TACOMA, WA. — Remember when general manager Jerry Dipoto declared in a recent interview on KIRO (710 AM) that the Mariners couldn’t be more interested in retaining pending free-agent designated hitter Nelson Cruz?
Well, not so fast.
Dipoto clarified that position Monday in a season-wrap news conference alongside manager Scott Servais at Safeco Field. Here’s the key quote from T.J. Cotterill’s typically excellent story in The News Tribune.
“Clearly if we were committed to going back to the DH-only player,” Dipoto said, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. We would have taken care of it much earlier this year.”
That answers the question posed recently in this space that, if the Mariners truly wanted to retain Cruz, and Cruz, as he stated on numerous occasions, truly wanted to return…then why weren’t the two sides talking?
The takeaway from Dipoto’s latest comment is the Mariners are more than willing to turn away from Cruz, who led a run-challenged attack this season with 37 homers and 97 RBIs.
Letting Cruz walk away might seem foolish, but that depends on how the Mariners replace his production because there are obvious roster benefits to having the flexibility created by the absence of a full-time designated hitter.
The Mariners could shift an aging Robinson Cano increasingly into that role, particularly if they intend to return Dee Gordon to second base. Or Cano could shift to first base with Ryon Healy and/or Daniel Vogelbach serving as the DH.
It was also notable Monday that Dipoto dismissed Cano’s recent declaration that he expects to return next season to full-time duty at second base.
“He talks to (reporters),” Dipoto said, “(but) we will talk amongst ourselves and go figure out what our roster looks like when we get to next year. We can’t root ourselves in thinking any one way.”
The takeaway there is Cano had better hold onto his first baseman’s glove.
Letting Cruz depart as a free agent provides payroll flexibility as the Mariners seek a replacement — presumably an outfielder and preferably a center fielder (although club officials seem comfortable with Mitch Haniger in center).
This winter’s list of free-agent outfielders is notably thin unless you believe the Mariners can make a reasonable play for Bryce Harper. Yes, that seems laughable — stop, I said laughable — and I’ve heard nothing to suggest he’s on their list.
But five years ago at this point, who would have thought Cano would end up here? Again, I don’t see Harper coming here and, anyway, Dipoto has always preferred to make trades rather than sign free agents.
But who knows?
It’s also important to note that while the Mariners are willing to seek alternatives to Cruz, they haven’t closed the door. They might spend the next month or so sifting through possibilities before determining that Cruz is their best option.
If so, the two sides could then quickly reach an agreement. Everything suggests Cruz truly prefers to stay in Seattle and is unlikely to regard the Mariners’ current approach as anything more than a reasonable business practice.
But that cuts both ways.
The Mariners’ exclusive negotiation window with Cruz ends five days following the World Series’ conclusion. And if he’s being put on hold by the Mariners, why wouldn’t he wait to see what other offers arise? That, too, is just business.
Multiple sources says Cruz should generate some interest as a free agent. He is still productive. At age 39, he is not in position to demand a lengthy contract. And he is widely regarded by teammates as a great clubhouse presence.
One obvious possibility is Houston, where he could serve as a replacement for pending free-agent DH Evan Gattis. Picture Boomstick taking aim 81 times a year at those cozy Crawford Boxes.
That could really come back to haunt the Mariners. For now, let’s see what they do over the next several weeks.