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Originally published December 1, 2012 at 8:03 PM | Page modified December 1, 2012 at 8:09 PM

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Mariners still searching for power at baseball's winter meetings

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik says the team still has some money available that he would like to spend on a power hitter, something Seattle has lacked for three years.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Hot stove league

Some significant free agents are still available:

C/DH Mike Napoli

OF/1B Nick Swisher

OF Ryan Ludwick

3B Kevin Youkilis

OF Josh Hamilton

OF Michael Bourn

1B Adam LaRoche

Prominent hitters signed already
Player Team Deal
3B David Wright Mets Eight years, $138 million
OF B.J. Upton Atlanta Five years, $75 million
C Russell Martin Pirates Two years, $17 million
OF Melky Cabrera Blue Jays Two years, $16 million
OF Torii Hunter Tigers Two years, $26 million
IF Maicer Izturis Blue Jays Three years, $10 million
OF Jonny Gomes Red Sox Two years, $10 million
OF Juan Pierre Marlins One year, $6 million
DH David Ortiz Red Sox Two years, $26 million

Most Popular Comments
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Jacks on the hot seat and has to make it happen. If his hands are tied by Chuck and How... MORE
How sad is it to read fans' suggestions to improve the team via trade or free agent... MORE
blah blah blah. enough verbage, wake me when pen meets paper on a FA signing MORE

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Three years ago this week, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik headed to the annual baseball winter meetings in need of a power bat.

Zduriencik had just signed Chone Figgins, putting him alongside Ichiro in a 1-2 tandem atop the order. But Zduriencik admitted he still had work to do and was crystal clear about the immediate priority facing the club.

"Getting somebody with power," he said, with conviction. "Certainly we would like to have somebody with power."

Three years of offensive ineptitude later, Figgins has been cut loose 12 months ahead of schedule, Ichiro is in New York and the Mariners are still seeking a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat who can vault the sagging franchise out of last place. Zduriencik was due to arrive in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday for his latest round of meetings, looking for the same offensive boost that continues to prove elusive.

"I'm not going to go out and try to be motivated ... to make a statement, make a splash," Zduriencik said before leaving Seattle for the three days of meetings, which start Monday. "I'd like to make a splash, period. Just because I want to bring a good player here. But I wouldn't do it for the sake of just to do it. I would do it because it makes sense and it's the right thing for us to do and continues with the plan that we put in place when I got here."

But this is starting to be about more than just Zduriencik, embarking on his fifth season with the club. A recent study by the 24/7 Wall St. website found that the Mariners experienced a bigger drop in attendance in the past decade than any other major pro sports franchise in North America.

Money and attendance

The Mariners' average attendance has fallen 51.4 percent since 2002, while reaching just 44.4 percent of their stadium capacity — the lowest of any MLB team. Throw in their confusing, unpopular stance toward a new Seattle arena and an October debacle where they apologized to season-ticket holders for not advising them of cost increases, and the team appears to be in a perilous position with the locals.

All this has taken place while player payroll has declined from a high of nearly $118 million in 2008 to an opening-day mark of around $82 million this past season. The Mariners have about $68 million in payroll committed so far for 2013, and Zduriencik and others have said they have the flexibility to go beyond $85 million — and perhaps even top $90 million — this winter.

But the Mariners, in need of bats for the outfield, the corner infield and behind the plate, also have said they likely won't be pursing free-agent slugger Josh Hamilton. They have watched as free agents B.J. Upton, Melky Cabrera and Russell Martin signed elsewhere, while outfielder Denard Span was traded by Minnesota to the Washington Nationals for a relatively modest return.

The Mariners brought free-agent catcher Mike Napoli to town for a visit. But before leaving for Nashville, Zduriencik seemed to throw up a caution flag as to how much money he still has left to spend.

"We have some money available, but we've also spent some money already," Zduriencik said. "Some of our arbitration cases are going to take some of that away, the recent signing of (Hisashi) Iwakuma is going to take a little bit away, as well as Oliver Perez.

"And the other thing that ties into this, in a lot of these signings that you do, sometimes there are incentives attached. ... But just to do a signing to do a signing, I don't think would be the right thing to do. If it makes sense and it's what you're looking for, then certainly you have to entertain that and certainly go down every avenue that you can."

What the Mariners view as making sense might not apply to free agents who see a team that lost 101 games in 2010, 95 in 2011 and 87 more in 2012. The Mariners finished with historically low offensive totals in 2010 and 2011 and were last in the majors in most categories last season.

Fences coming in

A decision to move the fences in at Safeco Field is generating positive talk among free agents and is being used by the team in its sales pitch. But Zduriencik freely admitted that, in the end, the primary motivator will still be dollars and years on a contract, and the Mariners might have to go further than other teams to bring hitters to Seattle.

Napoli is said to be seeking a four-year contract, something the Mariners have not given any free agent since Figgins. Zduriencik said he won't let the negative Figgins experience leave him gun-shy about making similar moves if the right one comes along.

"I would like to do some things, there's no question," Zduriencik said. "I think I have enough dialogue going where there's some interest in some things."

Among the more veteran free-agent hitters, corner infielder Kevin Youkilis and outfielders Nick Swisher and Cody Ross stand out, along with Napoli. There are also trade possibilities, given that Zduriencik has top prospects such as infielder Nick Franklin and pitchers Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker he can dangle. Big-league pitchers Erasmo Ramirez and Carter Capps also could be trade options.

Zduriencik said he has fielded calls from teams interested in his younger players both at the big-league level and on the cusp.

Teams that potentially have trade candidates include the Diamondbacks (outfielder Justin Upton), the Royals (outfielder Alex Gordon and designated hitter Billy Butler), the Cardinals (first baseman Allen Craig) and the Indians (onetime Seattle outfielder Shin-Soo Choo).

What about pitching?

Zduriencik said he could be in the market for a veteran starting pitcher to fill the role handled by free agent Kevin Millwood last season. No one is certain how the fence revamping at Safeco Field will impact the team's pitching.

A recent study by stats maven John Dewan, founder of Baseball Info Solutions, found that Safeco Field was the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in the big leagues since 2010, slightly ahead of AT&T Park in San Francisco. Bolstering a starting staff where Iwakuma would be the senior member at age 31 probably wouldn't hurt as the Mariners wait to see how their newly configured ballpark plays.

Zduriencik will try to make these improvements in a marketplace where the salaries of top-end, and even decent players like catcher Martin, have been rising in conjunction with new local television deals. The Los Angeles Dodgers have been in on most top free agents and are expected to announce a television deal soon worth more than $6 billion over 25 years, while the Angels and Rangers, Seattle's AL West rivals, both have $3 billion deals over 20 years.

The Mariners have an opt-out clause in their deal with ROOT Sports that could be exercised in 2015. But that's still three seasons away with a lot of baseball to be played if the goal is to sit on a balanced-books payroll with few big additions in the interim.

Zduriencik keeps insisting the goal is always to make the team better.

"I'm going to be open, and if the right situation is there and we think it's the right situation to make a deal, whether it's a two- or three-year deal, or depending on who the player is, I don't think we're going to shy away from it," he said. "We're trying to do something that makes sense for this club."

But as Year 4 of Zduriencik's regime heads into Year 5 and attendance keeps dwindling, he'll face increased pressure to show tangible improvement beyond a few more wins on the bottom side of .500 in what's quickly becoming baseball's Cadillac division.

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

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