NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With prices escalating for top players, the Mariners are remaining flexible in their efforts to land at least one big prize.
Sources confirmed Tuesday that the Mariners have contacted the agents for both Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay with the aim of signing one of the veteran outfielders for a reduced rate. That could be part of a two-pronged strategy that would help the Mariners allocate remaining resources toward signing a top-line outfielder from a list that includes Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Josh Hamilton.
It had long been assumed the Mariners would try to land two impact bats to upgrade first base and the outfield. But Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik on Tuesday raised the possibility of adding two outfielders — one higher profile than the other — and filling multiple needs that way.
“Yeah, it’s possible, I could see that,” Zduriencik said as Day 2 unfolded at the baseball winter meetings. “It’s very possible.”
And Zduriencik said bringing those outfielders in wouldn’t necessarily preclude an upgrade at first base.
“Sometimes you can get the multiple-position guy that can play the outfield and first base,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s just an outfielder. One piece may be bigger than another. That type of deal.”
And that’s where things get interesting for the Mariners, considered by some to be front-runners for Swisher after the Boston Red Sox dropped from that hunt by signing outfielder Shane Victorino. Swisher is expected to command close to $12 million to $14 million annually and plays right field and first base, giving that flexibility Zduriencik was talking about.
But by inking Ibanez or Bay to a smaller, cheaper deal, the Mariners could use one of them in the outfield corners on days Swisher plays first base. Ibanez, 40, or Bay, 34, could also serve as designated hitters from time to time, but the key is, their roles would not have to be full-time at any spot while still providing a possible upgrade over what Seattle already has.
Ibanez still had some power last season, having clubbed 19 home runs for the New York Yankees in a reduced role. Bay’s numbers plummeted during an injury-plagued past three seasons playing home games for the New York Mets at spacious Citi Field — to the point where he was released from the final year of a $66 million deal signed in 2009.
But the Mariners would be hoping that a reduced role for Bay, a return to better health and playing near his Seattle-area home would give them a low-cost boost. A source said Tuesday that a deal between Bay and the Mariners was “close, but nothing final ... yet” and that any agreement would involve a major-league contract.
There is also a possibility the Mariners could ask either Bay or Ibanez to play first base. But Bay has never done that in the majors, and Ibanez has only a handful of times.
The source on the Bay talks said first base had never come up, so it appears that outfield and DH would be the only spots.
There is also a chance the team could go in a very different direction from the “big bat” route and sign Bourn, 29, who would become the team’s everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter. Bourn has a lifetime .349 on-base percentage and has averaged 44 stolen bases per season in his career while providing Gold Glove-caliber defense, mostly for terrible teams in Houston.
Signing Bourn — expected to get close to the five years and $75 million that B.J. Upton signed for with Atlanta — would likely prompt the Mariners to move Franklin Gutierrez to right field. Gutierrez played in right for the Indians before coming to Seattle.
Zduriencik was asked whether he’d ever consider shifting Gutierrez.
“I think you’ve got to keep everything on the table,” he said. “Today, if we were to open up with this ballclub, Guti’s our center fielder. But you also have to understand and realize that things happen in spring training. Things happen through the course of the year. If you’re forced to ask players to make an adjustment, then that happens.”
Gutierrez has just one year left on his contract, meaning Bourn could fill a longer-term void both in center and leadoff. And that would still not preclude adding a veteran bat like Ibanez or Bay to play the corners when one of the regular hitters needs a break.
Ibanez swings left-handed and plays both corners. Given that the Mariners likely won’t play Gutierrez more than five days per week because of durability concerns, Ibanez could have a partial platoon with him in right while also giving Michael Saunders occasional days off in left.
Bay is a right-handed hitter and plays left field exclusively, meaning he’d be a good fit in a platoon with left-handed-hitting Saunders. On days Gutierrez needed a rest, Bay could also play left while Saunders fills the void in right field.
The Mariners have looked at various combinations and strategies in the weeks leading up to the meetings.
But Zduriencik said he isn’t desperate to add hitting this winter and won’t guarantee the Mariners will come away with a top prize.
“At the end, maybe what we’ll do is maybe we won’t have a big splash,” Zduriencik said. “Maybe this big ‘out there’ thing won’t happen. Maybe (improving) positional needs more than (adding) this big bomb — or whatever you want to call it — will take place.”