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Mariners posing serious threat to Angels in Hot Stove season

INDIANAPOLIS -- There's something wild happening out West, where the Mariners are establishing themselves a threat to the preeminent Angels -- at least in wintertime. Seattle stole the Angels' igniter Chone Figgins by outbidding its rival to the south by one year and $1 million per year (the Mariners' winning bid was $9 million a year for four years, while the incumbent Angels were at $8 mil per for three) and appears to have its sights on two more players that interest the Angels: star left fielder Jason Bay and star pitcher John Lackey, the Angels' ace over the past few years.

Seattle has a second-year star general manager in Jack Zduriencik, who undoubtedly earned his bosses' confidence by getting Russell Branyan and David Aardsma for practically nothing last winter, and also for trading fading reliever J.J. Putz for six young players. While Bay and Lackey are the glossiest of Mariners targets, they also want to bring back Branyan and have big backup plans that include Marlon Byrd, Rich Harden, Randy Wolf, Joel Pineiro and Jarrod Washburn should Bay and Lackey go elsewhere.

"Watch out for the Mariners," warned one competing GM about the team that's already signaled it means business. The swiping of Figgins is a nice start, especially since it came for $4 million a year less than the Yankees gave Johnny Damon, a comparably excellent leadoff man, four years ago.

The Mariners are by no means a poor team, and their current coffers are significantly enhanced by close to $50 million coming off its books. The defection of unwanted catcher Kenji Johjima was an especially pleasant surprise, and only added to the windfall that came from expiring the contracts of Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, Erik Bedard and Miguel Batista. It should be noted, though, that the Mariners are also trying to lock up superstar pitcher Felix Hernandez in a long-term deal. And that could take some serious dough, as King Felix will be seeking $100 million over six years from the Mariners.

Zduriencik's team surprised folks by quickly stealing Figgins, who could play third if Beltre doesn't return (he was offered arbitration, but is said to be "unlikely" to accept), second (Jose Lopez could be moved to first or elsewhere) or even left field. But Bay, a native of Trail, British Columbia and resident of the Northwest, appears to be a strong target, though he couldn't expect to hit as many home runs in Safeco as he hit in Fenway Park.

Angels owner Arte Moreno isn't expected to sit idly by as the Mariners surpass them, though, in what promises to be a spirited competition out West. Moreno's on record saying he has about $12 million to spend, but Moreno is a competitive man, and the Angels' own fine GM Tony Reagins is juggling several interesting possibilities, as well. The Angels are thought to be dangling left fielder Juan Rivera as they pursue Bay (but not Matt Holliday, interestingly enough), and while they already have decent rotation depth, they remain interested in retaining the tough-minded Lackey while they are also thought to be pursuing what appears to be a long-shot effort to land superstar pitcher Roy Halladay.

If the Angels stick to the stated plan to spend only $12 million, that might leave room for only one big hitter or one big pitcher, and Bay or Lackey still seems more within their reach than Halladay. While Halladay's main priority is to get to a perennial winner and the Angels obviously qualify there, there's practically no chance they'd offer the type of talent needed to land such a star without a window to lock Halladay up long term, and though Halladay may be willing to go west for a year (agent Greg Landry said they'll make calls on a "case-by-case" basis), there's no assurance the Oldsmar, Fla., resident would commit to a multiyear deal with a team that plays in California and trains in Arizona. Oddly enough, there hasn't been evidence yet that Halladay will insist on an extension, but in this case, that request may actually come from the teams who see Halladay as more valuable if he comes with a multiyear deal.

Lackey isn't limiting his choices to one coast or the other, though some executives believe he'd prefer Texas, where he's from (Abilene is his home), or the West Coast, where his new wife is from. Some teams earlier sensed the Angels weren't going hard after Lackey, but if that were true, the presence of the Mariners in that derby could change things. The Angels surely will be willing to bid beyond their original spring bid of close to $50 million over four years, but one person familiar with the Angels' thinking said they won't repeat the $100 million-plus offer made to CC Sabathia last winter. He has told teams he should be north of A.J. Burnett's $82.5 million, five-year deal, and it's hard to disagree with that.

The Yankees, Red Sox, Brewers, Rangers and Nationals are among other teams known to have interest in Lackey, who like Halladay has a bulldog rep. But it's possible it could still come down to another battle out west.

• Some could actually see the Red Sox pressing harder for Lackey than Halladay. While owner John Henry is believed to have a keen interest in Halladay, there seems to be a sense that some Red Sox people would rather use the prospects on an impact offensive player such as Adrian Gonzalez than Halladay.

• The Red Sox are still thought to have some interest in Bay, who rejected their $60 million, four-year contract, but some competitors could see them switching gears and taking Holliday. Red Sox officials like the comfort of Bay's past performance in their division, but most still believe Holliday is the better hitter. They have no worries about Bay's defense despite some defensive metrics suggesting he is deficient (they believe those metrics could be the result of a quirk of playing left field in Fenway Park). And as one scout pointed out, "Bay played center field at one point. So how bad can he be?"

Ivan Rodriguez, who is drawing interest from the Royals, Rangers and Giants, would like to finish his career in Texas but appears disinclined to accept arbitration with Texas since he'd only be a backup there with Jarrod Saltalamacchia expected to get the bulk of the playing time assuming his shoulder isn't hurt worse than believed.

Rafael Soriano has gone back and forth about whether to accept arbitration, but as of late Sunday night, he appeared to be leaning toward accepting it despite interest shown from the Yankees, Orioles and Astros. He made $6.3 million last year and probably could earn $7 million or so via arbitration. The Braves don't expect him to accept, but if he does, the back end of their 'pen is awfully strong.

Mike Gonzalez, who's being considered by the Red Sox and at least 10 more teams, is expected to reject the Braves' offer of arbitration.

Marlon Byrd is drawing interest from the Braves, Cubs and Mariners.

• Execs expect star closer Jose Valverde to wind up back as Houston's closer. He could even decide to accept arbitration.

John Smoltz is thought to like the idea of going back to the Cardinals. While he'd prefer to start, he's open to relieving. The Nationals, with former Braves president Stan Kasten in charge, would love him to come there.

• The Yankees are offering a little more than $10 million to begin negotiations with Andy Pettitte, who told them he wants to pitch in 2010 and is known to prefer to stay with the Yankees. The Yankees also will make a play for Halladay here.

Johnny Damon is another Yankees priority and they are expected to offer about $20 million over two years to keep him. Yankees' backup plans are: for pitcher, Pineiro and Wolf; and for outfielder, Mike Cameron, Jermaine Dye, Curtis Granderson and possibly Byrd.

• The Mets remain interested in Bengie Molina, and it appears the game plan is to wait it out and try to get him on a contract for one year and an option. The Mets figure that the other teams seeking a catcher are unlikely to spend as much they have (Kansas City and Toronto need starters, while San Francisco, Kansas City and Colorado need backups), so maybe they'll get Molina on a bargain. If not, they may have to go to $12 million over two years.

• The Dodgers are trying to trade Juan Pierre, who has two years and $18 million left on his contract.

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