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Mariners could flirt with .500
The Mariners head into their fifth year under general manager Jack Zduriencik with too many holes in their offense and pitching rotation to fix in one offseason. Significantly improving the roster became a challenge once the Mariners were outbid by $25 million for Josh Hamilton and saw the price for shorter-term fixes like Torii Hunter, Kevin Youkilis and Mike Napoli spiral away from them. And when potential trade partners demanded too many top prospects, Seattle’s game plan shifted toward a more cost-effective approach to upgrading. Rather than spend on Nick Swisher or Cody Ross in the outfield corners, the Mariners signed cheaper free agents Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez to one-year deals. They also filled a hole in the middle of the order by trading left-handed starter Jason Vargas to the Angels for first baseman Kendrys Morales. Despite a so-so comeback year in 2012, Morales had better numbers than any full-time Mariners hitter and provides an answer at designated hitter or first base while Justin Smoak finds his way. Seattle scored 513 runs in 2010 — second-fewest in club history — and 556 runs in 2011. The Mariners’ production improved to 619 runs in 2012, but the bats could again doom the team’s fortunes without improvement from several members of the lineup. With more hitter-friendly dimensions this season, the Mariners should get an offensive boost by scoring more runs at Safeco Field, where they averaged 3.2 runs per game last season compared to 4.5 on the road. But Seattle’s pitching allowed only 3.2 runs per game at home compared to 4.8 on the road, so any offensive gains from a revamped ballpark could be quickly offset. The Mariners’ pitching could also regress without surprises by starters not named Felix Hernandez. Vargas and Kevin Millwood pitched a combined 378.1 innings last season, but neither is back in the rotation in 2012. The Mariners need some new starters to step up.
Hernandez, the 2010 Cy Young Award winner, has averaged only 13.3 wins in the past three seasons but is still considered one of the elite pitchers in the game. He went 13–9 with a 3.06 ERA in 2012 but did not win a game in his final six starts. The Mariners re-signed Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma to a two-year, $14 million deal based primarily on the strong second half to his first season in the big leagues. Iwakuma, who went 8–4 with a 2.50 ERA in his final 15 starts, will be the No. 2 starter after 2012 wins leader Vargas was dealt. The loss of Vargas is tough to gauge, given his success in a pitcher-friendly home park and struggles away from it. There was concern the new, smaller Safeco Field would hurt Vargas. Veteran Joe Saunders will fill in innings in the middle of the rotation. After his trade from Arizona, the Orioles won four of his seven starts down the stretch, scoring just two, one and zero runs in the other three. The Mariners have younger arms with big-league experience in Blake Beavan (24), Erasmo Ramirez (22) and Hector Noesi (26). But their best prospects remain in the minors, most notably James Paxton, Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer.
Second-year closer Tom Wilhelmsen, with his lethal curveball, leads a bullpen crew long on potential but short on experience. That’s why Seattle re-signed veteran lefthander Oliver Perez, who impressed the organization with his 2012 conversion to a late-innings specialist. The pen looks southpaw-heavy with Perez, Charlie Furbush and former Rule 5 pickup Lucas Luetge. The Mariners also have 100 mph flamethrowers Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor, and both profile as late-inning specialists — or potential trade bait. Another 2012 surprise was Josh Kinney. He missed most of the spring with a rib cage injury giving veteran Kameron Loe an opportunity to prove himself.
Advanced metrics indicate shortstop Brendan Ryan is the game’s best defender at his position, but he hit only .194 last season. That has to improve. Second baseman and leadoff man Dustin Ackley hit .226 in a dismal sophomore season while battling bone spurs in his ankle. The spurs were removed during the winter, and Ackley should be healthy in 2013. The Mariners jettisoned light-hitting backup Munenori Kawasaki and traded for Robert Andino, who also doesn’t hit much. But Andino is still an upgrade, and he can play any spot on the infield.
Morales says he’s 100 percent after breaking his leg in 2010. He’ll play first base a few times per week, but will be the primary designated hitter. That will allow Smoak another chance to prove himself at the plate. Smoak, the former No. 11 overall pick by the Texas Rangers, hit only .217 with a .654 OPS in 2012. Ibanez can also play first, which gives the Mariners the option of sending Smoak to Class AAA to begin the season. Third baseman Kyle Seager likely profiles better at second. He led the team with 20 homers in 2012, and the Mariners lack options at the hot corner. With Ackley entrenched at second, Seager will remain at third base.
Seattle acquired Michael Morse from Washington and the former shortstop will be the left fielder. He hit .303 with 36 doubles and 31 homers in 2011 for the Nationals before injuries slowed him last season. His defense is sub-par, but he has the hitting thing figured out. Franklin Gutierrez is the starter in center field. He hit .260 with only four home runs and three stolen bases in an injury-plagued 2012. Michael Saunders will likely be the everyday right fielder. Casper Wells could remain on the roster as a reserve outfielder, but he’s out of minor league options and getting squeezed by incoming vets.
The Mariners have an offensive-minded catcher in Jesus Montero, who will get only limited at-bats at DH this season after the acquisitions of Morlaes and Morse. Acquired from the Yankees before the 2012 season, Montero was solid in his first full season in the big leagues. He hit .260 with 15 home runs in 515 at bats. Those are decent numbers — especially on a team like Seattle — but the Mariners are expecting more production in ’13. Montero started 55 games behind the plate last year and 77 games as the DH. He will catch more often this season and he must improve defensively.
Morales improved as the season wore on. Ibanez and Bay will also see significant time as the DH as well as filling in on the corners in the outfield. Andino doesn’t hit much, but he’s a versatile defensive player who will see time at all four infield spots. Veteran Kelly Shoppach is a capable backup to Montero.
Eric Wedge has implored his players to adopt a “ready to hit” mentality by swinging at hittable pitches and taking fewer walks. The team OPS improved from .640 to .665 in 2012 while runs jumped from 556 to 619 — but much work remains. Wedge doesn’t tolerate the clubhouse discord that toppled Seattle managers in 2008 and 2010, but he lost Miguel Olivo, one of the team leaders last season. He now will lean on newcomers Ibanez and Bay for leadership. There’s pressure on Wedge for tangible results in his third season. The only change on his coaching staff is the addition of Dave Hansen as the hitting instructor. He will replace Chris Chambliss. The Mariners says they can spend $90 million or more on payroll, but it appears that their 2013 Opening Day roster will be in the high-$70-million range. Zduriencik has yet to match Billy Beane, his counterpart with the A’s, in producing cost-effective winners.
The Mariners could flirt with the .500 mark with modest improvements on offense. They will also get a boost by playing 19 games against the Astros in the AL West. But contending is not likely in a division that features two teams that won 93 games in 2012 (Oakland and Texas) and another in the Angels that features arguably the best lineup in baseball. Anything higher than fourth place in the AL West would be a surprise.
2B Dustin Ackley (L)
Hit .226 in first full season, but played much of it with bone spurs in ankle.
CF Franklin Gutierrez (R)
Injuries limited him to 163 plate appearances in 2012 after only 344 in 2011 due to stomach condition.
3B Kyle Seager (L)
Was team’s most productive regular with .259 batting average, 20 homers and 86 RBIs in first full season.
LF Michael Morse (R)
Returns to Seattle where he was primarily a shortstop.
DH Kendrys Morales (S)
Posted OPS of .900 in August and .829 in September/October in comeback season with the Angels.
C Jesus Montero (R)
Showed some power with 15 homers, but hit just .228 off right-handed pitching.
1B Justin Smoak (S)
Demoted to Class AAA in second half of season in which he hit .217 with 19 homers, but strong September raised hopes.
RF Michael Saunders (L)
Seattle’s best power-hitting regular in 2012 with 19 homers and .432 slugging percentage.
SS Brendan Ryan (R)
Gold Glove finalist and arguably the game’s top defender at his position, but hit just .194 in 470 plate appearances.
C Kelly Shoppach (R)
Has thrown out 37 percent of would-be base stealers over the past two seasons.
OF Raul Ibanez (L)
Will get plenty of at-bats, either in LF, 1B or DH; had OPS of .811 versus righthanders in 2012.
IF Robert Andino (R)
Mariners feel he’ll rebound from down year in Baltimore and provide upgrade in over departed Munenori Kawasaki.
OF Jason Bay (R)
Mariners need the right-handed power he used to display before he hit .165 in final New York flameout.
RH Felix Hernandez
Added perfect game in August to résumé that includes 2010 Cy Young Award, but went 0–4 with 6.62 ERA from Sept. 1 on.
LH Joe Saunders
Has made at least 28 starts each of the last five seasons.
RH Hisashi Iwakuma
Went 8–4 with 2.50 ERA in 15 second-half starts. Had one start and 4.84 ERA in 15 first-half outings.
RH Erasmo Ramirez
Missed two months with elbow injury, then posted 2.86 ERA in four starts and one relief outing in September.
RH Blake Beavan
Made 26 starts and logged 152.1 innings in first full season for former first-rounder.
RH Tom Wilhelmsen (Closer)
Notched 29 saves in 34 opportunities after taking over closer role from Brandon League in May.
RH Carter Capps
Proved capable of hitting 100 mph on radar gun and landing some off-speed pitches in second-half call-up.
RH Stephen Pryor
Debuted last June, but missed seven weeks with groin injury and struggled with off-speed stuff.
LH Oliver Perez
Mariners leaned heavily on his veteran presence and late-inning stuff in second half of a 2.12 ERA season.
LH Charlie Furbush
Was a reliable late-inning and multi-inning reliever until July triceps injury cost him a month.
RH Josh Kinney
Mostly minor league journeyman became a go-to guy late for manager Eric Wedge because of tough slider. He has missed most of spring training with a rib cage injury.
LH Lucas Luetge
Lefties hit .193, righties .318.
RH Kameron Loe
Appeared in 142 games over last two seasons with Milwaukee.