NASHVILLE, Tenn. — One sought-after Mariners target was snatched up just hours after the annual baseball winter meetings had officially gotten underway.
The decision by free agent Mike Napoli to sign Monday for three years and $39 million with the Boston Red Sox was a blow to a Mariners team that had hoped to use him behind the plate and at first base.
But Seattle remained in on a number of other discussions with free agents and potential trade partners — including the Kansas City Royals for slugger Billy Butler — as the opening day of meetings drew to a close at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel.
“We liked Napoli,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said in a late-afternoon discussion with Seattle media members here. “Congratulations to him on his contract and to Boston for getting him. I think that Napoli brought things to the table that we liked. He’s an offensive guy, a right-handed guy. A veteran guy. But, he’s no longer available.”
Zduriencik said he wasn’t surprised by how quickly Napoli came to a decision. The Mariners had flown him into Seattle for a visit two weeks ago.
“I think what happens with any of those types of negotiations, is, once a player gets to a point, he has his expectations and his agent has his expectations,” Zduriencik said. “And I think once those expectations are met, a lot of players will just say ‘Hey, this is what I was hoping to get, I got it, let’s go.’ “
The Mariners will continue to focus on two fronts: outfield and possibly first base. Zduriencik also mentioned adding a veteran catcher to go with John Jaso and Jesus Montero, but it’s not as big a priority for now.
The Mariners continue to seek players who can spend at least part of their time at first base, leaving questions about the future of Justin Smoak. Zduriencik was candid when asked about where Smoak fits in the team’s plans.
“As much as I would love for Smoak to be (improved) — and I love what I saw out of him in September — there’s still some proving he’s got to do,” Zduriencik said. “And the same thing with (Mike) Carp. I mean, Carp a year ago was pretty doggone good. And last year, he was disappointing because of a lot of factors, the injury being one of them.
“So, that’s a bit of an unproven position.”
Napoli will be the primary first baseman in Boston. He likely would have rotated between catcher, first base and DH in Seattle while the Mariners await the arrival of catching prospect Mike Zunino.
Zduriencik said he hopes Smoak can build off adjustments made to his game in September. But this time, Zduriencik added, Smoak will have to take the next step and sustain it over the long haul.
But even with Napoli now out of Seattle’s first base picture, the Mariners continue to be linked to players who play that position.
Before the meetings, a source revealed that the Mariners and Pirates were engaged in talks that would have brought right fielder and first baseman Garrett Jones to Seattle, with Smoak going the other way as part of a multiplayer package.
The Mariners have also continued to speak to the Royals about Butler, 27, a designated hitter who can also play first base. Butler is coming off an all-star season in which he hit .313 with 29 home runs and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .882. Butler is under club control through 2015.
But the Royals are in need of pitching and are said to want more than mere prospects a year or so away from the majors. The Mariners have young prospects Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton working up the minor-league ladder, as well as big-league pitchers like Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan with multiple years of club control remaining at a lower cost.
The Mariners have also asked about Royals outfielder Alex Gordon and outfield prospect Wil Myers. But the Mariners might not have the big-league trade pieces needed to pry them away from the Royals, where Butler’s limited fielding potential and $30 million guaranteed through 2015 could lead to a deal.
What it could come down to is how many players the Royals would want back. There is talk the Royals might want Class AAA infielder Nick Franklin, a former first-round pick at shortstop, included in any package to help fill second-base needs.
Zduriencik spoke Monday about how a challenge at these meetings is that various clubs view prospects differently. Some, he added, place a higher premium on pitchers already in the majors a short time and don’t value prospects as much — no matter how highly-rated they are.
In the end, that can result in teams being asked to give up more total players than they’re willing to stomach.
“So, that’s the point that we’re at right now,” Zduriencik said. “Do we get that one piece and give up two or three?”
It’s a question the Mariners won’t have all winter to answer, having seen firsthand with Napoli how quickly some of their other targets can come off the board.