The Mariners could definitely use a catcher. I still think Adam Moore can be the future, but after watching him the past year, I don't think it is a good idea to hand him the starting position. There are four catchers in free agency I would look at signing to push him, or maybe even supplant him:
- Rod Barajas - Certainly, Barajas has his warts. He doesn't hit a ton of line drives, and he doesn't walk much either, so he will never post a good batting average or on-base percentage. However, Barajas has power, and it is enough to make him a good backup and serviceable starter. He is my top choice among free agent catchers because I think he fits within the budget, and has the most similar skillset to Adam Moore among catchers on the free agent market.
- Josh Bard - Bard is a known commodity, and known to be what amounts to a solid backup. The occasional pop from both sides of the plate is nice, and a familiarity with the pitching staff doesn't hurt.
- Gregg Zaun - Zaun is an ageless wonder. He has really good plate discipline, so good that it is pretty much the only thing that got him on this list. He can be a solid backup, and maybe Moore could learn how to lay off more breaking balls watching Zaun play. As a switch-hitter with discipline, Zaun isn't even a bad option to pinch hit in ballgames.
- Ramon Hernandez - There isn't much flashy or bad about Hernandez's game at this point. However, he is coming off his best season in a while, which may inflate his value a little bit. There is a good chance that he is better than Bard or Zaun, but he will likely be more expensive, and I also worry some that he is at an age where we just saw his last productive gasp.
The Mariners need to add some offense somewhere, and designated hitter is the most logical place, all things considered. Luckily, there are lots of players who could fill this role on the free agent market, meaning that the Mariners should be able to get someone worthwhile that fits in their price range. Here are the guys I would be looking at:
- Russell Branyan - The muscle is a known commodity, and thumps home runs about as frequently as anyone in the majors, but at a fraction of the price. Given his skillset, price, and familiarity with the organization, I don't see a better fit on the free agent market.
- Nick Johnson - Maybe I should put an asterisk by Branyan, because Nick Johnson is a better fit for the Mariners when he is healthy. His patient, gap-hitting approach from the left side seems perfectly built for Safeco Field...again, when he is on the field. Johnson might be the most realistic target that could noticeably improve the offense, but that's assuming he makes it through a whole season, which is a huge assumption with his track record.
- Lance Berkman - Looking at Berkman's numbers last year, I worry that he got old in a hurry. His power didn't completely evaporate, but it certainly eroded, and he is at an age where I wouldn't bet on it coming back. However, Lance is more than a one-trick pony, and brings a bunch of plate discipline to the table too. He should still be a decent hitter in 2011, and I also like the idea of Justin Smoak hanging around him and learning a thing or two about how to be a switch-hitter in the middle of a lineup.
- Jim Thome - Actually, quite frankly, Thome should top this list. He has power and patience, and by all accounts is an amazing clubhouse presence. What lowers him on my list are two things. First, Thome had a massive year with the Twins, so he will draw more interest and money than maybe he should. Second (and this is related to the first) some contender should want him, and why would Thome pick the Mariners over a better team? This isn't a very realistic fit, and he is likely to get a little bit overpaid to boot. Purely on skills and character, Thome is an amazing fit, but I don't see how this one ever works out given the current context.
- Adam LaRoche - Adam brings some punch from the left side, and would be a worthwhile upgrade. The question is at what price. He held out for more money in free agency last year, and ultimately almost ended up without a home. I'm not sure he would settle for what I would offer with the M's resources this offseason.
- Magglio Ordonez - Mags can still hit, period. He would upgrade the lineup, and be a viable option in the middle of the order. How much will Magglio cost though, and who else will be interested in him? He would be higher on this list if I thought it was more realistic that the Mariners are a good fit for him with where he is at in his career, and the options he is likely to have.
- Carlos Pena - He has power, patience, and glaring holes in his swing that are clearly exploited on a regular basis. However, I also think his career-worst .222 BABIP indicates some tough luck this past year, which may make him a candidate to be underpaid this offseason. With all these players available, somebody is liable to fall through the cracks, and if it is Pena, the Mariners should take a look.
- Lyle Overbay - Lyle brings a little pop to the equation, and has enough other hitting skills to balance out as something around a solid to good hitter. His hitting skillset also translates well to Safeco Field, and he grew up in Centralia, so he is local. However, a rising K rate with less power worries me. He seems a little young to really trail off, but the trend isn't good. Still, compared to what we saw last year, he would be an upgrade, and probably a cheap one too.
- Jason Giambi - Giambi is pretty much a poorer version of Jim Thome at this point. He is squeezing what power he has left out on the field thanks to amazing plate discipline. His lack of speed and fielding ability, along with waning power, makes him a limited player to say the least. However, he is also a guy the M's might be able to sign for the veteran minimum for a year, and he could step in and be an upgrade at DH, much like Mike Sweeney the past couple years (maybe Sweeney, also a free agent, should get another look too).
I like Josh Wilson, as long as he is in Tacoma and called up when needed from time to time. The Mariners need at least one more option in the infield that can probably step and start quite a few ballgames. Unfortunately, the middle infield market is thin, but "fortunately" the Mariners are even thinner. Here are three worthwhile additions:
- Nick Punto - On a good team, Punto is clearly a bench player, the type of guy that can go in for a week or two and keep a team afloat. On the Mariners, he very well could be the starting shortstop, second basemen, or third basemen. Guaranteed playing time could appeal to Punto, and his defensive flexibility gives the Mariners options as they decide what to do with Chone Figgins, Jose Lopez, Dustin Ackley, and Jack Wilson when he inevitably gets injured. Punto is a pretty crappy hitter, but the J. Wilson/J. Wilson duo is even crappier. Punto would be worth the modest investment it would take to get him.
- David Eckstein - Eckstein is more or less an older, non-switch-hitting version of Nick Punto that can't play third base.
- Craig Counsell - Counsell is pretty much an older, marginally better version of Josh Wilson that hits from the left side instead of the right.
With the offensive woes and limited financial resources the Mariners have, it doesn't make much sense to target pitching. However, both Jason Vargas and Doug Fister are coming off groundbreaking years for them, and depending on both of them to be pillars of strength in the rotation that can help take stress (and innings) off of Michael Pineda makes me a little nervous. I would like to see the Mariners add another arm to the mix that could toss 180 decent innings, or perhaps do even better. Here are the free agent candidates that appeal to me:
- Jeff Francis - Francis is an upside pick that may end up a little too pricey for the Mariners to really consider. He came back from major surgery last year, and posted peripherals actually a little better than before his surgery. Francis may be even better another year removed from the injury, and he is already a candidate to bounce back because his peripherals suggest hard luck last year. Add in a move from Coors Field to Safeco, and Francis could be a nice complement to King Felix.
- Jake Westbrook - Similar to Francis, Westbrook battled back from a major arm injury, and posted a solid 2010 campaign. His numbers suggest that he has fully recovered. He pitches to contact, but generates enough grounders to be solid. Safeco Field is also a good place to pitch to contact too. This is the type of inning-eating guy that could ensure that there is never a need to overwork Michael Pineda.
- Frank Francisco - While Frank isn't a starter, he is worth looking at. Looking at his numbers, he didn't have a much different year from 2009, when he was considered a good closer. The Mariners could consider shipping David Aardsma elsewhere for something, then use Francisco as the closer, and trade him at the deadline for something when other teams realize he is still a viable closer. However, another team might already have noticed how good Francisco still is, and the Mariners shouldn't spend money on a closer and leave some other bigger holes unattended to.
- Erik Bedard - There really haven't been problems with Bedard's effectiveness. It's just his health. He is a boom-or-bust kind of option, but a worthwhile risk for any team that doesn't have much to lose.
There is one last free agent I want to throw out there as an option: Carl Crawford. He is the one guy on the free agent market that I would lobby to go over budget for. Putting him in left field with Franklin Gutierrez in center, and Ichiro in right, would be unbelievable. In the lineup, he would be incredible in the third spot with Ichiro and Chone Figgins ahead of him. How's that for pressure on the basepaths? Guys like Crawford are few and far between in free agency, and he would fit so well with what the Mariners need and are built to do.
With that said, I wouldn't sign with the Mariners if I were Carl Crawford. Somebody else in a better position to win is bound to give him an offer. However, I would at least let Crawford decide he isn't coming to Seattle. I would go after him. However, coming back to reality, I would be content to see the Mariners pluck a guy from each of the lists I compiled.