Mariners pin hopes on mega free agent Cano
It’s been a rollicking offseason in the Pacific Northwest that began, actually, in the final week of September when manager Eric Wedge exited in a public pique over his failure to receive a long-term contract extension. Wedge elaborated on his frustration to the Seattle Times in an early December article that portrayed the Mariners’ front office as a meddling, dysfunctional mess. That story ran after general manager Jack Zduriencik hired Lloyd McClendon to replace Wedge but before the club finalized details on the winter’s most eye-popping move: signing free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano to a 10-year deal for $240 million. The Mariners were, in fact, linked to virtually every major free agent on the market along with several intriguing trade targets (including Rays pitcher David Price and Royals designated hitter Billy Butler). They did sign free-agent first baseman/outfielder Corey Hart and acquired Miami first baseman/outfielder Logan Morrison prior to the holidays, but Zduriencik and his staff entered the new year with a roster imbalance that suggests further moves are necessary to turn a 71–91 club into a postseason contender.
Any rotation that starts with Felix Hernandez and includes Hisashi Iwakuma has a chance to be special. Now add two of the game’s top prospects, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, and the Mariners have the potential to run out one of the game’s better units. A few complications cropped up during spring training. Iwakuma has a finger injury that could cost him a month or more. Walker’s shoulder is flaring up. The club hopes it’s nothing serious, but Walker will take it easy this spring. Veteran righthander Scott Baker will fill in for at least a handful of starts at the beginning of the season. The mix for more permanent spots at the back end of the rotation includes Brandon Maurer, Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan.
Last season left some painful memories for the relief corps. The bullpen coughed up 13 walk-off losses and 14 more defeats in which the winning run scored in the opponent’s final at-bat. The M’s also set a franchise record with 15 extra-inning losses. That’s a lot of bad bullpen work. Seattle signed former Rays closer Fernando Rodney to rescue the group. After excelling in the World Baseball Classic, Rodney struggled for much of last season. He was almost unhittable in 2012 with a 0.777 WHIP and 0.60 ERA. He converted 48 of 50 save chances. Last season was bit of a different story. He blew eight chances, saved 37 with a 3.38 ERA and 1.335 WHIP. The M’s believe he can return to his 2012 form. Rodney’s setup mates will be Danny Farquhar, who secured 16 saves in 18 chances after becoming the closer in early August, and former closer Tom Wilhelmsen. The latter was erratic last season, which is why he lost his job, but he was a reliable option a year earlier in compiling a 2.50 ERA in 73 games. So there’s bounce-back potential there. Yoervis Medina produced a solid rookie season with a 2.91 ERA and 71 strikeouts (but 40 walks) in 68 innings. Lefty Charlie Furbush held opponents to a .199 average and struck out 80 in 65 innings. That hope isn’t necessarily hopeless.
Adding Cano, one of the game’s premier players, is a game-changer. The arguments against his massive deal, and there are plenty, are generally aimed at its long-term risk, i.e., how long he can remain a dominant player. But right now? There’s not much not to like. Cano, 31, is durable and has averaged 25 homers and 99 RBIs along with a .307/.358/.508 slash over the last seven years. He is a five-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glove winner and a five-time Silver Slugger recipient. Adding Cano turns former first-round pick Nick Franklin into a trade chip. Franklin showed potential last season as a rookie, and club officials say it’s possible he battles Brad Miller for duty at shortstop or even shifts, like Dustin Ackley, to the outfield. More likely, Franklin heads back to Triple-A Tacoma for regular playing time (he has options) until the Mariners find an acceptable trade. Miller became the shortstop at midseason, which is when the M’s could no long tolerate since-departed Brendan Ryan’s ultra-anemic bat. Miller is the anti-Ryan; he has hit throughout his minor-league career, and batted .265 last year in 76 games, but generally rates below average in advanced defensive metrics.
Third baseman Kyle Seager was picked by the Seattle chapter of the BBWAA as the club’s MVP for each of the last two seasons. That says a lot about the Mariners, because his numbers, while solid, are hardly All-Star quality. Still, the problem isn’t Seager; it’s what the Mariners have put around him. Speaking of which … check the crowd at first base. Incumbent Justin Smoak’s size and swing seems to offer enviable switch-hitting power potential, and he has hit 39 homers over the last two seasons. But he’s also batted .227 with a .387 slugging percentage. The Mariners’ response was to sign Hart and acquire Morrison in a trade for reliever Carter Capps. McClendon says that Smaok is his guy at first base — for now anyway. The general view outside of Seattle is it’s a matter of time before Smoak gets traded, and Hart and Morrison split time at first base and DH. For now, converted catcher Jesus Montero, the erstwhile franchise cornerstone, appears ticketed for Tacoma.
The Mariners hope Ackley follows the route that Alex Gordon blazed in Kansas City in rising from a disappointing can’t-miss prospect into an All-Star by shifting from the infield to the outfield. Like Gordon (2005), Ackley (2009) was a No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Early indicators are promising. Ackley batted .285 with a .354 on-base percentage in 68 games after returning June 25 from one month of outfield training at Tacoma. He probably fits best in a corner. The center field job could fall to Abraham Almonte, a rookie who flashed potential over 25 late-season games. Michael Saunders is versatile enough to play any of the three spots but must rebound at the plate to get regular time. Defensively, McClendon doesn’t want to use Hart or Morrison in the outfield, but he may have to at times.
Mike Zunino batted just .214 with five homers and 14 RBIs as a rookie last year in 52 games after not doing much better earlier in the season at Tacoma. His ratings in the major defensive metrics aren’t pretty either. Even so, club officials see Zunino, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, as a long-term answer behind the plate. The M’s had better be right, and Zunino had better stay healthy (he missed more than a month last season because of a broken hand). The tentative backup is veteran John Buck.
The DH plan is to rotate Hart, Morrison and Smoak. Veteran Willie Bloomquist returns to serve as the utilityman. He’s a solid addition who can do everything but pitch and catch. After Franklin Gutierrez announced he would sit out this season dealing with gastrointestinal issues, the door opened for Cole Gillespie, who batted .203 in limited time with the Giants and Cubs last season.
Zduriencik deserves credit for paring down a bloated payroll to the point where he could attempt to remake the club through a series of high-profile moves. But he’s entering his sixth season, and it’s time to show progress.
Adding Cano makes any team better. Adding Hart, Morrison and Bloomquist should help a roster that last year often appeared overly young and overmatched. The rotation has the potential to be among the league’s best. But is this a playoff contender as the roster is currently set up? Not unless a lot of things go right.
LF Dustin Ackley (L)
Second pick of the 2009 draft regained status last
season as key part of future.
CF Abraham Almonte (S)
Lefty-heavy lineup could push him toward top. Hit .314 and slugged .491 in Triple-A.
2B Robinson Cano (L)
How will he respond to always being in spotlight? The pressure will be on the $240 million man.
RF Corey Hart (R)
Knees a concern because his righty bat is big element. Hit 87 HRs over last three seasons in Milwaukee.
3B Kyle Seager (L)
Consistent performer — has hit .258, .259, .260 last three seasons — should improve with better cast.
1B Justin Smoak (S)
Had only 50 RBIs despite hitting 20 HRs last year.
DH Logan Morrison (L)
Acquired from Miami in a December trade. Not a great fit in outfield but must play somewhere.
SS Brad Miller (L)
Has decent pop for a middle infielder but needs to improve defensively to solidify infield.
C Mike Zunino (R)
Rookie year wasn’t great but has tools to be a top-flight catcher.
C John Buck (R)
The durable veteran has logged at least 398 plate appearances in nine of last 10 seasons.
UT Willie Bloomquist (R)
Solid veteran should help in many areas. Drafted by the Mariners in both 1996 and ’99.
OF Cole Gillespie (R)
For his career, he’s a .207 hitter as a starter but that jumps to .294 coming off the bench.
OF Michael Saunders (L)
Could regain regular spot if bat bounces back. He hit .236 in 2013.
RH Felix Hernandez
Prototype for a No. 1 starter. ERA has been under 3.10 in four of the last five seasons.
RH Hisashi Iwakuma
By end of last season, nobody anywhere was better. Allowed only three earned runs in last five starts. A sprained tendon in his finger will delay the start of his season.
RH Taijuan Walker
There’s a reason other teams keep asking about the No. 43 pick in the 2010 draft. Shoulder inflammation during the spring has management a bit concerned.
LH James Paxton
If not for Walker, would be getting a lot more attention. Shined in four starts last season.
RH Erasmo Ramirez
23-year-old native of Nicaragua is the best bet to win starting job in spring training.
RH Scott Baker
After missing 2012, Baker made three starts for the Cubs late last season — two of them were very good. He’ll fill in for Iwakuma and Walker until they are pronounced healthy.
RH Fernando Rodney (Closer)
Considering last season was a bit of a struggle, 37 saves isn’t too shabby. He should enjoy pitching in spacious Safeco Field.
RH Danny Farquhar
Was 16-for-18 in save opportunities after getting job. Struck out 79 in 55.2 innings.
RH Yoervis Medina
Command still an issue but projects as top setup man. Allowed 49 hits in 68.0 innings as a rookie.
LH Charlie Furbush
A power arm — struck out 80 in 65 innings in ’13 — who should be top lefty setup man.
RH Tom Wilhelmsen
Looking for bounce-back year after rocky 2013 in which ERA increased from 2.50 to 4.12.
LH Lucas Luetge
Fits well as unit’s situational lefty on a staff that lacks southpaws.
RH Brandon Maurer
Likely swingman if he fails to win job in the starting
rotation. Made 14 starts last season.
RH Stephen Pryor
Will the hard-throwing righthander be recovered from his back injury by Opening Day?
2013 Top Draft Pick
D.J. Peterson, 3B
The 12th overall pick, Peterson, 22, quickly validated the Mariners’ assessment that he provides impact potential as a right-handed power bat before his season ended in a beaning that resulted in his jaw being wired shut. Prior to that, he had a .303/.365/.553 slash with 13 homers in 55 games at short-season Everett and Low-A Clinton. Club officials will watch closely to see how Peterson, who played collegiately at New Mexico, responds in his return. Assuming no problems, he’ll be back on a very fast track. It’s not impossible that he gets a late look this season, although 2015 seems more likely. Some scouts aren’t sold on his defensive skills at third base and believe he’ll eventually shift to a corner outfield spot.
LHP Danny Hultzen (24)
Was one of the top lefty pitching prospects in baseball entering 2013 but could miss all of 2014 while recovering from surgery on rotator cuff and labrum.
LHP James Paxton (25)
Has big-time potential and is penciled into rotation but could end up back to minors if command issues surface.
RHP Victor Sanchez (19)
Draws strong marks for strike-throwing skills at his age after allowing just 18 walks last season in 113.1 innings.
LHP Tyler Pike (20)
Command is an issue, but he’s on fast track after yielding only 73 hits in 110.1 innings at Low-A Clinton.
SS Chris Taylor (23)
Has made quick progression in two pro seasons; ended last year at Class AA Jackson. Has .411 on-base percentage in 183 games.
RHP Edwin Diaz (20)
Made major jump last year in allowing only 18 walks and 45 hits in 69 innings while compiling 1.43 ERA at short-season Pulaski.
Beyond the Box Score
Eight and counting Felix Hernandez has recorded at least 150 strikeouts in each of his first eight full big-league seasons. The only other pitchers to achieve that feat are in the Hall of Fame: Walter Johnson (1908-15) and Bert Blyleven (1971-78). Johnson ran his streak to 11 years; Blyleven did it in his first 10 full seasons.
Century mark When Hernandez got his 100th career victory April 22 in a 7–1 win at Houston, he became the sixth-youngest pitcher, at 27 years and 14 days, to hit triple figures since the divisional era began in 1969. Those who were younger: Dwight Gooden (24, 215 days), Bert Blyleven (25, 76 days), Fernando Valenzuela (26, 162 days), Don Gullett (26, 199 days) and Vida Blue (26, 361 days).
Youthful achievement Taijuan Walker became the youngest starting pitcher in franchise history to record a victory when he worked five scoreless innings Aug. 30 in a 7–1 victory at Houston. Walker was 21 years and 17 days old. The previous record belonged to Travis Blackley at 21 years, 240 days on July 1, 2004, in an 8–4 victory over Texas at Safeco Field.
Historic slam Kyle Seager became the first player in big-league history to hit a game-tying grand slam in extra innings when he went deep with two outs in the bottom of the 14th inning on June 5 against White Sox closer Addison Reed. It merely prolonged the agony. The Mariners lost 7–5 in 16 innings. It was one of a club-record 15 losses in extra innings.
1-2 punch Hisashi Iwakuma (2.66) and Hernandez (3.04) combined for a 2.84 ERA at the front of the Mariners’ rotation. That marked the lowest combined ERA by two starting pitchers (who pitched sufficient innings to qualify for the ERA title) in franchise history. Those marks were also the fifth- and sixth-lowest qualifying ERAs in franchise history. Hernandez holds the club record at 2.27 in 2010.
Iron man Robinson Cano has not only been one of the best second basemen in baseball since breaking into the Yankees lineup in 2005, he’s also been one of the most durable players in the game. Cano has played in at least 159 games in seven straight seasons and started at least 150 games at second base in each of those seasons.