Mariners will be busy at winter meetings

With trade and free-agent possibilities flying as quickly as someone can type a report and post it online, Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said Thursday that he’s not close to completing any move.

“There are inquiries, like there always are,” Zduriencik said. “But at this moment, I wouldn’t say there is anything on the horizon, anything that’s going to happen trade-wise.”

That may change within a week.

Zduriencik and his staff will take their business to baseball’s annual winter meetings in Indianapolis, running Monday through Thursday. Last year, those meetings spawned the 12-player, three-team trade that brought center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, left fielder Endy Chavez, first baseman Mike Carp and pitcher Jason Vargas, all who played important roles with the Mariners during the season.

“We’ve had a lot of talks up to this moment, some more in-depth than others, some more feeling-out discussions,” Zduriencik said. “Sometimes you circle back and say, ‘Let’s talk about what we were talking about.’ We’re trying to improve the ballclub. How we do it and how it falls into place, you don’t know. (Sometimes) all of a sudden that certain match happens, when it just comes together and it makes for a deal.”

The Mariners have openings at first base, third base and left field, and Zduriencik said he’s also looking for a right-handed hitter, plus his never-ending pursuit of pitching.

First baseman Russell Branyan, who batted .251 with a career-best 31 home runs and 76 runs batted in, rejected a one-year offer from the Mariners and it doesn’t seem the sides are close. The Mariners are concerned about the herniated disc in Branyan’s back that cost him the final month of the season and was a factor in his poor production after the All-Star break — a .193 average with nine homers and 27 RBI.

“The way he was hurt with the back issue, that’s something that is being looked at,” Zduriencik said.

The Mariners will know by Monday if third baseman Adrian Beltre accepts salary arbitration, although he’s expected to reject it and play the free-agent market.

In left field, the Mariners have been mentioned prominently in recent reports about free agent Jason Bay, who hit 36 home runs and drove in 119 this year with the Red Sox. Bay, a native of British Columbia who played at Gonzaga University in Spokane, made $7.8 million this year.

The Mariners have financial flexibility this offseason for such a signing, but Bay also would cost them in next year’s draft. Because Bay is classified as a Type A free agent, the Mariners would lose their first-round pick — No. 18 overall — to the Red Sox if they sign him.

While saying the Mariners must strengthen the minor league system so it becomes a productive feeder to the big-league club, Zduriencik also said he wouldn’t oppose losing next year’s draft pick if it would help acquire a player who could help them on a long-term basis.

Drafting 18th, he said, doesn’t bring the same guarantee of a player who’ll make an impact at the big leagues as someone in the top four or five picks.

“We all know lot of draft picks fall flat on their face,” Zduriencik said. “You have to weigh all of that. You have to weigh whoever you sign and … how does he impact the big-league club and for how long?”

Bay isn’t considered a strong defensive player, and Zduriencik has played a higher priority on defense based on his previous moves. However, Bay also could give the Mariners their needed right-handed power bat from the DH spot as well as left field. Bay has been a DH for just two games in his career.

Zduriencik also said he planned to meet next week with Alan Nero, agent for ace right-hander Felix Hernandez, who is eligible for arbitration this offseason and could become a free agent after the 2011 season.

“Alan represents a few of our players,” Zduriencik said. “I’m sure we’ll have a nice sit-down with Alan.”

Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at\marinersblog

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