Updated Sunday, November 4, 2012 at 10:46 PM
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik says he still doesn't know his exact budget limits as he enters the free-agency portion of the offseason.
But Zduriencik has been given a hint or two, and he suggests he'd be surprised if the team didn't make more money available for payroll than it did at the start of last season.
And that's good news for fans of a Mariners team with some obvious holes to fill, even after the re-signings this weekend of pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Oliver Perez.
The Mariners ended the 2012 season with decisively less payroll on the books than they had at the beginning of the year, thanks to the jettisoning of Ichiro and Brandon League via trades and the free agent departures of Miguel Olivo and Kevin Millwood. Even with the weekend signings, Zduriencik appears to have about $16 million in additional payroll room to play with if his goal was simply to match last season's opening amount of roughly $85 million.
"I anticipate it will be more than that," Zduriencik said.
Zduriencik is quick to caution that having the money available doesn't mean he'll automatically spend all of it.
"It would have to be for a player who fits what we're trying to do here," Zduriencik said. "But if we find a player who is a fit, then yes, I hope that we would be able to get something done."
The Mariners' payroll topped out at just under $118 million on opening day of 2008, but has been declining since. It held steady at about $94 million in 2010 and 2011, then dropped to the $85 million mark at the start of last season.
That included $82 million for the on-field squad, plus an additional $1.7 million for the major-league contract of minor league pitcher Danny Hultzen. The Mariners also had to pay $1.2 million for relievers Shawn Camp and Hong-Chih Kuo, released by the team in spring training.
The team has $49 million committed to seven players for the 2013 season — including minor leaguer Hultzen — and faces another $12 million or so in potential payouts to five arbitration-eligible players, Jason Vargas and John Jaso among them. If Hultzen doesn't make the team in spring training and the remaining 14 roster spots are filled with players making close to the major league minimum of $490,000, that's another $7 million or so.
Add to that the $750,000 cost of buying out Olivo's contract, and if the season began tomorrow, the Mariners would be looking at a payroll of about $69 million.
Zduriencik has made no secret of the fact he'd like to bolster an offense that was the league's worst the past three seasons. The outfield appears the best place to start, given that the Mariners face uncertainty with the durability of center fielder Franklin Gutierrez and did not see any right-field bats step up big after Ichiro was traded.
Despite a relatively weak free agent crop, there are several outfielders available who would upgrade what Seattle currently has, including Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher, B.J. Upton, Angel Pagan, Melky Cabrera and Cody Ross. In the case of Swisher, he also plays first base and could give the Mariners needed insurance at that spot if incumbent Justin Smoak once again struggles at the beginning of the season..
Other first basemen who could be a fit include Carlos Pena, Kevin Youkilis, James Loney and Mike Napoli — the latter of which could also fill a catching need.
The Mariners are also expected to explore multiple trade scenarios this winter and do have some prospects they can package with veterans in order to land a bat. Mariners left-hander James Paxton and infielder Nick Franklin have gotten a long look from other teams at the Arizona Fall League and could be on the move if the right deal came along.
Another potential trade piece is left-handed starter Vargas, expected to generate at least a $7 million payout via arbitration. There has been talk of offering a contract extension to Vargas that would see the team pay less per year.
But the Mariners are paying $6.5 million for each of the next two seasons to Iwakuma, so it remains to be seen how much they'll be willing to commit to Vargas as well. With young arms like Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan, Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and Paxton either in the majors or close, the team will have to make some decisions on rotation spots.
Add the uncertainty over how the new configuration of Safeco Field will impact fly-ball-prone pitchers like Vargas, and it's possible he could be packaged with one of the young arms to bring in a bat. The Kansas City Royals recently took on most of the remaining salary of starter Ervin Santana via trade, but are still in the market for pitching and have bats like Billy Butler and Alex Gordon who could be dealt with the right package.
"Whatever ends up happening, we're going to explore all options," Zduriencik said. "We have some things we'd like to get done, but in some cases, it takes two teams to make that happen. So, we'll see where it leads us."
Wherever it does lead, money may not be the biggest hurdle the team has to overcome this time around.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @gbakermariners.
GM Jack Zduriencik
SETH WENIG / AP
Free agent Nick Swisher could fill in at first base or the outfield for Seattle.