise a $7.5 million option for 2016, or pay a $500 thousand buyout. This type of deal is in line with the reports that suggested general manager Jack Zduriencik has the flexibility to make a moderately significant addition to the club. Whether or not ownership has or is willing to also approve the addition of what’s left on Price’s $14 million deal for 2014 and the upwards of $20 million he could command next season remains to be seen.

Now, one key thing to remember is that Tampa Bay doesn’t yet believe they are out of the playoff race. The Rays have been playing better of late, but it still seems unlikely they could make a serious playoff push this year — they have just 11 games before the trade deadline to determine whether or not they should sell. Of course it’s entirely possible that the Rays hold off until the offseason to move either Price or Zobrist, but one could easily make the argument that the pair’s respective value will never be higher than it is right now, especially with Price only under control for one more season before he hits free agency.

Back in the winter the Rays were stuck on acquiring top prospect Taijuan Walker in any potential deal for Price, which the M’s balked at. However, in a new report today from Heyman, it sounds as though the inclusion of Walker could be the deciding factor in whether or not Seattle gets Price. Heyman also confirms that the M’s are talking about a package deal including both Price and Zobrist, and notes that Miller is very much on the table in a potential deal. The fact the club is even willing to discuss their top prospect’s inclusion in a deal could suggest that they’ve become more willing — if only ever so slightly — to deal him in the right situation.

The landscape has obviously changed in many ways since January, especially with the M’s very much in playoff contention heading into the second half and needed a serious boost for the stretch drive, but perhaps the question now turns to exactly where Walker’s trade value sits at the moment. It was expected that the 21-year old would break camp in the big league rotation and contribute, but after some shoulder issues flared up early in Spring Training, Walker has only just gotten healthy enough to make a couple of major league starts prior to the break and is currently working things out at Triple-A. How much the Oakland Athletics dealing of top prospect Addison Russell and others for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel will affect the M’s talks regarding Price, but it’s been reported that the A’s offered Russell in a package for Price and were turned down.

It’s unlikely that anyone will question whether or not Walker still has the talent to be a No. 1 starter after the injury, but now there’s an increased risk added to the already anemic nature of pitching prospects. Not to suggest I’m down of Walker, and I still believe it’d be a mistake to sell low on the youngster, but given the surprise success of Roenis Elias — though he has struggled lately — and rehabbing James Paxton who is feeling no ill-effects after his first start in almost four months, it’s perhaps slightly more palpable to see Walker go in a deal, especially if the return is a pair of superstar-type players.

If it’s a given that Walker would have to be included in any deal involving Price, it’s equally likely that Franklin would be going the other way in a potential deal for Zobrist. Franklin could offer some of the positional versatility that Zobrist does and obviously his bat isn’t as polished yet, but he will be owed close to the league minimum for the next couple of years before hitting arbitration and that would be very enticing for the perennially cash-strapped Rays.

The next question then becomes what else would the M’s have to part with to get a done for either deal or both? Top prospect D.J. Peterson‘s name has come up recently, but he’s progressing very well in the minors right now — currently with Double-A Jackson — and in the last line of the Heyman article it says Peterson is very unlikely to move unless “it was a really big deal”. Price and Zobrist sound like a big deal to me, but the cost of two of the organization’s best prospects could be a little rich for Seattle. Heyman notes in today’s report that the Rays are in fact interested in Peterson and Paxton as well.

It’s expected that the M’s will use some of their bullpen depth to facilitate a potential deal with any one of Danny Farquhar, Brandon Maurer, or Tom Wilhelmsen could hold some reasonable valuable. Other major league ready players such as Stefen Romero, Abraham Almonte, and Erasmo Ramirez could be included as well. Another name off of the active roster, James Jones, has been rumored to be potentially involved as well despite the fact Seattle views him as their centerfielder of the future as well. And there’s always the possibility that Dustin Ackley could be moved as well and Heyman hears that plenty of teams have been asking. It’s also possible that other highly touted prospects such as Luiz Gohara, Edwin Diaz, Austin Wilson, and Chris Taylor could be discussed as well.

The book has been well-written on Price over the last couple months and what he can bring to any rotation — a true ace capable of going the distance each time out — and certainly he would represent an upgrade for the M’s rotation, especially when one considers the trifecta of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Price. That’s without even mentioning the boost to the offence that Zobrist would provide.

At the very least, it’s good to know that the club is at least in strong pursuit of different options including Marlon Byrd — which PI’s Alex Carson examined yesterday — and isn’t afraid of making “the big one”. As the second half begins the Mariners still hold a two and a half game lead on the second AL Wild Card slot and the division isn’t quite out of reach yet, but the M’s now have an opportunity to do something that it looked liked they weren’t going to prior to the start of the season: make the first year of Robinson Cano’s mega-deal count.

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Tyler Carmont

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