By Jon Wells
The last three seasons have been tough ones for Mariner fans, as the team seemingly waved the white flag of surrender before opening day of 2011, 2012, and 2013, slashing payroll in each season and relying on rosters comprised mostly of young, unproven players.
The M’s made half-hearted attempts at making impact additions to the team prior to each of those seasons, but failed each time. This time around, the Mariners’ efforts did not fail—they managed to convince the New York Yankees’ best player, second baseman Robinson Cano, to sign in Seattle for $240 million over 10 years. The signing required a full-court press with Cano and his agents and an offer that exceeded New York’s top bid by tens of millions of dollars.
It’s a costly acquisition, with significant risk. The 31-year-old Cano will be 40 in the final season of his new contract, but this is a gamble the Mariners needed to take. A bigger risk would have been to continue the status quo of remaining an irrelevant, non-contending team for another decade. It’s now been thirteen years since the Mariners reached the postseason and a bold move from ownership was long overdue.
While the M’s had to overpay to get Cano, his presence on the team and in the lineup should put the club in a much better position when dealing with free agents the next few seasons. For years we’ve heard that free agents don’t want to come to Seattle for various reasons—the city’s isolated, far from most players’ homes and it does rain a lot—but now that one star player, the top free agent available this winter, has signed on, the task becomes easier. If Seattle is good enough for two of the top players in the game (Cano and ace pitcher Felix Hernández) it should be good enough for most players if the money is similar. Of course, winning is a cure-all; if Cano helps the M’s get back to being a perennial playoff contender, the team will have no trouble attracting big-time talent to the Pacific Northwest.
The big question after the M’s got Cano to sign was what the team would do to protect him in the lineup. Two of the top hitters on the 2013 team, Kendrys Morales and Raúl Ibañez, reached free agency last October, with Ibañez leaving for the Angels and Morales unsigned at this writing.
While the M’s did add two bats in Corey Hart (free agency) and Logan Morrison (trade with the Miami Marlins), neither is a sure bet to be healthy enough to remain in the lineup regularly. Both players are coming off knee surgery and combined to play in just 85 games last year. Hart (five 20-HR seasons in six full seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers) had surgeries on both knees and missed the entire 2013 season, while the 26-year-old Morrison has failed to deliver on the promise of his breakout 2011 season, when he hit 23 homers and drove in 72 runs for the Marlins. Morrison’s decline can be attributed to knee injuries in both 2012 and 2013, so if he can remain healthy this year, a return to his 2011 form could be in the cards.
With neither Hart nor Morrison a sure thing to be available for the full 162-game schedule, another bat for the lineup would have been prudent and Morales seemingly fit the team well, but at presstime a reunion seemed unlikely. Kendrys was the most consistent hitter on the 2013 M’s, batting .277 with 23 home runs and 80 RBI, and proved he could deliver at Safeco Field, a park that’s been tough on many a hitter. The M’s offered Morales a $14.1 million “Qualifying Offer” for 2014 back in November, but Morales’ agent, Scott Boras, rejected it and has yet to find a team willing to meet his price for the Cuban-born slugger. Any team signing him would also forfeit a draft pick to the M’s, which hasn’t helped Boras develop a market for the DH.
In order for the Mariners to contend for the postseason this year, they’ll need to have some of their young players take a step forward. Shortstop Brad Miller and catcher Mike Zunino are both entering their first full seasons in the Majors, while Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley need solid performances to retain their starting spots. A dark horse candidate to emerge as a productive hitter in one of the outfield corners is 25-year-old Stefen Romero, the organization’s player of the year in 2012, when he hit .352 with 23 home runs and 101 RBI at Class-A and Double-A. Romero battled injuries last year at Tacoma, but still managed to hit .277 with 11 HRs and 77 RBI in 93 games. A converted infielder, Romero played outfield full-time for the first time in 2013 and looked smooth.
There’s a new manager in Seattle this year, as former Pirates skipper Lloyd McClendon takes over for Eric Wedge, who quit late last season over philosophical differences with the Mariner front office. The change should be a plus for the M’s, as Wedge’s act had worn thin here and he failed to have a winning season in three years at the helm. It will be interesting to see if the club’s young players perform better under McClendon than they did under the slow-burn intensity of Wedge.
Contending this season will be a lot easier if their key players can remain healthy, but the injury bug hit Seattle’s starting rotation early in spring training. Pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker both went down with injuries in late February and both will start the season on the disabled list. Both could return before May 1st, but their absence could land the M’s in an early hole in the AL West standings. Let’s hope their replacements can bridge the gap until Iwakuma and Walker are ready for action.
Here’s a look at what the Mariners look like position-by-position entering the 2014 season:
Felix Hernández turned 28 nine days into the 2014 season, but it’s still surprising to realize that this will be The King’s ninth full season in the Majors. 2013 was a typical Hernández season, with the Mariners’ ace going 12-10 with a 3.04 ERA that was sixth-best among American League starting pitchers. It was his sixth consecutive season of 200 or more innings and he’s made 30 or more starts in all eight of his full seasons. With Robinson Cano now in the fold, the hope is that we’re getting closer to the day when Felix will finally pitch in the postseason. We’re sure he feels that way too.
Hisashi Iwakuma finished third in AL Cy Young voting in 2013, his first full season in the Seattle rotation. His 14 wins and 2.66 ERA led the team last year, but he’ll have trouble matching those numbers in 2014 after suffering a finger injury early in spring training that landed him on the DL. The M’s are hoping they can get Iwakuma back by the third week of April and that he can pick up where he left off last season.
Another pitcher expected to be a big part of the rotation, 21-year-old Taijuan Walker, didn’t pitch during spring training due to shoulder inflammation and also began 2014 on the disabled list. The sixth-best prospect in baseball according to MLB.com, Walker followed up a fine season in the minors in 2013 with three solid starts with Seattle in September. When healthy, his fastball touches 99 mph and he also has a quality changeup and a developing curveball. The M’s want Walker healthy for a long, long time, so they played it cautiously this spring. Hopefully we’ll see him back on the mound very soon.
Those two injuries put a bit of a damper on the Mariners’ rotation plans for the early season, as two pitchers who wouldn’t have otherwise made the rotation will start 2014 pitching every fifth day and others made the team regardless of their spring performance.
Left-hander James Paxton, Seattle’s fourth-round pick in the 2010 draft, has had an inconsistent minor league career, but he seemed to put it all together last summer in Tacoma. His command has always been an issue, with walks and high pitch counts keeping him from getting past the fifth inning regularly. Paxton was stellar in four starts with the M’s in September (3-0, 1.50 ERA), walking just seven batters in 24 innings while striking out 21. He showed poise and command this spring with a fastball in the mid-90s and an above average curveball. Paxton will get his share of punchouts, but his focus is more on getting opposing hitters to hit the ball on the ground.
Right-hander Erasmo Ramírez had a disappointing 2013 campaign after a promising end to the 2012 season, when he posted a shiny 3.36 ERA in 59 innings with Seattle. Last spring Ramírez won a spot in the rotation only to hit the DL with a strain in his pitching arm. He missed most of the first half and struggled with his control after he returned to the mound. Staying healthy will be Ramírez’s biggest concern for 2014.
A spirited spring battle for the last two rotation spots came down to two veterans coming back from Tommy John surgery and a raw rookie who had never pitched above Double-A. 32-year-old Scott Baker, who won 63 games with the Twins from 2005 to 2011, was expected to land one of the spots, but a poor spring doomed his chances and he was released on March 24th. Lefty Randy Wolf looked sharper than Baker in Cactus League action, but he also was released when the M’s tried to renegotiate the $1 million guarantee he would receive for making the opening day roster. Cuban defector Roenis Elias, a Southern League All-Star last year, when he posted a 3.18 ERA in 22 starts at Double-A Jackson, was more effective than the two veterans this spring and sports a fastball that reaches 94 mph, but there were concerns about jumping the left-hander directly to the bigs without any experience at Triple-A.
Relief pitching was a strength of the M’s in both 2011 and 2012, when they ranked 12th in ERA among the 30 Major League clubs, but the Mariner ’pen was seriously leaky in 2013, when they posted the second-worst bullpen ERA in baseball. They lost a lot of games in the late innings in ’13, with 27 of the team’s 91 losses coming in their opponents’ final at-bat.
The major culprits in last season’s bullpen collapse were the injury that caused hard-throwing Stephen Pryor to miss all but two weeks of the season and the struggles of Carter Capps and Tom Wilhelmsen. Capps had command issues and didn’t have a pitch to get out left-handed hitters, who posted a 1.029 OPS against him in ’13. Wilhelmsen was unhittable in the first two months of the season, but fell apart in June, losing the closer’s job and finding himself demoted to Tacoma for a spell.
Capps was traded to the Marlins over the winter, but Pryor and Wilhelmsen are back. Pryor was still recovering from surgery to repair a torn lat muscle in March and could start the season on the DL, while Wilhelmsen is looking for a rebound season of his own.
Unheralded Danny Farquhar began 2013 in the minors, but ended it as Seattle’s closer. Farquhar did a nice job in the ninth-inning role, converting 16 saves in 20 opportunities while striking out 79 batters in 55 innings, but he’ll move back to a setup role this year in support of new closer Fernando Rodney. The 36-year-old Rodney, signed as a free agent, has been one of the top closers in the game the past two seasons with Tampa Bay, posting a 1.91 ERA in 141 innings and recording 85 saves.
Right-hander Yoervis Medína had a solid rookie season in 2013 (2.91 ERA), but walks were a problem, as he issued 40 free passes in 68 innings. It’s expected that he’ll be used mostly in the sixth and seventh innings this year. Left-hander Charlie Furbush wasn’t quite as dominant last year as he was in 2012, when he posted a 2.72 ERA and allowed less than a baserunner per inning, but he was still quite effective, fanning 80 batters in 65 innings. With Oliver Pérez now with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Furbush will be the main left-handed option in the bullpen. 25-year-old Lucas Luetge, who has been inconsistent the last two seasons, competed this spring with veteran Joe Beimel to be the team’s second lefty in the ’pen. Right-hander Hector Noesi hasn’t been much of an asset since being acquired from the Yankees in 2012, but was expected to start the season as the Mariners’ long-relief man.
Jesús Montero was the Mariners’ starting catcher at the beginning of the 2013 season, but he flamed out in May and was sent to Tacoma to learn to play first base. A month later, the team’s top pick in the 2012 draft, Mike Zunino, was rushed to the Majors to take over the club’s catching duties. While solid defensively, Zunino wasn’t ready to hit Major League pitching and batted just .214 while striking out 28% of the time. He did flash some power (5 HRs), which bodes well for the future. Zunino begins 2014 as the club’s starting catcher, but if he struggles, veteran backstop John Buck is ready to step in. The 33-year-old Buck doesn’t typically hit for a high average, but does have some pop in his bat, as evidenced by his 15 home runs and 62 RBI last year with the Mets and Pirates.
While the M’s brought in a couple of players who have experience at first base in Hart and Morrison, new manager Lloyd McClendon anointed the incumbent, Justin Smoak, as his starter early in spring training. While Smoak put up the best numbers of his career in 2013, the improvement was marginal, as he hit a paltry .238 and drove in just 50 runs. He did hit a career-high 20 homers and set a new career high in walks (64), but he’ll have to be more consistent at the plate if he wants to keep his job.
Nick Franklin looked to be the M’s second baseman of the future when the former first-round pick hit 12 home runs and drove in 45 runs after getting the call to the bigs in late May. But few expected that Seattle would be able to sign one of best players in baseball, Robinson Cano, in the offseason. The 31-year-old Cano has been one of the most consistent players in the game during his nine years with the Yankees. His production has spiked in the last five years, during which he’s averaged 28 HRs and 103 RBI per season. He’s also been very durable, playing in 159 games or more in each of the last seven seasons, and has won two Gold Gloves. Cano will be a Mariner for a very long time, with his presence and commitment to the game helping the M’s in their quest to return to the postseason.
Like Franklin, Brad Miller made his Major League debut in 2013, arriving in late June to take over for Brendan Ryan as Seattle’s starting shortstop after hitting .356 in just 26 games at Triple-A Tacoma. Miller hit for a decent average with the M’s (.265) while displaying good power (25 extra-base hits) and speed. He also provided solid defense and a strong arm. Look for Miller to stick around a long time in Seattle.
Third baseman Kyle Seager, voted the team’s MVP by Seattle sportswriters in each of the last two seasons, followed up his breakout 2012 campaign with a strong 2013, belting 22 homers, driving in 69 runs, and increasing his walk total by 47%. The 26-year-old Seager played in a team-high 160 games in 2013, but this year should get more rest against left-handed pitchers since the M’s brought back fan favorite Willie Bloomquist in the offseason. Now 36, the versatile Bloomquist is capable of playing seven different positions on the diamond and could see action at all of them this year. He hit over .300 in each of the last two seasons with the Diamondbacks.
Heading into the offseason, it was a near-unanimous opinion among Mariner-watchers that the outfield was the area most in need of improvement. Last year’s outfielders were mostly slow, defensively challenged, and lacking in offensive production. Yet, the M’s had not significantly improved their outfield situation as of late March. Few impact outfielders were available on the free agent market and the best one—Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury, who has a significant injury history—signed a seven-year contract with the Yankees for $153 million.
Reports varied on the M’s interest in Ellsbury, but it’s clear Seattle preferred the durable Cano as an impact addition even though he doesn’t roam the outfield. Seattle’s top outfield trade target, Matt Kemp of the Dodgers, had offseason ankle surgery and was not expected to be 100% healthy to begin the season, so LA preferred to hold on to him until he shows he’s fully in shape.
Two of the team’s offseason additions, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, have experience in the outfield, but neither is a plus defender and both are returning from knee surgery. The hope is that Hart can be the regular right fielder, but that may be wishful thinking. Regardless of where he plays, Hart (.270, 30 HRs, 83 RBI in 2012) is being asked to provide protection for Cano in the team’s lineup.
Dustin Ackley, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, hit rock bottom last May when he was demoted to Triple-A after his average plummeted to .205. The stay in Tacoma did him some good, as he was able to work with minor league hitting coach Howard Johnson (promoted to Major League hitting coach this winter) and saw immediate results, batting .365 in 25 games in Triple-A before getting the call back to Seattle. The improvement carried over, as Ackley hit .304 with a .374 OBP after his return. He came into spring training this year without a guaranteed spot in the lineup, but Ackley won the left-field job with a strong performance in Arizona, spraying line drives all over the field.
Center field is perhaps the Mariners’ biggest concern. Seattle brought back the oft-injured Franklin Gutierrez on a $1 million contract only to have him notify the team on the first day of spring training that he did not feel healthy enough to play this year. McClendon took a liking to 24-year-old Abraham Almonte in spring training, but Almonte didn’t hit much and has had trouble tracking balls hit to the outfield. The speedy Almonte did provide a spark late in 2013, when he hit .264 with six extra-base hits in 72 at-bats. If Almonte doesn’t make the opening day roster, the center field job will likely fall to Michael Saunders. The 27-year-old Canadian appeared poised for a breakout season in ’13 after belting 19 homers and stealing 21 bases in 2012, but an early season shoulder injury hampered him for much of the first half. Saunders was able to rebound after the All-Star break with a .251 average and .350 OBP, but his overall numbers took a tumble from 2012.
24-year-old Stefen Romero began spring training as a longshot to make the opening day roster, but opened some eyes with a solid hitting display in Arizona. If he sticks, he could provide more power than any of the Mariners’ other outfield options. The knock on Romero is that he doesn’t walk much and has limited experience in the outfield.
If Hart is healthy enough to play in the outfield most days, the DH duties are likely to fall to Morrison, barring a late signing of Kendrys Morales. Morales would provide more protection for Cano, as Morrison hasn’t proven he can stay healthy and productive. He hit just .242 with six homers in 85 games for Miami in 2013. The switch-hitting Morales has shown he can thrive at Safeco Field and does well in clutch situations, having batted .312 last year with runners in scoring position.