M's try to head off winter of discontent

Long before the Mariners get competitive, which optimists like to say will be in 2005, club officials will be creative.

Rarely has a major-league club faced an offseason that is more crammed with variables.

About all that is widely known is that the Mariners will have money to work with — while less than previous speculation, it should be about $20 million to $22 million — and possibly a bit more if they trade Bret Boone.

Trade Boone? That is one of the choices, depending on, (a) how fast Seattle times its return to contention; (b) there is a taker.

"Anything we do," said general manager Bill Bavasi, who this week is leading organizational meetings in Peoria, Ariz., "will not just be for next season, but with an eye to 2005, 2006 and 2007.

"It's tough to be specific, but the goal is to get back into it as fast as possible. But we're not going to do things to make an artificial play for '05. Everything we do will be for '05 and beyond. We won't settle on someone on his last legs. We won't try to fool our fans."

This last statement could stem from the lessons of the past few years when the Mariners tried to hold off the end of a competitive cycle by re-signing aging players and/or bringing them in.

Doing so, Seattle got caught paying big money and getting little in return.

"This club understandably got caught with some contracts," Bavasi said. "It's hard to have it end perfectly, where the club gets its money's worth and the player may be through. It's tough on either part."

Now, with former manager Bob Melvin paying the price of the lack of production that led to 99 losses, Bavasi and his staff must come up with a manager and an offense, ostensibly in that order, and more pitching and defense, too.

While the selection of a manager — whether he has previous experience — might be an indication of how soon the Mariners plan to be serious September players, Jose Lopez could be more of a litmus test.

After he looked almost ready for the majors when rushed up this year, although not necessarily at shortstop, Lopez will play every day next season at age 21.

If he is in the minors, honing his play at shortstop or moving to second or third, Seattle has opted to go for contention next season.

If he is the big leagues again, Seattle may be targeting 2006 and beyond.

Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln promised in a letter to season-ticket holders the team would return to contention as soon as possible. As the 2004 season unfolded, and the team unraveled, most observers saw the task getting bigger and tougher.

"It would appear there are too many holes to fill for next year," a National League scout said. "A couple of the kids they brought up look OK, a couple look like they need more seasoning.

"When you see Jolbert Cabrera hitting fifth, and Melvin had him there a lot the last four weeks, your offense is in trouble. In fact, you don't have an offense. Cabrera is a nice role guy but has to hit much lower in a big-league lineup. For Seattle, it will be tough to be real good very soon."

For a while, there seemed a chance that no starter from Opening Day 2004 would be in the same position next year. But it is now unlikely Seattle officials will consider asking Ichiro to move to center field, lessened by the option of playing Jeremy Reed there or getting someone else.

If they approach Ichiro about any change, it might be to hit the ball deeper next year, into gaps if not into the stands. But since asking him to be more selective flopped early this season, they may choose not to mess with a record 262-hit approach.

Boone, who could go if the rebuild is not specifically targeted toward next season, is likely to be back at second.

Dan Wilson, virtually a must-return free agent unless the Mariners can coax Jason Varitek to come back as a free agent, might be behind the plate.

But before we go further into the way the 2004 team lines up, we look at the roster.

Position players

Locks: Ichiro, Raul Ibanez (DH or first base).

Likely: Boone, Reed, Cabrera, Randy Winn, Willie Bloomquist, Scott Spiezio, Wilson.

Longshot: Lopez, Miguel Olivo, Bucky Jacobsen.

Pitching staff

Locks: Joel Pineiro, Gil Meche, Bobby Madritsch, Jamie Moyer, Eddie Guardado, Julio Mateo, George Sherrill.

Likely: Ron Villone, Ryan Franklin, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, J.J. Putz.

Longshot: Cha Seung Baek, Matt Thornton, Scott Atchison.

Wilson and Villone are free agents; Pineiro and Guardado are coming off injuries.

Lincoln said earlier this year, and confirmed it in the final week, that the payroll would be at or slightly above last season, when the Mariners had about $87 million to spend on players (plus a contingency fund of around $5 million, for a total payroll budget of approximately $92 million).

About $65 million of that is spent, with Jamie Moyer's incentives bringing him in at $8 million for 2005 and the club still suffering the Jeff Cirillo/Kevin Jarvis hangover for about $5.5 million, including more than $2 million owed to catcher Wiki Gonzalez — remember him?

In the free-agent market first, then possibly in trade, Bavasi will look to add run production and must decide where.

While the most common guess has been first base, with Toronto free agent Carlos Delgado often mentioned, Seattle has people who can play there, Ibanez for offense and Spiezio for defense.

But they have no viable everyday option at third base.

Adrian Beltre of Los Angeles is tempting, especially at age 26 next year, but could be a free-agent season phenom, hitting .240 with 23 home runs and 80 RBI in 2003, before jumping to a monster season this year of .334-48-121.

Seattle could be more interested in Florida's Mike Lowell, if he chooses to walk away from a mutual option in his contract, which still has three years to run at $25 million in his native Miami area.

Lowell, 31 in 2005, has helped make the Marlins winners in recent years, hitting .293 with 27 home runs and 85 runs batted in this year, after going .276-32-105 in 2003.

Troy Glaus, whose price may be too much coming off injury with the Angels this year, could be another possibility.

While the hulking Glaus has plenty of power to overcome Safeco Field's prevailing anti-right-handed air currents, he is not in the defensive class of Lowell or Beltre, who ranked 2-3 in NL fielding at third this year.

When Lee Elia worked with Jim Fregosi in Toronto a few years ago, he said that Delgado is a solid guy who worked hard to make himself a better defensive player. Delgado ranked third (John Olerud first) among AL first basemen on defense this year.

There is no questioning the production potential. Not only has he hit well at Safeco, but he hit .302 with 42 homers and 145 RBI in 2003 and .269-32-99 this year, despite missing a quarter of the season with injury.

If money gets tight, Seattle could go for: Minnesota's Corey Koskie at third, a winner like Spiezio was until this year; at first, Arizona's Richie Sexson, who was .272-45-124 in 2003 but lost almost all of 2004 to injury, which could limit the market for the Northwest native.

Can Seattle land the likes of Lowell and/or Delgado?

Very possibly. In the case of Delgado — who will have to take less, maybe significantly less, than the near $20 million he made from the Jays this year, unless the Yankees feel Jason Giambi cannot come back — they might not be a player, nor will Boston. Of the other teams who get spendy, only Baltimore, Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles might get involved.

In Lowell's case, those who have a need at third might look at Beltre first (including Seattle), which might make Lowell decide to stay in Florida, where he knows he'll get $7.5 million to $9 million a year.

Next on Bavasi's list could be one or even two starting pitchers, and while the Mariners will lack a classic Opening Day starter, don't look for them to fill that need.

"I distinguish No. 1 starters and No. 5 starters, and in my mind there are only three or four true No. 1 pitchers," Bavasi said. "Almost all the others fall in the middle somewhere."

Once beyond Villone, whom the Mariners will try hard to re-sign, candidates for Seattle could be the likes of Derek Lowe, who pitched at times better than his Boston numbers showed, Brad Radke, Eric Milton, Matt Clement and Cory Lidle.

Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright could figure, but good as they were in 2004 for Florida and Atlanta, each have had only one really good year.

Seattle's chances are much tougher to figure when it comes to pitching. All clubs need it in varying amounts and Bavasi said, "Starting pitching is the basis of a good staff and good team and you need seven of them, five in your rotation and at least two others who can step in if you have a need."

When it comes to pitching, the Mariners could be in a tough spot. Until next spring they will not have certainty about the health of Pineiro, who could be the Opening Day starter, and Guardado, who is trying to come back from a serious shoulder problem with rest.

Figure first that Seattle might opt to add one reliever at least with experience as a closer, such as Scott Williamson, Bob Wickman or Ugueth Urbina. If the Mariners could work a trade in the division, they might look to acquire Anaheim's Scot Shields, who has the stuff to make a Joe Nathan-type conversion from setup to closing.

When it comes to trade, Seattle's forced usage of its most-ready prospects did not help. The Mariners certainly won't deal Madritsch, whose work in the majors put him on the same can't-miss level as super prospect Felix Hernandez, and they aren't likely to part with Reed, although he might be better suited for left than center.

"We got a lot of answers on our kids," Bavasi said, "both pleasing and not, mostly pleasing. Suddenly, our system had to produce players that were ready right now, and some weren't ready, not ready at the start of '04, not ready at the All-Star break. But by year's end, a number of them were looking pretty good."

But there isn't much trade bait. Pitchers Clint Nageotte and Travis Blackley, who might have attracted attention, proved they were not ready for prime time.

Thus, to trade, Bavasi could try to peddle the likes of Olivo, who had a dropoff in play that stunned Seattle officials after he came over from the White Sox, and Franklin, if the Mariners obtain other potential starting pitchers, or Winn.

It is unknown if Seattle has enough to bring in the likes of Tampa Bay's Aubrey Huff or Arizona's Shea Hillenbrand.

If the Mariners wanted to gamble, they might try to get splashy and go for Nomar Garciaparra, who wants to play on the West Coast, and maybe move Lopez to third for next season; or make a big play for Miguel Tejada, now that his contract has a more acceptable five years to go.

Using more Mariners-like sensibility, they might try Omar Vizquel again. The Wiz has wanted back to Seattle for some time and showed he is healthy with a solid 2004 season.

While this seemingly flies in the face of Bavasi's stance against older vets, it allows financial leeway to acquire help at other positions and gives Lopez more time to develop, even to make a change to second or third in the minors.

But that's the perfect world of re-building, now for reality time.

If one projects that Seattle has $22 million to spend — assuming Lincoln's same-budget promise includes the $8 million that was to be paid Kazu Sasaki before he quit — they may have quite a bit less for outside free agents.

Figure on about $6 million to $8 million to re-sign Wilson, Villone, Meche and less veteran players on the roster. That leaves $14 million to $16 million to spend, which will not bring three or four needed front-line performers.

Just guessing, but Seattle officials could be in for as tough a time this winter as their team had this summer.

Bob Finnigan: 206-464-8276 or bfinnigan@seattletimes.com