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Originally published December 7, 2010 at 9:38 PM | Page modified December 8, 2010 at 11:27 AM

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Former Mariners might be candidates to return

The Mariners reportedly are considering bringing catcher Miguel Olivo and infielder Luis Valbuena back as veteran insurance.

Seattle Times staff reporter

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — A day that began with a tribute to Lou Piniella ended with the Mariners rumored to be trying to reconnect with two more names from their recent past.

Tuesday, the Mariners were reported to be looking at catcher Miguel Olivo and infielder Luis Valbuena as possible additions to their 2011 team. The Mariners spent the second full day of the baseball winter meetings talking with agents and teams to explore possible trade and free-agency scenarios.

Olivo, 32, left Seattle in 2005 after struggling as a right-handed hitter at Safeco Field. The 25-year-old Valbuena, who played for Seattle as a late-season call-up in 2008, was horrible in Cleveland last season. But he is still young enough to have some upside, while Olivo showed signs in other ballparks that he could become the veteran-type hitter the Mariners are seeking as insurance for their younger bats.

"Can we go with a younger player? Well, sure," general manager Jack Zduriencik said, speaking in general terms about the types of players he might use to fill several areas of need. "But I've said this all along: You can only go with so many young players. Otherwise, it's just like throwing a lot of guys out there and hoping everybody clicks. So, I do think the veteran leadership, in certain positions that we have, if we can bring that to the table, then I'd like to do that."

Olivo showed some extra-base power the past five seasons with Florida, Kansas City and Colorado. Two years ago, he hit 23 home runs and posted a .490 slugging percentage with the Royals.

But he also had just a .292 on-base percentage that season, a figure that rose only slightly to .315 with the Rockies last year while playing home games at hitter-friendly Coors Field.

Gregg Zaun, 39, is another free-agent catcher the Mariners are looking at, though they had not yet met with his representative as of late Tuesday night. The Mariners had been expected to arrange a meeting for Monday or Tuesday, fueling speculation they are instead getting deeper into talks with Olivo.

Valbuena was part of the three-team, 12-player, J.J. Putz-Franklin Gutierrez trade two years ago. He hit .193 for Cleveland with a .531 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) in 275 at-bats last season while playing subpar defense.

But two years ago, he hit .250 with a .714 OPS and clubbed 10 homers in 364 at-bats for then-Indians manager Eric Wedge. It was Wedge, hired by the Mariners last month, who gave Valbuena a shot at playing second base every day.

"Wedge loved him," a source said Tuesday. "If he had a chance to get him back, he would."

Valbuena broke in as a shortstop and has also played third base, but would likely be an early-season answer at second for the Mariners while they await the arrival of prospect Dustin Ackley.

It's believed the Mariners will delay Ackley's arrival for a couple of months to work on his defense and avoid starting his service-time clock too soon, which would hasten his eligibility for free agency.

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The Mariners were said to be "kicking tires" on other second-base and third-base options on Tuesday, with veteran free agent Jorge Cantu rumored as one possibility.

Seattle's continued pursuit of less-touted players seems a far cry from a decade ago, when a 116-win team was about to make a second straight playoff appearance. The field boss of those teams, Piniella, was honored Tuesday at a news conference paying tribute to him, as well as Joe Torre, Cito Gaston and Bobby Cox — all celebrated managers who retired this year.

Piniella, 67, said he has managed his last game and will stay retired. He recalled with fondness his time in Chicago with Ron Santo, the Seattle native and legendary ex-Cub, who died of bladder cancer last week, as well as his moments managing the Mariners.

"I didn't take jobs like, a plum job to win a championship or anything," Piniella said. "I took jobs for the different challenges that they brought. I really did. I enjoyed challenges. When I went to Seattle and they hadn't had a .500 season or won, and we had such success over there, I think I got a little smart. And I said, 'I can win anywhere.' And I found out that wasn't the case. The game of baseball will humiliate you — and rightfully so — very, very quickly."

The Mariners have been humbled as well since Piniella left in 2003. What remains to be seen is whether two former Mariners will be recruited for help in the long climb back up.

Note

• A public celebration of life to honor Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus, who died Nov. 10 at age 75, will be held at Safeco Field on Saturday, Dec. 11, at 1 p.m. FSN will air it commercial-free.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com

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