As the free-agent signing period gets underway the Mariners enter the marketplace as potential buyers in the midst of rebuilding with GM Jack Zduriencik leading the charge.

After another disappointing season, the Mariners currently have a few roster spots that could use a significant upgrade. 

Fortunately from a long-term perspective, the Mariners appear to have a solid stockpile of young pitchers, given the number of quality prospects currently within the organization that can some day join Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda, as Baseball Prospectus via Larry Stone at the Seattle Times posted last week.

Until then, Jason Vargas, Charlie Furbush and Blake Beavan can fill the void while options like Jamie Moyer are available to help fill out the rotation if need be. 

But what the Mariners currently need and potentially lack down the road is hitting and speed.

The Mariners have prospects, but right now no one on par with where Dustin Ackley was this time last year. 

So from an offensive standpoint, what options do the M’s realistically have for 2012 and beyond?

Assuming the right side of the infield is set with Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley, two outfield spots with Ichiro and Franklin Gutierrez and the catcher’s spot with Miguel Olivo, we are left with a whole lot of uncertainty on the left side of the diamond. 

At the hot corner, Alex Liddi, Kyle Seager and Chone Figgins all have major questions/issues, but it’s likely that one of them will be in the lineup opening day.

At shortstop, Brendan Ryan is a placeholder. SS Nick Franklin is still another year or two away, although based on his performance in the Arizona Fall League we might be seeing him sooner rather than later. 

Joe Sheehan at Sports Illustrated reports

“At 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds, Franklin doesn’t look impressive until he starts playing baseball, and then he can look like the best player on the field. Franklin is a switch-hitter who I saw drive the ball, from the left side, to all parts of the park. Just as impressive was his defense, a combination of quickness, hands and arm that stands out in a league where defense is often sloppy. He could come very quickly for a Mariners team that needs help at many lineup spots.”

So that leaves left field and DH.

One of those spots probably will go to Mike Carp following his solid performance during the second half of the 2011 season, but the final spot in the lineup currently has few appealing in-house solutions from a short list that includes Casper Wells, Trayvon Robinson, Carlos Peguero and Michael Saunders.

While the free-agent market has some truly great players that would help the Mariners’ lineup next season, the likelihood of landing Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes or Prince Fielder is probably quite small given how much those players will cost to sign.

The Seattle Times’ Larry Stone discussed the budget issue specifically with Jack Z. this week…

“When you go to the big, big free agents, you’re not sure where it will end up, dollars wise,” Zduriencik said. “I’d say right now we have to lay out a lot of other options and see where it ends up. I do know the numbers will be pretty high. How high will it go? Everyone has a threshold. It’s an unknown at this point.”

Translation: “We will come to the table in good faith, but try to avoid losing our shirts.”

If we look past the high rollers, what other options are available?

In the outfield, players such as Grady Sizemore, Carlos Beltran, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Josh Willingham are all free-agent options that the Mariners could consider, but it might be worthwhile to consider expanding the search geographically a bit.  

Jeff Passan at Yahoo Sports offered his take on the potential options available across the Pacific in a report last week focusing on Korean pitcher Suk-Min Yoon.  

Most of the other big names mentioned are pitchers, but one name the Mariners might want to consider is Yakult Swallows’ outfielder Norichika Aoki, who according to the Japan Times has his team’s agreement to begin the posting process

Historically position players outside of Ichiro and Hideki Matsui have had a poor track record playing in the States, as Tom Verducci at Sports Illustrated reported earlier this week in a profile on Yu Darvish. Verducci only offers brief mention of Aoki, stating “(Aoki) has drawn some comparisons to (Ichiro) Suzuki for his style of play, though he has not been that kind of impact player.”

It’s almost unfair to compare anyone to Ichiro, but at age 29 Aoki seems ready for a new challenge.

“My dream is not just to go over there to play, but it’s to perform strongly in the majors,” the three-time Central League batting champion said. “I’m ready to play for whatever team needs me, regardless of contract terms.”

Should the Mariners make an offer? 

When Aoki burst on the scene in Japan during his 2005 rookie year, comparisons to Ichiro seemed ridiculous if not a bit premature.

But over the next several seasons he made a strong case for himself statistically, hitting well over .300 each year while showing a solid mix of power and speed as the lone star for the cellar-dwelling Swallows. 

Yet this past season Aoki’s numbers fell well short of his career averages on several key metrics even while the Swallows made the playoffs.  On some level you can ignore/forgive the drop-off in power, as the NPB this season started using new baseballs, which led to a decline in homers across the league; however the drop for Aoki’s two main drawing cards of high average and speed are harder to comprehend. 

Even if you chalk up this past season as a statistical blip, it would seem that putting Aoki in a relatively young lineup along side an aging Ichiro might be a mistake.

Both Ichiro and Aoki will be looking to rebound from off-years with a strong desire to prove themselves, yet will likely do so facing intense media pressure from both sides of the Pacific following them from day one at spring training. 

As streak hitters the possibility of one if not both getting off to a slow start is a scary prospect. 

Having had the opportunity to watch Aoki play for several seasons in Japan, I find it hard to disagree with Tom Verducci’s initial assessment.  

However…quite often Aoki would press in trying to do too much on some truly terrible Swallows teams, especially after being inserted into the  No. 3 hole in the lineup a few years ago to help drive in some runs.

Watching him in the on-deck circle you got the impression he was carrying the weight of the world while swinging his donut-weighted bat knowing for a fact he was the only player in the entire lineup capable of hitting the ball past the infield grass, especially in the later innings.

He tried hard to adapt and hit for power, but he couldn’t do enough…no one could, especially with Aaron Guiel as your cleanup hitter. 

With all of the Mariners’ moves this offseason it comes down to pricing.

Right now the team doesn’t have anyone they can depend on at the top of the lineup long-term (knowing Ichiro cannot play forever) who can set the table and steal a base. In 2012 the Mariners do not need Aoki to field an entire team, but it might be worthwhile for them to place a bid for his services.

As for Aoki, asking him to fill Ichiro’s shoes is almost bordering on cruel. 

Ideally, he could be a difference-maker on a team in need of an outfielder required to do nothing more than hit singles and occasionally steal a base. Protected in a truly solid lineup, he could hit .300, steal 20+ bases and score 100 runs. Not quite an All-Star, but someone who can help push a .500 team to a wild-card or better playoff berth. 

In two years time, that could be the Mariners…       

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