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Originally published Friday, December 29, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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M's record another offseason strikeout

There was some legitimate optimism spouted by the Mariners on Thursday after the team's pile of free-agent rejection letters grew even higher...

Seattle Times staff reporter

There was some legitimate optimism spouted by the Mariners on Thursday after the team's pile of free-agent rejection letters grew even higher.

The decision by former Oakland Athletics left-hander Barry Zito to sign a seven-year, $126 million pact with the San Francisco Giants marked the latest offseason failure by Seattle's front office to land a pitching target. Zito joins a growing list of free agents, including Jason Schmidt, Ted Lilly, Kei Igawa and Adam Eaton, who wound up elsewhere after the Mariners tried to acquire them.

Despite expressing predictable disappointment at being passed over once again, Mariners president Chuck Armstrong was correct in stating that the impact of Zito's new deal on Seattle could have been far worse.

"I'm not happy that he chose another team's offer over ours," Armstrong said. "But on the other hand, I'm also very pleased that he's going to the NL West and not to a team in the AL West."

At least that much about the latest turn of events rings true from an optimist's perspective. Zito winding up with either the Texas Rangers or Los Angeles Angels might have guaranteed the Mariners finishing no higher than third in the American League West for years to come.

The rejection by Zito also means the Mariners won't have to go out on a limb by committing nine figures over most of the next decade to a pitcher whose best years might already be behind him. But all that saved money in ownership's coffers still doesn't solve the problem of what to do about escaping last place now that the team's offseason mound makeover has fallen well short of expectations.

In essence, the 78-win Mariners have shed starters Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro in exchange for Miguel Batista — the one free-agent pitcher Seattle managed to sign — and Horacio Ramirez. And they had to give up one of their biggest trade commodities, flamethrowing setup man Rafael Soriano, in the process.

For all the talk of Zito going to the Rangers, or a team from New York, he wound up staying on the West Coast with a Giants club that — like the Mariners — is sub-.500 and not viewed as a contender. Once again, the Mariners could not get a deal done, though Armstrong insisted they made a competitive offer and were "a better fit" for the southpaw.

"We were in it," he said. "We thought we made a much better proposal."

But given the team's policy of secrecy in regards to all aspects of its free-agent negotiations, it's tough to verify how competitive Seattle actually was. The Mariners were widely viewed as less-than-serious candidates for Zito and were seen as reluctant to go as high as even six years on any offer.

Does this leave the Mariners flush with enough cash to go after other big names?


"Now that all the major free agents are signed, we're looking for the trade market," Armstrong said. "But you've got to trade something to get something."

In other words, don't hold your breath.

The New York Yankees are apparently seeking three arms of varying quality in return for one-time Seattle ace Randy Johnson and most of his $16 million contract for next season. Seattle already lacks the pitching depth to pull off that kind of deal for a 43-year-old who is coming off back surgery and allowing an average of five earned runs every nine innings.

And despite all the trade rumors surrounding first baseman Richie Sexson and third baseman Adrian Beltre, it's unlikely either will be moved without a serious hitter coming back the other way. The Mariners lagged in most power-hitting categories, and any gains from the offseason additions of Jose Guillen and Jose Vidro would stand to be nullified by losing one of the team's two biggest bats.

Beltre is also a key component of an infield defense that helped convince the Mariners it was worth gambling on ground-ball pitchers Batista and Ramirez. Sacrificing part of that defense by trading Beltre would run contrary to the team's strategy of hoping Batista and Ramirez can improve on mediocre career stats by virtue of the gloves behind them.

Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi could not be reached for comment about his team's next move. Bavasi had been talking with lower-tier free-agent pitchers like John Thomson and Tomo Ohka.

But Armstrong's statements make it appear the Mariners are no longer being considered. Armstrong said it's important to remember that the team also acquired a Class AAA starting pitcher, Sean White from the Pittsburgh Pirates, in a cash deal after he was left unprotected by the Atlanta Braves in the Rule 5 draft.

The Mercer Island native is one of a handful of minor acquisitions by the Mariners who will be given a shot at making the roster this spring. Another is third baseman Sean Burroughs, a faltering prospect reportedly signed to a $450,000 minor-league deal this week.

But none of the team's moves thus far would qualify as an "impact" addition. Despite this, Armstrong insisted the team remains very competitive within a division where other clubs have also done little to improve.

That remains to be seen.

While the A's have been weakened both offensively and on the mound, the hitting-deprived Angels added Gary Matthews Jr. and Shea Hillenbrand, strengthened a stellar bullpen with Justin Speier and will have starter Bartolo Colon back from injury.

The Rangers also added to a slowly improving mound staff by holding on to Vicente Padilla and acquiring Brandon McCarthy from the Chicago White Sox. But Armstrong remains unbowed.

"If we entered the season right now, I'd be very comfortable," he said of his team's starting rotation. "We're very competitive in the AL West."

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or

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