Offseason Outlook: Seattle Mariners

The Mariners could add a piece or two, but they're more than just a trade or free agent signing away from contention. Breakout performances from young players hold the key to the team's success in 2014.

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The 2013 Seattle Mariners struggled at both run production and run prevention. While those are common characteristics of bad teams, this year’s Mariners squad was perhaps doubly disappointing in that many of the high-upside players the team expected to take steps forward failed to do so. GM Jack Zduriencik, who quietly signed a one-year extension that wasn't reported until much later in the season, will likely focus his offseason evaluations on which of his young players have earned a spot on the 2014 Opening Day roster. That roster will be led by a new manager, as Eric Wedge has said he will not return to the team.

If there’s a common thread to the Mariners’ struggles under Zduriencik, it’s an inability to score runs, and 2013 was no different. The club’s much-discussed decision to move in the outfield fences before the season didn’t produce the expected offensive gains, as Seattle’s total of 624 runs barely surpassed its 619-run tally from 2012. When Zduriencik sits down this winter to examine his roster for weak links on offense, first baseman Justin Smoak is likely to jump out as being part of the problem. It’s tempting to call his .238/.334/.412 line a step forward, but Smoak hit just .203/.294/.392 in the second half, results that are more in line with his career numbers. Put simply, Smoak’s upside is waning. He’ll turn 27 in December, and he’s approaching the 2,000 plate appearance mark with just a .227/.314/.386 career line. He likely gets another shot in 2014, if only because penciling Smoak in at first and hoping he can deliver on his promise probably gives the club a better shot at contention than what could be expected from a one-year stopgap solution. However, if the Mariners are hanging around near the bottom of the AL in runs scored at the All-Star break next year, continued underperformance from Smoak may be one reason why.

Dustin Ackley disappointed again, hitting just .253/.319/.341, but he came on strong in the second half with a .304/.374/.435 triple slash. That’s much more like the player the Mariners thought they were getting when they selected Ackley second overall in 2009. He also showed the ability to play a competent second base, and may vie with Nick Franklin for the starting job in spring training.  Ackley’s likely to continue to get plate appearances next year regardless, as the Mariners could also use him in the utility-type role that he took on for much of 2013.

Zduriencik was brought in with a reputation as a player development guru, and though the Mariners have yet to develop a superstar under his tenure, Brad Miller’s 2013 performance is reason for optimism. His .265/.318/.418 line in a half-season of play is downright impressive for a shortstop in today’s game. Franklin was another bright spot. The 2009 first-rounder posted a strong 10.2% walk rate and .157 isolated power in his first taste of the majors, though he cooled off after a hot June. If Miller and Franklin can build on their 2013 performances, the team’s woeful offensive projection improves considerably. Elsewhere around the infield, Kyle Seager has nailed down the third-base job after posting a total of 7 fWAR between 2012 and 2013. The Mariners may need to look outside the organization for catching help, as Mike Zunino struggled after his June callup and could likely use more time in the minors. If so, a one-year deal for a glove-first backstop may be in order.

Zduriencik has already indicated he plans to extend Kendrys Morales a qualifying offer, but Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported recently that Morales is likely to reject the offer in search of a multi-year deal. That doesn't mean Morales won't end up with the Mariners anyway, as the team apparently isn't ruling out going beyond one year for him. In fact, the Mariners may still be the most likely landing spot for Morales, as it doesn't seem likely that another club would be willing to forgo its first-round draft pick to sign him. His .277/.336/.449 line in 2013 is solid but underwhelming for a player likely limited to a full-time DH role.

Projecting Morales as Seattle's 2014 DH means Jesus Montero no longer has a viable path to the Opening Day roster. The Mariners appear to have given up on him as a catcher, and Smoak is likely to retain the first base job. While we’d be remiss to write him off entirely, he’ll likely have to play his way onto the big league club after a 2013 campaign marred by poor performance, injury and a suspension in connection with the Biogenesis scandal.

Zduriencik can add by subtracting in the outfield. Raul Ibanez helped prop up the Mariners’ flailing attack in 2013, belting 29 home runs, but his -17.1 UZR suggests that he’s a major defensive liability in left field. He ended the year at exactly zero fWAR despite all those homers. If the team commits to Morales at DH, there likely isn’t room on the roster for another all-bat, no-glove type. Improving on the 2013 Mariners’ MLB-worst -73 team UZR should be a major priority for the front office this winter.

Michael Saunders should return to the outfield despite taking a step back this year, while Franklin Gutierrez's future with the club is less certain. After missing significant time again in 2013, Gutierrez completed the guaranteed portion of the four-year, $20.25MM deal he signed with Seattle in 2010 having played in just 325 games. The club may choose to decline his $7.5MM option for 2014 and try to negotiate a deal with a lower salary. Overall, the outfield stands out as the area with the largest potential for improvement for the Mariners. The team was crippled in 2013 by below-replacement-level performances from veterans like Jason Bay (236 PA, -0.2 fWAR), Mike Morse (307 PA, -1.2 fWAR) and Endy Chavez (279 PA, -1.3 fWAR). If ownership is willing to spend – and the Mariners’ reported pursuit of Josh Hamilton last winter suggests that they might be – Scott Boras beckons with Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo. Otherwise, Curtis Granderson isn’t likely to require as steep of a commitment after sitting out much of 2013 with injuries, while Nate McLouth would come cheap and could provide defense and walks from a corner outfield spot.

If you’re wondering how a team with both Hisashi Iwakuma and Felix Hernandez on staff managed to allow the fifth-most runs among MLB clubs, look no further than the struggles of Aaron Harang (5.76 ERA, 120 1/3 IP) and Joe Saunders (5.26 ERA, 183 IP). As is the case with Bay and other veterans in the outfield, replacing those innings with merely average performances would make the Mariners a significantly better team in 2014. Those may be found among the litany of pitchers potentially available on one-year deals – Phil Hughes, for instance, would be a bounceback candidate away from the short porch in Yankee Stadium. Brandon Maurer also dragged down the staff with his 6.30 ERA in 90 innings, but he’s just 23 years old and posted relatively strong peripheral numbers, so he’s likely to remain in the conversation. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton showed signs that they may be able to give the club a boost in 2014.

Zduriencik will look to make major upgrades to the bullpen after the unit posted a 4.58 ERA in 2013, good for 29th in the majors. A full season of the good version of Danny Farquhar – the one who posted a 2.23 ERA in 32 1/3 second-half innings – in the back of the bullpen will go a long way toward achieving that goal. Charlie Furbush should also be back with his big strikeout totals and strong numbers against lefties. The Mariners will have to decide if they want to try to re-up with Oliver Perez, who could be in line for a raise from his $1.5MM 2013 salary after posting a 3.74 ERA in 53 innings. With a 5.49 ERA in 59 innings, Carter Capps looks to be headed for a minor league assignment, but his 18.8% HR/FB ratio suggests he was victimized by bad luck. Tom Wilhelmsen may hang around given his past success in the team’s closer role, but should be on a short leash after walking more than five batters per nine innings in 2013.

Despite a disappointing year, expect the Mariners’ Opening Day lineup in 2014 to look much like the one that closed out the 2013 season. Ownership could approve a big splash in free agency, but if the Mariners climb into contention in 2014, it will be the blossoming of young players like Walker, Ackley and Miller that pushes them there.

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