Yes, the Seattle Mariners made a big splash when they signed Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal back in December. They also hired a new manager in Lloyd McLendon and acquired a number of other players that have a chance to help the club in 2014, including Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, Fernando Rodney and John Buck. The offseason is already a positive for GM Jack Zduriencik. But by all measurable accounts, the Mariners remain, at best, about an 80-82 win team and the third-best club in their own division.

They can change that, despite the fact that spring training is in full force and the free agent market is almost entirely dry.

The top remaining free agents include right-handed starting pitcher Ervin Santana, 1B/DH Kendrys Morales, outfielder Nelson Cruz and shortstop Stephen Drew. The M’s have been linked strongly to all of the above sans Drew. Morales and Cruz have many of the same potential suitors, including the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles. The Pittsburgh Pirates, reports’s Jon Heyman, are also in on Morales to some level and the New York Mets have been mentioned, as well. Both Morales and Cruz also have been linked to the Minnesota Twins.

If Seattle plays this right, they can end up with both Santana and Morales, setting them up for a legitimate chance at relevancy beyond the All-Star break, perhaps landing somewhere in the 85-88 win range, depending on luck, health and the performance of the unproven talents sprinkled throughout the roster.

Choosing Morales over Cruz is a no-brainer. I outlined why Cruz doesn’t fit here, but it’s easy to see that Morales is every bit the hitter Cruz is and while the switch-hitter is a DH and first baseman only, Cruz is a poor outfield defender that hurts the club and neutralizes most or all of the value he may offer at the plate. Plus, there’s the draft-pick compensation scenario.

The M’s will sacrifice their first available draft pick for signing Cano. Right now, that’s the club’s second-round pick, currently sitting at No. 46 overall, since their first-round selection resides at No. 6 — the first 10 selections in the draft are protected from compensation scenarios. If the club does not sign Morales, they will receive a compensatory pick that follows the first round, but that pick would then become the first available choice to sacrifice for Cano. Signing Cruz and/or Santana would then cost the Mariners their second-round pick, and if both were signed it would also cost the club their competitive balance pick — No. 75 overall — in addition. That would leave the Mariners with one pick in the top 80, which truly is unacceptable in most drafts and certainly not ideal this year with the class of 2014 shaping up to be a very good one ad the best in at least three years.

Signing Morales instead, however, lends no comp pick as a result, which means Cano costs the second-round choice, and adding Santana would cost the club it’s competitive balance selection, giving the Mariners no pick between No. 6 and 81. Essentially, signing Morales, the better player, costs the club pick No. 75, which the team was awarded in the competitive balance lottery in July.

The alternative is to make a trade. Doing so, at least in terms of an impact return, is going to cost the Mariners multiple players. They won’t be able to land Matt Kemp, for example, or anyone of his ilk, in exchange for the potentially-expendable Nick Franklin, plus spare parts or role players such as Justin Smoak and Erasmo Ramirez.

To get that kind of player, the big guns have to be in play. Even if Taijuan Walker is deemed untouchable, such a deal is going to come at the cost of James Paxton, Franklin, and other smaller, yet still valuable, pieces. The Mariners have a choice. They can stand pat with what they have now, probably struggle to win 80 games while hoping on Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders and Smoak, praying the health charm falls their way and depending on two unpolished rookie starting pitchers to do more than any team should expect from said players.

Some might argue that protecting draft picks is unwise, but the clubs that don’t value the cheapest way to acquire impact talent — the Draft — are the ones that are forced to constantly spend in free agency to fill holes, much like the Philadelphia Phillies in recent years.

Other may suggest that the deep draft class means clubs can more afford to sacrifice a pick or two early, because their remaining picks are that much more valuable. I tend to look at it differently, however. Each draft is a chance for clubs to make up ground on their rivals, whether it’s gaining or putting more distance between those that have fallen behind.

In the end when a club has the chance to add a player such as Cano, losing a draft pick after the first round is just something you have to accept. He’s signed for 10 years and is going to be good for most of it, making the loss of the pick easy to swallow. Signing Cruz to a short-term deal, however, isn’t worth giving up the No. 46 pick overall. If Morales were to sign elsewhere and the M’s inked Santana and not Cruz, Santana may be worth that pick, especially considering he projects to be of value beyond two years.

If Zduriencik can find a way to add Santana and Morales, the club’s lineup and rotation suddenly appear solidified. The top five in my projected lineup is just a hair short of exciting:

1. Brad Miller, SS
2. Kyle Seager, 3B
3. Robinson Cano, 2B
4. Corey Hart, RF
5. Kendrys Morales, DH

Friday, M’s GM Jack Zduriencik joined Bill Swartz and Jason A. Churchill on 1090 The Fan.

If Miller were to take a full step forward and Hart remained healthy, that’s a top-5 that competes in the American League West. The bottom four, in the above scenario with Morales in the lineup, could look as follows, at least versus right-handed pitching:

6. Logan Morrison, 1B
7. Michael Saunders, CF
8. Mike Zunino/John Buck, C
9. Dustin Ackley, LF

Even without dramatic progress from the bottom four, the above lineup has a chance to be league average. If Ackley, Saunders, Morrison or Zunino — just one — makes impact progress, the Mariners could score 720 runs or so, putting them in the middle of the American League and giving their pitching staff a chance to keep them interesting into August and September.

It’s late, we’re entering the week of the first Cactus League contest and there are just five and a half weeks until the regular season opens. But there are free agents to be signed and maybe even a trade or two to be made. If things bounce Seattle’s way, the M’s could actually accomplish what I did not believe was possible when the 2013 schedule concluded:


– Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

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