The future for the Seattle Mariners is a matter of perspective. Either you see the glass half empty or half full following a season of highs and lows that saw the team's record improve but produced few tangible signs of having turned the corner.
Next year will prove to be a critical year for the ballclub based on how they choose to build their roster.
Will they go after any free agents, or will they continue to see if the current group of youngsters can grow?
One can hope that regardless of what happens, the team will find a positional player to take on the role of the face of the franchise to lead the team offensively. Ichiro Suzuki is gone, and Felix Hernandez only pitches every few days.
I still see the Mariners as team that has more pitching than hitting talent, especially when it comes to their top prospects.
Young pitchers Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker may still be minor league prospects, and while it seems a bit dramatic, the Seattle Mariners’ future in some ways depends on how well they perform at the pro level.
If they succeed, the Mariners may have the nucleus of an impressive starting rotation that can help the franchise put a decade's worth of disappointment behind them.
If they fail, the Mariners could find themselves starting over for the umpteenth time since the team's glory days of Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner and Randy Johnson.
Can the "Big Three" live up to expectations?
That depends on whether there will even be three of them to begin with...
Several times this season, I've written about James Paxton and have often wondered whether he will even get a chance to ever pitch for the Mariners.
It's not for his lack of talent; in fact, it's quite the opposite.
Last week, Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times caught up with Paxton during his debut in the Arizona Fall League, saying this about the young lefty:
Going into last spring, Paxton seemed the closest of Seattle's three youngsters -- he, Hultzen and Walker -- to the big leagues and that hasn't changed. Going into next spring, he'll have a shot to make the big club out of camp.
"I'm feeling pretty good,'' he said. "The big thing is, I just have to go out there and pitch the best that I can every time.''
That didn't always happen for him last spring, or in the minors. Fastball command remains his biggest issue worth keeping an eye on. With better command -- like he showed today -- he'll get results he needs.
Sounds good, right?
However, Baker then concluded his article by adding a significant point:
Teams don't only use the AFL to gauge their own players. They use it to showcase those players to other teams.
Will the "Big Three" live up to expectations?
Zduriencik knows he will likely have to swing some trades this winter to get some bats in here. Amongst guys who could be traded to bring something big back -- Franklin and Paxton certainly rate.
Paxton didn't cost the team a high draft pick -- he cost Toronto that, but the M's got him in the fourth round -- like Hultzen or Walker. And Franklin, for all his prospective talent, could turn out best-suited for a postiion already filled.
Worth keeping an eye on.
Should the Mariners risk moving Paxton if he nets them a solid everyday player?
Depends on how much you value the young lefty. If given a chance, I'd like to think he could be at least the No. 3 man in the M's future rotation, but we will have to wait and see what the Mariners think.
Meanwhile, if we take Baker's point a little further, it would seem that Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker should be staying put.
Yet what are the odds that they both emerge as staff aces with or without Paxton?
That's hard to say based on their uneven performances in 2012. While both started out strong at AA Jackson, the two seemed to run out of gas by the end of the summer.
Hultzen as the No. 2 pick in the 2011 MLB draft would seem to be the closest of the "Big Three" to reaching the majors after finishing his season at AAA Tacoma; however, his 1-4 record with an ERA of 5.92 is hard to judge given he did strike out 57 hitters over 48.2 innings.
It would seem that he needs a little more time at Tacoma, but one would figure he will make it to Seattle in 2013 at some point.
So my main concern isn't whether Hultzen makes it to the majors, it's whether he's a star in the making or merely an average middle-of-the-rotation pitcher?
Which is roughly the same question that could be asked of Taijuan Walker as well.
Unlike Hultzen, though, I feel that Walker has a higher ceiling which in itself could be both a blessing and a curse. For as much as I hate to say it, I'm not quite sure that Felix Hernandez will spend his entire career with the Mariners.
If Felix leaves, the pressure on Walker along with Hultzen and Paxton will be ratcheted up to the point that the M's future really could depend on the young trio. Sure, this sounds a bit crazy today, and perhaps unfair, but if either Felix leaves or is traded within the next few years, you have to wonder how Mariner fans will react.
It's a future that no Mariner fan wants to contemplate, yet if any of the "Big Three" can step up to fill the void, it could help soften the blow considerably.
Of course, if all three emerge as top-line starters and the likes of Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager become legitimate hitters, we could be having an entirely different conversation some day.
Until then, all we can do is to cross our fingers and remain hopeful that Walker, Hultzen and Paxton continue on their way to Seattle ready to take on the far more reasonable task of simply making the starting rotation rather than save the franchise.