Mariners still looking for hitters

ryan.divish@thenewstribune.comDecember 4, 2012 

NASHVILLE , Tenn. — Scratch one name off the Seattle Mariners’ list of potential offensive acquisitions, but perhaps move another near the top.

Free agent first baseman/catcher Mike Napoli reportedly agreed to terms with the Boston Red Sox on a three-year, $39 million contract Monday.

Meanwhile, a report by Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal said Mariners officials met with slugger Josh Hamilton on Sunday. That report was not confirmed by general manager Jack Zduriencik, whom Rosenthal said declined comment.

Napoli had appeared to narrow his list of suitors to the Mariners and Red Sox. He visited Seattle just before Thanksgiving, but ultimately settled on Boston. Some baseball insiders think Napoli used the Mariners as leverage to get a better deal from Boston – the place he wanted to go all along.

“I think that Napoli brought things to the table that we liked,” Zduriencik said. “He’s an offensive guy, a right-handed guy, a veteran guy. But, he’s no longer available.’’

The Mariners have been linked to free agents Nick Swisher, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Ludwick and Cody Ross, as well as discussions about possible trades for Royals designated hitter Billy Butler, and former Mariners players Shin Soo-Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera of the Indians and Michael Morse of the Nationals.

“We’ve had (a) lot of talks with other teams and with agents,” Zduriencik said.

Of course, he wouldn’t elaborate on those talks.

The possibility of acquiring Butler is an interesting one. In 2007, the Royals tried to trade a then-unproven Butler to Seattle for Yuniesky Betancourt. But then-GM Bill Bavasi passed on the offer.

Butler has slowly grown into a solid right-handed hitter. In the 2012 season, he hit .313 with 29 homers and 107 RBI with an .858 OPS. Those numbers came while playing half of his games at Kaufman Stadium in Kansas City – a place that’s almost as unfriendly to hitters as Safeco Field.

Why would the Royals want to get rid of him? Two reasons: They are desperate for pitching and he’s a relatively expensive option to have at designated hitter.

The Mariners have a surplus of young pitching to offer in Erasmo Ramirez or any of the “Big Three” — Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker.

Butler is owed $16 million over the next two seasons, and keeping him for a third year could cost anywhere from $12.5 million to $14 million in a club option based on performance.

The bigger question is where would Butler play with the Mariners?

He is a designated hitter. He appeared in 20 games at first base last season, but he is a bit of a defensive liability. Still, Zduriencik said the Mariners have enough roster flexibility to make it work.

He mentioned that the ability to add a hitter would fit in the outfield or a first base/DH spot.

The Royals may value Ramirez more than the prospects because of his major league experience and success. But the Mariners would likely have to give up more, likely a player such as infielder Nick Franklin.

Franklin, once thought to be the shortstop of the future, is looking more like a second baseman because of questions about his arm strength and fielding range.

The Royals need a second baseman as their prospect because Johnny Giavotella has failed to hit in two different call-ups.

While it would hurt to lose high quality young players, Zduriencik knows it’s a consequence of getting big league help.

“No one is an untouchable,” Zduriencik said. “If you look at a scenario of where our weaknesses are and you can make it a strength, I think that’s something you have to entertain.”

CATCHING A CATCHER

Zduriencik said the Mariners will look at catching options for next season. While Jesus Montero and John Jaso both progressed, the need for a third catcher could be necessary if either were to DH as much as last season.

“Right now, we’ll have Montero and Jaso catch,” Zduriencik said. “Both guys have their skill set they bring to the table. Neither guy is what you would call a defensive receiver. Both of them are offensive catchers. We’ll have our ears open certainly to see how the right type of catcher would fit.”

If the Mariners do get a catcher, it would likely be a veteran, who is solid defensively and is comfortable as a backup.

ZUNINO LEADS PROSPECTS

Baseball America announced its list of the Mariners’ Top 10 prospects for the 2013 season.

Leading the list is catcher Mike Zunino, who was taken with the third pick overall in the 2012 draft. Zunino hit .360 (58-for-161) with 35 runs scored, 14 doubles, 13 home runs and 43 RBI in 44 games combined between Class A Everett and Double-A Jackson.

Montero was the top-rated prospect going into last season.

For the second consecutive year, hard-throwing right-hander Taijuan Walker was the No. 2 prospect in the organization. Walker posted a 7-10 record with a 4.69 ERA in 25 starts. He struck out 118 hitters and walked 50 in 1262/3 innings pitched.

Walker went winless in his last seven starts with an 0-5 record.

Hultzen, Paxton and Franklin were also on the list for the second consecutive year.

Ryan Divish, 253-597-8483 ryan.divish@thenewstribune.comblog.thenewstribune.com/mariners@RyanDivish

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