Busy Mariners have more moves to make

New GM Dipoto heads to Meetings seeking first baseman, starter, relievers

Busy Mariners have more moves to make

SEATTLE -- As Jerry Dipoto and a contingent of Mariners front-office folks prepare for next week's Winter Meetings, they may have a ready-made slogan already in place: "Who needs Nashville?"

Rather than wait for the four-day gathering at the Opryland Resort in Tennessee that starts Monday, Dipoto's Hot Stove heated up early this offseason. The new general manager has already engineered six trades, signed four free agents and made two waiver claims this winter. But that doesn't mean more work doesn't lie ahead.

Mariners Hot Stove Tracker

"The roster is starting to come together," Dipoto said. "But there will be further change. We need to work at first base, continue adding to the bullpen, and adding at least one starting pitcher is a priority for us. Those are our three areas of need.

"I'm quite happy where we are in terms of creating roster depth and flexibility this early in the offseason. We have a lot less to do heading into the Winter Meetings than we did at the start of the offseason."

Dipoto has added speed and athleticism in his outfield by trading for Leonys Martin and signing free agent Nori Aoki, bolstered what had been a catching crisis by signing Chris Iannetta and trading for Steve Clevenger, found a potential closer by trading for veteran Joaquin Benoit, improved the rotation depth with the trade for Nathan Karns and opened some payroll flexibility by dealing first baseman Mark Trumbo.

None of the moves have been blockbusters, but Dipoto's goal is to add depth and strengthen the roster around the returning nucleus of Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. And that process figures to carry on in Nashville, where the Mariners will continue looking to check off the remaining boxes on the winter wish list.

Dipoto has history of Winter Meetings activity

MLB.com and MLB Network will have wall-to-wall coverage of the 2015 Winter Meetings from the Opryland Hotel, with the Network launching 35 hours of live Winter Meetings coverage on Sunday at 5 p.m. PT. Fans can also catch live streaming of all news conferences and manager availability on MLB.com, as well as the announcement of the Hall of Fame Pre-Integration Era Committee inductees on Monday at 8 a.m. PT and the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 10 at 7 a.m. PT.

Club needs

Rotation: Priority No. 1 remains re-signing veteran right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, who rejected a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer as expected. What payroll Dipoto has to play with will largely go to finding a quality starter to team with Hernandez and Taijuan Walker at the top of the rotation.

Bullpen: Beefing up the 'pen appears to be a primary goal of many teams this winter, which could make relievers a hot topic in Nashville. Dipoto already added 38-year-old Benoit, a quality setup man and potential closer, in a deal with the Padres. He's also traded for possible swingman Anthony Bass and signed free agent Justin De Fratus, but gave up the versatile Tom Wilhelmsen and 2014 standout Danny Farquhar.

First base: With Trumbo traded to the Orioles and Logan Morrison to the Rays, the Mariners likely don't have their starting first baseman on the roster. Jesus Montero would be the first available option, and while he's hit extremely well at Triple-A the past two years, he remains a project at his new position while working out again this winter in Arizona. Andy Wilkins was also claimed off waivers and Clevenger can play some first base as well as catch, but Dipoto almost certainly will make a move to add a more-proven commodity, whether by trade or free agency.

Dipoto on trading for Clevenger

Who they can trade if necessary

LF Seth Smith: The 33-year-old is the kind of hitter manager Scott Servais and Dipoto like, a good on-base guy who puts up a tough at-bat by knowing the strike zone, working counts and driving the ball with authority when he gets his pitch. But Dipoto continues pushing to get more athletic in the outfield and Smith will earn $6.75 million this season, so he might be available if the Mariners find other alternatives for their corner spots.

SS Chris Taylor, OF Stefon Romero: Actually you can list about anybody on the roster, given Dipoto's clear willingness to deal. But these two are young players who could draw some interest elsewhere and appear just to be providing depth at this point. However, depth is something Dipoto craves, and there's no point in trading young talent without bringing back equal or better talent.

LHP Mike Montgomery: Montgomery is the most likely player to still be moved because he's out of Minor League options and will have to make the 25-man roster or be exposed to waivers, but that fact also drives down his value and limits Dipoto's leverage. Dipoto dealt reliever Jose Ramirez, who was in the same situation, to the Braves on Friday for a player to be named and cash.

Top prospects

Per MLB.com's Pipeline, the Mariners' top 10 prospects are outfielder Alex Jackson, left-hander Luiz Gohara, first baseman/third baseman D.J. Peterson, right-hander Edwin Diaz, outfielders Tyler O'Neill, Boog Powell and Luis Liberato, left-hander Ryan Yarbrough, outfielder Brayan Hernandez and right-hander Nick Neidert.

Powell, acquired from the Rays last month, could be the closest to contributing to the Major League roster. Jackson and Peterson are both first-round Draft picks who were selected for their offensive potential, but each struggled last year at the plate. Diaz, last year's Mariners Minor League Pitcher of the Year, likely will open the season again in Double-A.

Rule 5 Draft

The Mariners' 40-man roster is at 39, so they have a spot open if they want to make a Rule 5 Draft selection next Thursday. Seattle took -- and kept -- lefty reliever David Rollins last year. The Mariners won't pick until the 11th spot, but Dipoto twice has had other teams in higher spots take a player for him and then traded for that player in the past four years, including a deal with the Cubs for infielder Taylor Featherston, who stuck with the Angels last season. Among the eligible players the Mariners didn't protect on their 40-man roster, outfielder Jabari Blash would appear the most likely prospect to be lost.

Big contracts they might unload

Outside of Smith's contract, the Mariners don't have much in the way of expendable deals. Their main money is lined up with Hernandez, Cano, Cruz and Seager, and Dipoto has said from Day 1 his goal is to supplement that core, not trade it away. Even Smith seems unlikely to be moved as he provides a valued outfield platoon option.

Payroll summary

The Mariners have $96.5 million locked into 10 veterans -- Hernandez, Cano, Cruz, Seager, Smith, Benoit, Iannetta, Aoki, Franklin Gutierrez and De Fratus. They'd like to re-sign Iwakuma, who figures to command something in the $13-14 million range per year. And they have three arbitration-eligible players in Martin, Bass and Charlie Furbush -- who are projected to combine for about $6.5 million. If that all happens, that's 14 players making about $116.5 million for a team whose total payroll last year was around $125 million.

While some payroll increase is likely, the Mariners have already cashed their big chips in prior signings for Cano, Cruz, Hernandez and Seager. Other than Iwakuma -- or another starter if he goes elsewhere -- they'll likely continue working more through trades and mid-level free-agent acquisitions to bolster that nucleus rather than pursue more long-term megadeals that would further limit future flexibility.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB, read his Mariners Musings blog, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.