10 Things Mariners Must Do This Winter to Catch Up with A's and Rangers
Since last Friday, the Mariners have only managed to win a single game and to make matters worse have at times looked dreadful in the process.
With roughly a month of games left on the schedule, you have to wonder if anyone will bother to show up at Safeco Field the rest of the way with anyone other than Felix Hernandez pitching.
I'd imagine most fans will stay away in droves, but for a select few, hope springs eternal as a friend of mine over the weekend asked, "What do you think the Mariners need do this winter to catch up with the A's and Rangers?"
Initially I couldn't help but laugh, yet after giving it a moment's thought I figured it might be fun to take on the challenge.
But how exactly do you solve a problem like the Mariners?
First, it will require money, which this winter the M's should have in abundance if we assume the team will maintain a similar baseline payroll to what we've seen in recent years.
Second, it will require Jack Zduriencik as general manager to be both agile and aggressive in his dealings.
Given the likelihood of him being under contract for one more year, it could make him all the more entertaining to watch.
Finally, it will require a lot and by a lot, I mean a lot of luck.
So can the Mariners catch lightning in a bottle?
Let's see if we can give it a shot...
Say Goodbye To...
Say goodbye, and in some cases thank you, to the likes of Raul Ibanez, Mike Morse, Joe Saunders, Brendan Ryan, etc.
Sadly the list seems endless, but just about each and every one of them needs to go.
Now to play devil's advocate, could letting someone like Franklin Gutierrez go end up coming back to haunt the Mariners?
Sure, but there comes a time and place when you begin to realize that sometimes it's better for both sides to part ways as the M's have already jettisoned Jason Bay, Kelly Shoppach, Jeremy Bonderman and most recently designated Aaron Harang for assignment over the course of this season.
What's funny is that I don't object to be dumpster diving for veterans as a means of filling gaps at an affordable price, but in order to make headway next season, the Mariners can't grow to rely too heavily upon their services similar to what we saw this season.
At the same time I'm not going to fall on a sword if somebody wants to sign a one-year deal at a team friendly price, however if they're starting on a daily basis by mid-June, it's going to be a problem.
Ideally with a little luck, Jack Zduriencik finds the right complementary mix to backup his core lineup, while not eating up too much of his budget.
Focus on the Core
So who exactly will Jack Zduriencik be keeping as his core?
First and foremost his infield.
Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak, Nick Franklin, Brad Miller and Mike Zunino are without a doubt a young group of ballplayers, so feel free to either look at the glass being half full or half empty here, but this is where a little bit of luck and patience comes in handy.
Of this group, Seager appears to be the most polished at third base as a player already considered to be All-Star caliber.
As for the rookies, Zunino perhaps has the highest ceiling, while Franklin and Miller continue their rather entertaining trial by fire paired together playing up the middle and atop the batting order.
Finally, Smoak is perhaps the biggest surprise given his continued struggles prior to this season; however, as this season finishes up he continues to hold his own.
It's also worth noting that another high profile former prospect many of us had given up on earlier this year has quietly rebounded in recent weeks.
Seriously don't look now, but Dustin Ackley's batting average has gone from the Mendoza Line to mediocre with a very solid month of August.
In other words, I wouldn't necessarily rule out Ackley finding steady work next year as an outfield/infield supersub of sorts if he finishes the next month with a performance on par with that of what we've seen in August.
Finally I wish I could say something positive about Michael Saunders in helping rounding out the core portion of the lineup; however I really can't see him as anything more than a fourth outfielder.
I still believe the M's should keep him on the roster and use accordingly. Yet in order to make a push for the postseason, he needs to either step up his game and become the 20/20 threat we had always envisioned, or simply take a backseat to someone else better suited to carry that load.
Felix, Kuma and Pray for Rain???
As for the Mariners pitching staff, beyond the potent one-two punch of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who should the team consider part of the core?
This is not an easy question to answer, yet since we're here let's give it a try.
At this point it's hard to imagine the M's going out of their way to bring Joe Saunders back, but he is left-handed and healthy. Sadly, this qualifies him for an outside shot at staying on the team's short list.
Erasmo Ramirez is another pitcher I can see finding a role, but is he a legitimate starter or should he be in the bullpen?
Speaking of the bullpen, who exactly should be the closer next year?
Do you bring back Tom Wilhelmsen or does Danny Farquhar keep the job?
Perhaps Stephen Pryor gets a shot?
There are quite a few names worth considering for the bullpen on the current 40-man roster and to be honest I think you bring them all back into the fold with the hopes of finding the right mix.
Relievers such as Carter Capps, Charlie Furbush, Lucas Luetge and Yoervis Medina remain top of mind; meanwhile I see no harm in bringing back Oliver Perez. While it's true he's had a rough stretch this past month, I think the M's would be foolish to not include him in their plans for next year.
At the end of the day, the M's will need their bullpen to do a better job with another year of experience under their belt. So while I wouldn't go as far as considering any of them "core" fixtures, I feel this group is workable, especially when you consider the lack of options in free agency (mlbtraderumors.com).
Of course, similar to the offense, this group will need to be both lucky and good.
They will also need more players to fill out the rest of the starting rotation, but before I address that concern, I feel the need to backtrack on a topic I have yet to fully address.
A More Exciting Option Versus Kendrys Morales?
At this point some of you may be asking yourselves, "What about Kendrys Morales?"
Isn't he part of the Mariners core?
Not really, and based on his performance the past few months, even USS Mariner's Dave Cameron is unsure whether the M's should make a qualifying offer to him anymore to keep him this winter:
The qualifying offer should be off the table at this point. Morales isn’t a $14 million player, and they shouldn’t be interested in him at that price. No one else is giving him $14 million for 2014, and even if the Mariners really want him back, they should simply let him hit free agency and let the market tell Scott Boras what it thinks of aging DHs who can’t run. And if some team out there wants to give him a two or three year contract, let him walk. His skillset is not that hard to find, and there’s no reason to pay a premium to get it in a certain package.
Couldn't agree more. Morales is good, but not a difference maker in my opinion.
In fact, if someone else wants to break the bank for Morales, then I'd suggest the Mariners make a push in the Jose Dariel Abreu bidding.
Abreu is the latest (NBC Sports) in a long line of Cuban defectors looking to make an impact in the States, Morales being another having defected back in 2004 (wikipedia.org), who teams all throughout MLB will likely trip over themselves to sign given what we've seen from fellow countrymen Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig the past two years.
Yet is it really prudent for the Mariners to pay top dollar for an unproven talent given all of the other issues the team is facing?
Probably not, but if the M's want to try something different with the hopes of challenging their division rivals, Abreu could be the right guy given he's a right-handed, power-hitting, first baseman/DH who is reported to be 26 years old while measuring roughly 6'2" and 250 pounds.
To sum it up Abreu is a high-risk/high-reward signing, whereas Morales is low-risk, but far from dynamic for the potential price.
Finally, if Jack Zduriencik has only one more year under contract and a good deal of money to play with, what does he have to lose?
Make Overtures to Big Name Free Agents
While we're here, I see no harm in talking to two of the bigger names available in free agency this upcoming winter, pitcher Tim Lincecum and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury given the need for both positions.
At first glance, Ellsbury would seem the perfect fit atop the M's batting order while patrolling center field at Safeco. And Lincecum, in spite of his recent struggles, could find a spot in the back of the starting rotation with the hopes of proving himself once again.
Unfortunately as much as we all would like to believe the Mariners will lure one, if not both, to come "home" to Seattle, I have a hard time seeing both of them giving the team a hometown discount.
It's not like the Mariners should be counting pennies this winter, but both players come with serious question marks.
Ellsbury in some ways is the more tempting of the two to pursue given the M's serious need for an established outfielder.
Right now he is piecing together the kind of season that should garner a good deal of attention from a number of suitors, but given his durability issues I'm not sure he's worth what will likely be the asking price.
As for Lincecum, I'd say the the Mariners have a better chance of inking him on the rebound at a reasonable price by explaining to him that he can start fresh in familiar surroundings while pitching in a pitcher's park for a team that already has two front-line starters and a couple of kids waiting in the wings.
In other words, no one is expecting him to be "The Man," so much as simply the local kid coming home to play for his childhood team with the hopes of resurrecting his career.
With the pressure off, Lincecum could once again resemble the Cy Young winner from a few years earlier or at least provide the team a fighting chance every five days when he takes the mound. If not, his contract shouldn't prove to be a burden for the team.
And for that matter, nor should any other contract. (Say what you want, but Felix Hernandez is worth every penny the Mariners pay him right now.)
The key here is that Jack Zduriencik has the necessary conversations with the right people, but doesn't sit around waiting to be asked to dance.
Don't Wait on Plans B and C
If Jack Zduriencik intends to save the Mariners and his job in the process, he can't sit around and allow one free agent after another use the team as leverage.
Last year the M's waited on both Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli only to see both sign elsewhere.
Yes, it's all part of the dance, but if someone says "we will get back to you," or gets on a plane without inking a deal, then the M's cannot afford to sit around waiting for the phone to ring.
Jack Z this winter needs to be the perfect mix of aggressive and agile.
So if Jacoby Ellsbury or Tim Lincecum decide they "need to weigh their options" then Jack Z needs to cut bait and move on to Shin-Soo Choo, Josh Johnson or whoever.
The key in finding a starter will probably be convincing someone who has been down on their luck in recent years, like Lincecum or Johnson, that a one- or two-year deal in Seattle with a few performances clauses is the perfect way of cashing in while getting their career back on track.
It may not be an easy sell, but it's hardly impossible.
What will be a greater challenge is finding an outfielder, preferably right-handed, willing to come to Seattle to help balance out the lineup.
Ultimately I see either someone like Hunter Pence joining the conversation or Jack Z having to find a trade partner.
I wish I had a more clear cut answer at this time, but such is not the case.
At Least One of the "Big Three" Makes the Starting Rotation and Sticks
As we shift back to actual assets the Mariners have at their disposal, I can't stress enough the need for one of the "Big Three" (Danny Hultzen, James Paxton or Taijuan Walker) or even Brandon Maurer to make the starting rotation early next season and hold on to the job.
Seriously, it's about time, right?
Taijuan Walker will be given his chance starting Friday night, however we can only hope that he isn't being rushed to compensate for the absence of Hultzen and Paxton who both stalled this year.
Deep down, though, I'd love to see Danny Hultzen put this year behind him and earn a spot as well, especially since the M's will likely need a left-handed starter not named Joe Saunders.
As for James Paxton, I wouldn't rule him out at this point, but will be curious to see whether he becomes trade bait over the winter in any potential deals for the Mariners.
Either way, at least one of the three needs to finally do more than simply make it to the majors.
If the M's truly want to contend, they will need to see a star in the making finally cut his teeth and push for a few Rookie of the Year votes before season's end.
Say Hello To...Stefen Romero
Speaking of rookies, I think it might be time to give serious consideration to Stefen Romero grabbing some playing time in the Mariners outfield next year.
Joining Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders, Romero may not appear to be an ideal candidate for the job, but so long as he can hit, he might be a key piece to the puzzle in filling out the roster.
If not, prospect Julio Morban is another player worth keeping an eye on at spring training.
Regardless at some point next season before too much time passes, the M's will need to have one of their young farmhands step up and piece together a respectable performance in the outfield.
Perhaps it seems like a long shot, but it reminds me of what another Seattle team has managed to do in recent years while reshaping their roster.
Borrow a Page from Pete Carroll's Playbook
Yes, this may seems a bit cliched, but the M's need to make it clear to everyone that no roster spot should be taken for granted.
Sure the M's will have a core, but a lot of those players have yet to prove they're full-fledged pros. Barely a handful of players can be considered untouchable, while the rest could easily be replaced.
Or at least that's the philosophy that needs to be drummed into the heads of players coming to spring training.
At the same time, if youngsters prove themselves capable and ready, the opportunity should be theirs for the taking.
Essentially it works both ways and as we've seen from the Seahawks it generates results. Maybe I'm oversimplifying things a bit here, but I believe that if you are willing to optimize your roster with the necessary changes, you should eventually discover the right mix.
With a little bit of skill, and insane amount of luck, the M's may be able to compete in 2014.
Take Care of Both Eric Wedge and Robby Thompson
On a somewhat related topic, did you know that Eric Wedge is 45 years old?
Seriously I never knew. I assumed for years that Wedge was closer to 60 rather than 40, much closer.
The point I'm driving at here is two-fold.
One, no one wants to go to their grave having died while managing the Seattle Mariners. Joking aside, it's simply not worth it.
Some may say that if a doctor has cleared Wedge to return to the team and he's up for the task, then that's his business. That's hard to argue on some levels, but I couldn't disagree more with his decision.
If at 45 years old (or any age for that matter) you find yourself felled by a stroke, it might be best to take a little more than a month's time to decide whether or not to return to a high-stress, high-profile job that involves a fair amount of travel.
That's not to say that Wedge should be confined to a bed so much as perhaps slow down a bit and carefully weigh his options.
Through all of this I would like to think that the Mariners as an organization will be helping Wedge make a decision that works best for everyone as he gets his life back on track.
Whether that means getting Wedge a job in the front office or helping serve the team in some consulting capacity to me makes sense for the next year or so. When the time is right, then maybe Wedge can return to the dugout, but for now I think Robby Thompson should be given the nod for at least a year to see if he has what it takes.
Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't, but during his short stint as skipper, Thompson showed that he could hold his own with the Mariners. Perhaps with a real shot at the job he could prove himself a worthy successor to his good friend Wedge.
Conclusions and Maintaining Some Sense of Perspective
Ok, so you've made it this far, but is there any chance of what's been outlined actually happening?
I'd imagine if there is, Jack Zduriencik will need to lead the way by taking a no holds barred approach to the situation this winter by systematically going about his business.
First he will need to cut some dead wood, then he will need to restock fairly quickly with the hopes of finding a starting outfielder, a starting pitcher and an assortment of role players to fill up the bench. In the process there might be a few leftovers, but not enough to create a sense of fear and loathing.
Oddly enough though, if (and it's a huge IF)...if the team's core players can be trusted to perform within reasonable expectations, then the M's may not need the major overhaul we've grown accustomed to seeing awkwardly unfold each winter.
(Ok, now that you've finished rolling on the floor while laughing, welcome back.)
Of course not all the players here will perform along those lines, but if enough do, it could be the necessary next step on the road to contention.
When you look at it from that angle, the idea of the Mariners emerging as an competitive ballclub in 2014 becomes far more plausible.
Now, if it were only that easy.
There are so many question marks here, but a complete overhaul isn't going to happen this winter. Not with Jack Z getting one more chance to roll the dice.
Will he go for broke?
I'm interested in finding out, but he has to play to win, not simply try to avoid losing. If he doesn't deliver in 2014, it will likely be his swan song in Seattle.
So go forth Jack, be bold, be brave, spend money, don't save!