M's caught in a numbers crunch

While it seems many were pleased at the comeuppance of the Yankees, the postseason failure of the New York club and the humiliation that does not sit well with owner George Steinbrenner could be costly for other clubs during free agency.

The Yankees are not likely to sit and hope that an unhealthy Jason Giambi will be back at first base, that Miguel Cairo will do at second or aging Bernie Williams in center field. And there is no chance Steinbrenner will try to go again with iffy pitching.

Thus, for any team in the market for a front-line free agent, the price probably went up last week as New York went down. In fact, the Yankees' demise, as a single overwhelming factor, might reverse the recent trend of lower salaries for free agents.

Seattle, with CEO Howard Lincoln predicting only that player-salary expenditures are projected to make the club lose money for the first time in years, will be in the market.

But how big a player the Mariners will be depends on the cost.

Beginning Thursday, the day after the World Series ended, eligible players had 15 days to exercise their options to become free agents. During the 15-day period, teams have the exclusive right to negotiate with their own free agents. Starting Nov. 12, it's an open market.

And while all teams are scrutinized for their moves and misses, none will be more watched than Seattle and never more than this year.

The Mariners have some money to spend, but apparently it is not as much as many outside their front office have guessed. The budget, said to be about the same as last year when the club spent about $87 million, is projected to be $94 million.

The Mariners have 10 players under contract for $57.5 million, plus $6 million going to departed players (Jeff Cirillo, Kevin Jarvis, Wiki Gonzalez) and funds set aside in the amounts of $2 million for contingencies and $3.5 million for prorated signing bonuses.

That leaves about $25 million to spend on 15 players.

A handful of veterans, including free agents Dan Wilson and Ron Villone, whom the Mariners want back, will cost about $10 million. A small group of young players making just more than the minimum of around $350,000 will cost the Mariners another $2 million.

That comes to $81 million, leaving about $13 million for free agents — unless Seattle chooses to trade to free up some money, with Bret Boone being an unlikely possibility.

With the Yankees possibly looking for a second baseman to fit into their galaxy of a lineup, they could have interest in Boone. But if they or anyone take Boone's $9.25 million contract, Seattle will pay a chunk of it, figure at least half, and make room for Jose Lopez to play second.

But there are two intriguing rationales to keep Boone. First, he had Lasik surgery on his eyes and said last week, "It's already making a world of difference in my vision."

Second, there is his pride. Boone is sure to be driven to make up for this past season, when he neither hit nor produced runs as usual.

"It's his contract year, too," a scout said. "But if they keep Boone, Seattle could benefit from his drive, like they did in 2001 when he burned to show everyone how good he can be. It could be that way again. He's a heck of a player, but he's at his best on a good, veteran club."

The problem exposed by the 2004 disaster is that the Mariners have multiple holes and not enough quality prospects to fill those left after veteran free agents are added.

News from Arizona since the season ended has been largely positive.

Miguel Olivo's work with coach Roger Hansen impressed the Mariners enough that they think they can scratch catching from their offseason wish list — as long as they can re-sign Wilson.

Eddie Guardado and especially Joel Pineiro threw well enough in simulated games that Seattle thinks they will be ready to go when camp opens.

Still, general manager Bill Bavasi said this week, "We've got to add a starting pitcher, and we've got to have some bullpen help."

Given the overall uncertainty of Guardado's return to the closer role, the Mariners are expected to go after a reliever with closing experience.

But above all, there are needs at first base, third base and in the outfield, although Jeremy Reed presents a possible way out of the center-field problem if free agent Carlos Beltran proves too costly, which seems likely.

While no one projects Reed as a star in center, scouts look at his tools and see comparisons to Oakland's Mark Kotsay, who does a superb job in center with reads and instincts.

"We're looking for offense," Bavasi said. "We can put it at several places — first, third or the outfield."

One guess would be that Seattle's shopping list has first baseman/DH Carlos Delgado and Beltran at the top, with third baseman Adrian Beltre there, too.

The glitch with Beltre is that while he is just 25 and plays fine defense, his big offense this season (.334, 48, 121) was a first-time thing.

Anaheim third baseman Troy Glaus is another possibility, although he's not known as a team leader.

A lack of leadership cost the Mariners this past season, especially when the struggle to win got serious early.

Delgado is regarded as one player on the market an offense can build around, broad shouldered and always upbeat, in addition to having a dream left-handed power stroke for Safeco Field.

Beyond Delgado, there could be Brush Prairie's Richie Sexson, the pure power first baseman who is said to want very much to play back home in the Northwest.

The hang-ups in Sexson's situation are that he is coming off a shoulder injury that wiped out his 2004 season with Arizona, and he would be another right-handed bat in a lineup that leans that way to start.

In addition to the need to upgrade the offense, Seattle's defense needs reworking after years as a given.

In this case, shortstop may come into play.

The Mariners must decide if Lopez is going to be their shortstop of the future, which is not a lock after he impressed more with his bat than his fielding last season.

"The kid (Lopez) is going to get a chance to play," Bavasi said. "But we're not necessarily saying that would be at short."

The overriding factor could be Lopez's age. He was in the majors at age 20, with the thinking that once he adjusts, he will play as well at shortstop as he did zooming through the farm system.

Seattle could give him 2005 at shortstop then make a decision, since there is mixed opinion whether he would be better suited to succeed Boone at second.

If the Mariners decide they need a veteran shortstop, Edgar Renteria could become a target, or for a short-term fix, Omar Vizquel, another who wants to come here to play.

On the mound, Seattle could first try to bring back Derek Lowe. Questions about his maturity that led to his trade in 1997 seemingly still linger, but he answered any doubts about his ability to pitch in a big game Wednesday, winning Game 4 of the World Series for the Red Sox.

Other starters the Mariners might look at are Carl Pavano (18-8, 3.00 earned-run average with Florida); Jaret Wright (15.8, 3.28 ERA with Atlanta), who apparently is over health and maturity issues; or a number of others such as Matt Clement, Shawn Estes, Jon Lieber and Odalis Perez.

In the bullpen, aging Troy Percival could give the M's setup or closer flexibility, as might Bob Wickman, Ugueth Urbina, Felix Rodriguez or, gulp, Armando Benitez, who had 47 saves with Florida last season. If the Mariners focus on lefties, Boston's Alan Embree, a Prairie High School graduate, will get some attention.

The Mariners' goal almost has to be a return to just being competitive next season, with a move toward contender status in 2006.

With that plan, they might add a piece or two this year — a big bat, a defensive upgrade or a reliever or two.

Then, depending on who develops, or does not, there might be more reworking next winter when Jamie Moyer's $8 million, Boone's $9.25 million and the $6 million Cirillo/Jarvis/Gonzalez headache come off the books.

Of course, then there might be a debate how Seattle ownership would look at another potential year of the unthinkable and unpalatable — losing money.

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

Mariners payroll
The Mariners expect to have a payroll budget of $94 million for the 2005 season. They have roughly $57.5 million committed to the following 10 players:
OF Ichiro $12.5 million
2B Bret Boone $9.25 million
SP Jamie Moyer $8.0 million
RP Eddie Guardado $6.0 million
SP Joel Pineiro $4.7 million
OF Raul Ibanez $4.415 million
OF Randy Winn $3.75 million
RP Shigetoshi Hasegawa $3.225 million
3B-1B Scott Spiezio $3.167 million
SP Ryan Franklin $2.5 million

• Another $6 million is due departed players Jeff Cirillo, Kevin Jarvis and Wiki Gonzalez.

• The Mariners set aside $2 million for contingencies and $3.5 million for prorated signing bonuses.

• The following veteran players, including free agents Dan Wilson and Ron Villone, should combine to cost the Mariners about $10 million: SP Gil Meche, RP Ron Villone, C Dan Wilson, C Miguel Olivo, UTIL Jolbert Cabrera.

• From the group listed below, expect six or seven to make the 25-man roster next spring, each making just over the minimum, about $350,000, for a total cost of just more than $2 million: OF Jeremy Reed, SP Bobby Madritsch, SS Jose Lopez, RP J.J. Putz, 1B-DH Bucky Jacobsen, IF Willie Bloomquist, RP Rafael Soriano, RP George Sherrill, RP Julio Mateo, IF Ramon Santiago, RP Matt Thornton, RP Clint Nageotte, RP Scott Atchison, RP Aaron Taylor, SP Travis Blackley, SP Cha Seung Baek, 3B Justin Leone, 3B Greg Dobbs.

• That brings the total to about $81 million, leaving $13 million to spend on free agents.

Offseason calendar

Oct. 28-Nov. 11: Free-agent filing period. Teams can negotiate with their own free agents.

Nov. 9-12: General managers meetings, Key Biscayne, Fla.

Nov. 12: Teams can begin negotiating with and signing free agents.

Dec. 7: Last day for teams to offer salary arbitration to their former players who became free agents.

Dec. 10-13: Winter meetings, Anaheim, Calif.

Dec. 13: Rule 5 draft.

Dec. 19: Last day for free agents offered salary arbitration to accept/reject offers.

Dec. 20: Last day for teams to offer 2005 contracts to unsigned players.

Jan. 5-15: Salary arbitration filing period.

Jan. 8: Last day until May 1 for free agents who rejected arbitration offers to resign with their former teams.

Jan. 18: Exchange of salary arbitration figures.

Feb. 1-21: Salary arbitration hearings.

Feb. 19: Spring training, voluntary reporting date for pitchers, catchers and injured players.

Feb. 24: Spring training, voluntary reporting date for other players.

March 2: Spring training, mandatory reporting date.

March 2-11: Teams may renew contracts of unsigned players.