Has work begun yet on the new Safeco Field fences and will we be able to see much difference when it's done?
-- Frank K., Kirkland, Wash.

To date the only work done has been to take down some of the padding on the left-field wall, but action figures to heat up after the Thanksgiving holiday. The club just received final drawings from the architect in charge of the project, so the major work should begin soon.

The new wall won't look much different -- except possibly in the left-center power alley where the biggest change will take place. For fans, the most noticeable change will be removal of the hand-operated scoreboard in left field. That will be moved to a new location and will lower that section of the wall to the same eight-foot height as the rest of the fence.

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When are the Mariners going to hire a real hitting coach who has experience actually playing the game of baseball? Their new hitting coach was a lifetime bench player. Why in the world would they hire a pinch-hitting specialist?
-- Christian H., Redlands, Calif.

Some of the best managers and coaches never even played Major League baseball and very few former MLB stars become great managers and coaches after their playing days are done. New Mariners hitting coach Dave Hansen was best known as a pinch-hitting specialist during his 15-year Major League career, which makes him a guy who spent a whole lot of time studying pitchers and the art of hitting. I don't see that as a negative.

But the key for any coach is being able to communicate with players and help get the most out of them. There's no sure-fire formula there. Experience at the Major League level can be a plus, but it isn't mandatory.

With 15 years in the Majors, Hansen certainly has experience. The man he's replacing, Chris Chambliss, was an 18-year Major League veteran who played on six World Series title teams. The Mariners previously employed Paul Molitor as hitting coach and the Hall of Famer lasted one season. Frank Howard, Don Baylor and Chambliss were all former All-Stars who've had their turns as Mariners hitting coaches. But two of the club's most successful hitting coaches were Lee Elia (who hit .203 in 212 career at-bats in the Majors) and Jeff Pentland, who never played in the big leagues.

I've read a few articles saying the Mariners are one of the teams that will likely bid for Josh Hamilton. Is that true?
-- Ryan H., Bellevue, Wash.

The Mariners will be mentioned as being in conversation with many of the top free agents this offseason for two simple reasons: They have money to spend, with Ichiro's $18 million salary off the books, and they need offensive help.

Hamilton's case will be fascinating as he clearly is the best hitter available, but he comes with some risks. The Mariners -- and many teams -- surely will be interested if he's willing to sign a shorter-term contract, but if he sticks with early conjecture of wanting a seven-year, $175 million deal, that will narrow the field considerably.

I expect the Mariners to either sign or trade for a proven veteran hitter this offseason. Who that will wind up being is anybody's guess at this point.

Can Carlos Triunfel be the infield reserve and play third, shortstop and second next year?
-- Thiago O., Sao Paulo, Brazil

With Munenori Kawasaki being released, there definitely is an opening for a utility infielder next season and Triunfel is a contender, though it remains to be seen if Seattle signs anyone else over the winter. Triunfel has played mostly shortstop in the Minors, along with a little second base. He's played just one game at third in his entire pro career -- in Double-A in 2009 -- but the Mariners were impressed with his arm strength last year and it seems logical to give him a look there next spring as well as continuing to develop him at shortstop.

Do you think the Mariners will make an attempt to sign Ichiro? His time in New York showed he understands he may not be starting every day anymore, and most of all, it just feels wrong to see him in anything but a Mariners jersey.
-- Jacob R., Boulder, Colo.

No, I think Ichiro relished his new challenge and surroundings and the Mariners need to continue moving a new direction and use his salary and right-field position to pursue more of a run-producing veteran who can hit in the middle of the lineup and be part of the future.

Why is it that when teams have money to spend, like the Mariners, they must use it to buy more players? Why not use it to add to the stadium or equipment, etc.?
-- Talib M., Cleveland, Ga.

Teams do spend money on equipment and stadium improvements, it just falls under a different budget. Player payroll gets most of the attention of fans and media, but every team budgets for other costs as well. The Mariners are upgrading Safeco Field this offseason with new fences and scoreboards. They just announced a $7 million project for a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic to boost their international program. These kind of capital expenses are part of doing business as well.

Do you see the Mariners trading Jason Vargas?
-- Adrian G., Bordentown, N.J.

I don't have a crystal ball, but I would be surprised to see Vargas moved this offseason. My sense is the Mariners like the trio of Felix Hernandez, Vargas and Hisashi Iwakuma atop their rotation and feel they can supplement those veterans with youngsters like Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan and their group of top prospects to form a pretty good starting staff. But if they deal one of the veterans, they'd need to go pursue somebody else in free agency and that figures to be more costly than working out a deal with Vargas in his final year of arbitration.

That said, Vargas becomes a free agent after next season unless the Mariners lock him up to a multi-year contract. So if the club isn't in contention next July, he certainly could be on the trade market at that time. And they might want to see how he fares in the re-configured Safeco Field before offering any long-term deals.