M’s offseason actions bear watching (really)

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SEATTLE — The mindset of most local baseball fans toward the Mariners this offseason seems to be one of ... not benign neglect, but more like malignant neglect. Every so often, they spew their venom, shake their fist, and then remember there’s a Seahawks game to either anticipate, watch, or re-assess.

But it’s actually a good time to start paying attention again. The machinations of the next several weeks will go a long way toward determining the degree of hope to be expended come February, when spring training rolls around.

I’ll now pause while the cynical among you – a category filled nearly to capacity — shout at your newspaper or computer screen about the hopelessness of the organization, the dysfunction of the front office, and all the various and sundry ways the M’s are destined to screw it up.

That’s a perfectly valid response, given the team’s recent track record. The way the season ended, with manager Eric Wedge stomping off in a huff, certainly doesn’t paint a picture of cohesion and competency.

That’s not to say that one of these years the Mariners won’t get it right. But the degree of difficulty this winter is particularly high for the M’s, for any number of reasons we will address shortly. It will take some shrewd strategizing and a deft touch by general manager Jack Zduriencik to navigate through the potential minefields lurking in every direction.

Time for cynical pause No. 2.

Certainly, after consecutive seasons of 101, 95, 87 and 91 losses by the Mariners, this could be Zduriencik’s last opportunity to get it right. I say “could be” because I’ve learned never to underestimate the capacity for this organization to make the wrong call.

Which brings us back to the offseason. The good news is the Mariners, at least theoretically, have ample room in their payroll to add talent. With just Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma on the books with significant long-term contracts, it has been estimated that their starting payroll base, when you add in the salaries of arbitration-eligible players, is around $38 million.

That leaves a good $46 million to play around with just to get to last year’s $84 million payroll — more if the Mariners decide to dip into some of the estimated $25 million that each team is said to be reaping from MLB’s new television contracts.

At the general managers’ meetings last week, the Mariners were linked to virtually every free agent with a pulse, the prime exception being Robinson Cano. Even the most fanciful dreamer had a hard time conjuring up a scenario guiding Cano to the Mariners, though I would welcome a pursuit by Seattle purely for the mental image of Zduriencik negotiating with Cano’s agent, Jay-Z.

The Mariners, of course, are rife with needs, but they seem to be focusing most heavily on acquiring a couple of power bats (preferably of the right-handed variety), a veteran pitcher and a closer.

Names that have been bandied about (please hold your applause until the end) by the rumor-mongers include Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo, Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta, Mike Napoli, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza and Brian Wilson on the free-agent market, and Billy Butler, Dexter Fowler, Ryan Braun and one Dodger outfielder among Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier or Carl Crawford on the trade front.

The wheeling and dealing will hit full force at the winter meetings in Orlando beginning Dec. 9. But Wednesday’s pending blockbuster Prince Fielder-for-Ian Kinsler trade shows that the Hot Stove League is already open for business.

The Mariners, of course, face the major challenge of convincing prime free agents that Seattle is the place they want to hitch their wagon for the next few years. They’ve struck out on the likes of Fielder, Josh Hamilton, Napoli, Torii Hunter and Josh Willingham in recent years (for better or worse), and even had Justin Upton decline a trade to the Mariners last winter.

I fear that the top free agents will view the festering mess that currently exists in Seattle and decide to pass, even if the Mariners pony up with a competitive offer. That will leave them to either dip into the trade market, where the danger is robbing Peter to pay Paul, or targeting second-tier free-agent talent. Then the temptation will be to overpay in order to provide the fans with some evidence of change — a trap to which the Mariners have succumbed too often.

As I said, it’s treacherous terrain. But it’s also the most fun time of the year, when you can at least dream of better times ahead for the Mariners.

Either that, or go back to watching Seahawks highlights.

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