Offseason Outlook: Seattle Mariners

Jack Zduriencik is back and he’ll have to improve Seattle’s tepid offense for the Mariners to be relevant all season long in 2012.  

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (estimated salaries)

Free Agents

The Mariners successfully prevented runs in 2011, but they sure couldn't score them. Seattle finished last in the American League in runs scored for the second consecutive season, plating just 556 runners. There's no point in dwelling on the Mariners' inability to score, but it's worth mentioning that none of their regulars had 20 homers, 30 doubles, a .280 average, a .350 on-base-average or a .470 slugging percentage. Around the Majors, 17 players met each of those benchmarks, yet not a single Mariners hitter could meet even one of them.

GM Jack Zduriencik is the one tasked with improving the Mariners' offense. When the longtime executive signed a multiyear extension in August, team president Chuck Armstrong praised him for accumulating talent through scouting and player development. But Zduriencik, who drafted Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun with the Brewers, hasn't been able to infuse similar might into the Mariners' batting order since becoming their GM in 2008.

For each of the past five seasons, the Mariners had a payroll of more than $90MM and they should have money to spend this offseason, with Milton Bradley’s contract no longer on the books. If the Mariners retain Kelley, Vargas and League through arbitration, that would put them in the $69MM range, before accounting for minimum salary players. They have cash but with holes at DH, left field, third base and shortstop, the question is where they’ll spend the money and how much they’re willing to spend. 

Before Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge scour free agency, they will likely look internally. For example, in left field, Casper Wells, Trayvon Robinson, Michael Saunders, Mike Carp, Carlos Peguero and Greg Halman will all compete for playing time. The 25-year-old Carp, who posted a .791 OPS in half a season, can also DH. At third base, Wedge can compare Chone FigginsKyle Seager and Alex Liddi against one another to determine a fit. 

Despite the abundance of internal candidates in left and at DH, that’s a logical corner of the free agent market for the Mariners to explore. David Ortiz (who signed with the Mariners as an amateur in 1992), Jason Kubel, Ryan Ludwick, Josh Willingham, and Michael Cuddyer are among the free agent designated hitters and corner outfielders whose names the Mariners front office could consider and there will be options on the trade market, too.

Minor leaguer Nick Franklin, a possible long-term solution at short, wasn't quite as impressive in 2011 as he was in 2010, his first full season. Perhaps the Mariners will look for an upgrade from the punchless Brendan Ryan by making a play for a second-tier free agent shortstop like Clint Barmes, Jamey Carroll, Alex Gonzalez or Marco Scutaro. It wouldn't hurt to ask about Jed Lowrie, who could be squeezed out in Boston if the Red Sox exercise Scutaro's option.

The Mariners could improve their offense on the trade market, but more than anything else, their established players must rebound. Seattle is hoping Ichiro doesn’t decline in 2012 as much as he did last season. The 37-year-old right fielder fell short of the 200-hit plateau (184) for the first time in 11 Major League seasons and posted career lows in batting average (.272), on-base percentage (.310) and slugging percentage (.335). Franklin Gutierrez, who missed half of the season with stomach and oblique issues, needs to rebound and Justin Smoak needs to replicate his early-season success for a full season.

After trading Doug Fister and Erik Bedard midseason, the Mariners learned the hard way that they'll need more starting pitching depth in 2012 (they endured seven regrettable starts from left-hander Anthony Vasquez). Zduriencik has said he'll have some interest in adding veteran pitching to a rotation that includes Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda, Jason Vargas. Meanwhile, prospects like Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker will develop in the minor leagues. 

It wouldn't be a Mariners offseason without a good number of trade rumors surrounding Hernandez. Zduriencik has steadfastly held onto King Felix despite inquiries from around the league. Three years from now, however, the right-hander becomes a free agent. The Mariners face mounting pressure to win before their ace hits the open market, though it's doubtful that Seattle will part with Hernandez this offseason.

The Mariners could non-tender Aardsma (he underwent Tommy John surgery in July) and trade League, but that would leave the 'pen barren and force Zduriencik to acquire extra arms. While Seattle's bullpen had a solid 3.61 ERA last year, only Twins relievers struck out fewer batters per nine than the Mariners (6.3), so they should look to add relief options even if League is back and they retain Aardsma.

It makes sense for the Mariners to add rotation depth, proactively seek bullpen depth and look to upgrade over Ryan at short. As for left field, third base and DH, their internal options are interesting enough to warrant a look even if quality trumps quantity when it comes to Major League position players. The Mariners don't have to spend extravagantly on a star like Fielder to become relevant again, but they will need restored health and further development from budding stars like Ackley, Pineda and Smoak.

As a member of baseball's only four-team division, the Mariners have better odds than most. Could they replicate Arizona's worst-to-first turnaround and threaten for the playoffs in 2012? It seems unlikely, since Seattle will need more breaks than most teams, but they could be a .500 team next year.

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