Time for M’s to get ‘creative’ in search for bat

 Another day comes to a close and another option for the Seattle Mariners is taken off the board. According to several reports outfielder Melky Cabrera has agreed to a three-year deal with the Chicago White Sox. It’s expected that the total dollar value of the contract will fall in the $42-43.5 million range according to Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com.

The signing comes literally hours after the Mariners were considered the favorites to sign Cabrera. Reportedly Seattle had engaged in multiple discussions with the free agent and had extended a three-year offer, but were unwilling to budge on adding a fourth year. At the outset of the offseason Cabrera was searching for a five-year deal and was willing to take four years.

It is a little surprising to see the 30-year old settle this early. I for one expected him to hold out for another week to get that fourth year. After all, Nelson Cruz was able to secure a four-year guarantee and he is more or less limited to designated hitter duties. Cabrera is four years his junior and is a capable defensive outfielder despite previous health concerns. Both players declined qualifying offers as well. A look back to last offseason when Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew found multi-year pacts hard to come by, and the outfielder’s decision is easily justifiable.

The White Sox have had a busy past couple weeks as they have also inked Adam LaRoche and David Robertson to free agent contracts. The club also managed to acquire one of the big fish at the Winter Meetings in Jeff Samardzija who comes via a trade with the Oakland Athletics.

What the Mariners were willing to offer Cabrera salary-wise is unknown at this point in time. There has been talks that the club wasn’t willing to commit more than the $14 million annual salary Cruz will receive to the switch-hitter. If they were willing to offer exactly that, $14 million a year, that would equate to a $42 million guarantee on a three-year deal — approximately the contract Cabrera has agreed to with the White Sox.

If the fourth year was problematic for Seattle then a mistake was made. It’s completely reasonable that the M’s didn’t increase their offer with no other club apparently willing to go the fourth year, but sometimes this is what it takes to seal the deal. The Baltimore Orioles were willing to go three years for Cruz but not four. Presumably the fourth year is what convinced Cruz to head west.

The major difference in what Cabrera and Cruz bring to the table is power. Otherwise Cabrera is realistically the superior player. There is some logic to not wanting to have a 38-year old Cruz and a 34-year old Cabrera on the same roster — there are only so many designated hitter at bats to go around. But at the same time, this offseason was supposed to be about 2015. Signing Cruz was about 2015. The structure on the Kyle Seager extension was about 2015 and 2016.

Despite the near-perfect fit between Cabrera and the Mariners, GM Jack Zduriencik didn’t sound all that convinced a deal would get done on Friday.

Right field is the obvious gaping hole on the roster, but there isn’t any reason for Dustin Ackley to simply be handed the left field job either — as discussed by Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill and Alex Carson on this week’s edition of The Hot Stove Report. Austin Jackson should rebound and give the Mariners a much better center field performance in 2015 than they received collectively in 2014.

The problem is that the corners are going to be filled with James Jones, Stefen Romero, and Ackley at this point, and that’s simply not good enough. There’s some upside for sure, but Jones is limited and Ackley still has to prove he can produce for a full season.

So, how exactly could Zduriencik get creative with fixing the outfield? Let’s take a look.

Jayson Werth, RF, Washington Nationals | 2014: .292/.394/.455, 141 wRC+, 16 HR, 4.8 fWAR
The Mariners have already been connected to the Nationals, but that was regarding shortstop Ian Desmond. Despite being projected as one of the top teams in all of baseball, the Nats are looking to make some moves to refill the cupboards. Desmond and starters Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister are all set to hit free agency after this season. An extension for Stephen Strasburg is also looming, and maybe the club wouldn’t mind moving some of the $63 million owed to Werth over the next three seasons.

Werth is coming off consecutive years with 4.6 or higher fWAR and will turn 36 next May. He bats right-handed and owns a career 149 wRC+ against left-handed pitching — exactly what the Mariners are looking for. Some of the power has disappeared over the past couple seasons, but Werth is a solid 20-to-25 home run bat and anchored the No. 3 spot in the Nationals batting order last year. In the Mariners lineup he could be a great fit on either side of Robinson Cano who figures to hit in the No. 3 spot. Werth is a better overall hitter than Cruz who will likely take the No. 4 spot and pushing the free agent signee to the No. 6 spot, behind Seager, would make the lineup all that much better.

The right-hander has predominantly played right field the last several seasons and has some experience in center. He’s about average in right with UZR ratings just below the zero mark in the last two seasons. His arm is also average in right and could easily play in left as well.

The financial side of things shouldn’t be a problem either. Seattle was reportedly willing to take on about $70 million of Matt Kemp’s contract in a potential deal and Werth will earn $21 million in each of the next three years. The problem is Werth’s full no-trade clause and the Nationals willingness to move a big piece of their lineup. What makes this feasible however, is the presence of young outfielders Michael Taylor and Steven Souza who appear ready or very close to being ready for regular big league jobs.

Certainly the right package could get a deal done, but it seems more likely, for now anyways, that the Nats will aim to move a Fister or Zimmermann instead.

Seth Smith, LF/RF, San Diego Padres | 2014: .266/.367/.440, 133 wRC+, 12 HR, 2.6 fWAR
The Padres have been one of the more aggressive teams this offseason with failed pursuits of Pablo Sandoval and Yasmany Tomas before finally landing Kemp from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Will Venable figures to play a regular outfield role as well, likely in center with Kemp in right. Cameron Maybin, Rymer Liriano, and former Mariner Abraham Almonte also figure into the club’s outfield plans. One can’t forget about incumbent outfield Carlos Quentin either, who should be healthy for Opening Day. There is some talk though that Quentin could be moved to first base.

Smith was thought to be a potential trade candidate last summer but instead of dealing the outfielder, the Padres locked up the 32-year old to a two-year extension that will pay him $6 million in 2015 and $6.8 million in 2016. The deal also includes a $7 million club option for 2017 with a $200 thousand buyout.

Obviously the Mariners’ goal is to add a right-handed bat and Smith hits left-handed, but he has proven that his skill set can play in Petco Park — one of the toughest parks to hit in. Safeco Field shouldn’t be much of an issue. While Smith is coming off of one good year and has largely been a platoon player for the bulk of his career — he has wRC+’s of 63 and 123 against left and right-handed pitching respectfully for his career — he could still play a fairly regular outfield role for the M’s. He’s average defensively and his arm is adequate for right field. He would also provide some much needed pop to the bottom half on the lineup.

Smith helps the Padres in 2015 and it’s possible the club is not interested in dealing the outfielder after extending him a few months back. While the price for the 32-year old likely isn’t very high, San Diego probably would prefer a major league ready piece in return. Their pitching staff has some depth, but a bullpen arm such as Brandon Maurer or Tom Wilehlmsen could be of interest. Roenis Elias is likely too valuable to deal for two-plus years of a No. 3/4 outfielder, but there could be a match between the two clubs.

The free agent market
While the Mariners do have pieces to move, it made sense for the club to flex their financial muscle as opposed to dealing financial assets. Ponying up the extra cash for a Melky Cabrera looks a lot more enticing compared to dealing a James Paxton or Brad Miller. With Cabrera off the board however, there aren’t any real everyday outfielders on the market. Colby Rasmus and Nori Aoki are moderately interesting options that could play fairly regularly and require reasonable commitments. Delmon Young is also available though he is more of a fourth-outfielder/back-up designated hitter than anything else.

Expect to hear plenty of Alex Rios’ name over the next couple weeks as an option for Seattle. His agent Scott Boras will likely drive the price on a one-year contract to the $10 million range or higher. Counting on Rios to play a regular role with above average production in 2015 may be asking too much. But the 33-year old did past a 3.1 fWAR in 2013 and 4.2 fWAR in 2012 — there is some upside here.

Trying to pinpoint what exactly Zduriencik has up his sleeve is difficult. It’s still very early in the winter as clubs are attempting to figure out exactly what they have and what they need. It’s entirely plausible that the M’s acquire a bat that didn’t appear to be available or was seldom mentioned.

Churchill and Carson tossed around the idea of a potential trade for Bryce Harper on The Hot Stove Report — it doesn’t seem likely — and perhaps the club is aiming higher than a stopgap solution in the outfield. If a Taijuan Walker is to be traded, and there is nothing to suggest that will be the case, the club has to make it count. They shouldn’t limit themselves to just a right-fielder either. If the right left-fielder can be had, go for it. The exact positions can be taken care of later.

Cabrera signing with the White Sox isn’t the worst scenario for the Mariners. Plenty of options are out there and there is no reason to believe Jack Z and Co. aren’t doing everything possible to find that missing piece. Whether or not they are able to execute is the question we will be asking.

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Tyler Carmont

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