Who will right the M’s ship?

SEATTLE — The most uncertain offseason in Seattle Mariners history started Monday with phone calls.

Team president Chuck Armstrong began contacting other teams requesting permission to speak with executives on his list of candidates to be the Mariners’ next general manager.

It’s one of the first steps in what will lead to either the turnaround of a last-place team or a continuation of the Mariners’ frustrating and embarrassing seasons since 2004.

“This is an extremely important decision for us,” Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said. “We’ve got to get it right.”

The new general manager not only must hire a manager and coaching staff for next season, he or she will establish a plan to make the Mariners contenders again.

After former GM Bill Bavasi spent freely on free agents whose impact was minimal and the result became this year’s 101-loss season, the Mariners say they are looking for fresh thinking in their new hire.

Lincoln and Armstrong will conduct the interviews, beginning next week, and hope to have a new GM in place by the end of October.

“We have our own thoughts, but I think it’s good to go outside and get some fresh views,” Armstrong said. “Our perception of things from inside may not be the same as it is from outside. We’re looking for some fresh blood and a different, new perspective and some good leadership.”

That’s not a high endorsement of Lee Pelekoudas, the Mariners’ longtime assistant GM who took over after Bavasi was fired in June. Pelekoudas, in his 29th year with the team, is the only known candidate.

Many other names have come up in discussions about who the Mariners may pursue.

Among those believed to be on Armstrong’s list is Kim Ng, the Los Angeles’ Dodgers’ highly regarded assistant GM who would become the major leagues’ first woman general manager if the Mariners hire her. Ng, 39, has been with the Dodgers since 2001 and interviewed for their GM job in 2005 before the team hired Ned Colletti.

“We’re color blind, gender blind,” Armstrong said. “We just want the best person who will be the best fit for the Mariners as we move forward.”

Other assistant GMs considered among the best young talent in baseball are Tony LaCava of the Toronto Blue Jays, David Forst of the Oakland A’s and Jerry DiPoto of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

There’s also been speculation that Doug Melvin of the Milwaukee Brewers or Kevin Towers of the San Diego Padres would be a good fit.

Pat Gillick, the former Mariners GM who has led the Philadelphia Phillies back into the playoffs, is not considered a candidate although Armstrong said Gillick’s old-school approach to building a team has been effective in an age of heavy reliance on statistical analysis. The Mariners teams built by Gillick in 2000 and 2001 were their last to reach the postseason.

“He would get a fistful of plane tickets and he would go around and look each potential player in the face,” Armstrong said. “He would talk about what he expected if they were to become a Mariner and if they were willing to do that, whether it was Arthur Rhodes or Mark McLemore or Aaron Sele or whoever. He hit on every one.

“He used statistical analysis probably less than any general manager you’d talk to.”

Whoever gets the job and whatever approach they take, the Mariners’ new GM will have a full plate.

Will he or she tear down the current roster and rebuild with prospects, knowing there could be a few lean years in the win-loss column?

Or will the new GM decide this team is close enough to being a contender that a couple of hitters and some bullpen help are all that’s needed?

“We are trying to get this thing turned around as quickly as possible, but it’s premature to talk about what’s going to happen next season or the season after that,” Lincoln said. “The most important thing is to get this general manager in place, and then have him (or her) develop a comprehensive plan to get us back to where we want to be, for both the short term and long term.”

Armstrong said early this month that the Mariners won’t spend freely on high-priced free agents, but he also wouldn’t label the offseason as a full-fledged rebuilding process — yet.

“I’m not willing to concede anything for next year,” he said. “Let’s see what the plan looks like. There are some in our organization — our field manager, for example — who think we’re not that far away.”

Jim Riggleman, who took over as manager June 20 after John McLaren was fired, said the Mariners could be competitive by adding one more productive hitter, possibly at first base.

Riggleman, who ran the team with a firm dose of discipline but was criticized for in-game decisions such as the way he managed the bullpen, badly wants to return.

“I can promise you that nobody wants to manage this club more than I do and nobody is more prepared to manage this club than I am,” he said.

The new general manager will make that decision, which isn’t likely to happen until November.

Then he or she will focus on the roster.

Lincoln said the player payroll, about $120 million this year, may go down as some salaries come off the books. Raul Ibanez made $5.5 million this year, Willie Bloomquist $950,000 and Miguel Cairo $850,000. All three are free agents and, while the Mariners may offer a contract to Ibanez, he may choose to play elsewhere if he doesn’t believe the M’s will be competitive.

The Mariners also could launch into a full-fledged rebuilding job and trade away players who not only could lure prospects but also shed salary.

Third baseman Adrian Beltre will make $11.5 million, closer J.J. Putz $5 million and infielder Jose Lopez $1.6 million in 2009.

Lopez will be an interesting case because he said Sunday he won’t play anything but second base next year. The Mariners moved Lopez to first base for a dozen games this month in order to look at second-base prospect Luis Valbuena. Lopez played well at first base and maintained his productive hitting, while Valbuena showed good range at second.

Veteran pitchers Jarrod Washburn (who’ll make $10.35 million next year) and Miguel Batista ($9 million) also are trade possibilities, although it’s unclear how much interest there would be. Armstrong rejected a trade of Washburn to the Twins this season and Batista may be difficult to move considering his high salary and his poor results this year, when he went 4-14 with a 6.26 earned-run average.

Then there’s the question of what to do with Erik Bedard.

Bavasi traded away five players to acquire the left-handed starter from the Baltimore Orioles, but Bedard missed most of the season because of injury and underwent shoulder surgery Friday.

The surgery didn’t reveal any tears to either the labrum or rotator cuff, and Bedard is expected to be 100 percent healthy by the season opener April 6.

Still, the Mariners can choose not to offer Bedard a contract. Armstrong hinted at that.

“If you invest in the stock market and make a bad stock pick, you have to teach yourself that you don’t hold onto it hoping it will come back,” Armstrong said. “If it’s a bad one, you move on. We have that option (to part ways with Bedard).

“But these kinds of individual player questions are premature. We want to get our new general manager in, we want to formulate the plan. What will our new GM think we should do not only with Erik Bedard but with everyone on the 40-man roster and in our minor-league system?”

The work to answer those questions has just begun.

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