What the Seattle Mariners Still Need to Do to Be 2014 Contenders

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What the Seattle Mariners Still Need to Do to Be 2014 Contenders
Al Bello/Getty Images

It's been rough going for the Seattle Mariners of late, as they have posted four straight losing seasons and have not reached the postseason since 2001.

After going 71-91 in 2013, they kicked off their offseason with a bang, signing superstar second baseman Robinson Cano to a massive 10-year, $240 million deal prior to the winter meetings. That's been far from their only notable addition, though.

Reliever Fernando Rodney is their latest major signing, as the right-hander agreed to terms on a two-year, $14 million deal, according to Jonah Keri of Grantland:

The 36-year-old will serve as the team's closer for the upcoming season, bolstering a bullpen that ranked 29th in the MLB last season with a 4.58 ERA.

Rodney spent the past two seasons at the back end of the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen, going 85-of-95 on save chances with a 1.91 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 10.1 K/9.

He won AL Comeback Player of the Year in 2012, converting 48 of 50 save opportunities with a 0.60 ERA and finishing fifth in AL Cy Young voting. He was not nearly as dominant this past season, but he still represents an upgrade in the ninth inning, and his addition should help the bullpen as a whole.

The Mariners still may not be done making moves this offseason, but they've already significantly overhauled their roster. Here is a quick rundown of all of their activity this winter:

Notable Seattle Mariners Offseason Transactions
Transaction Acquired
IF Willie Bloomquist Free Agent
2B Robinson Cano Free Agent
1B/OF Logan Morrison Trade (MIA)
1B/OF Corey Hart Free Agent
OF Franklin Gutierrez Re-signed
C John Buck Free Agent
SP Scott Baker ML Free Agent
RP Fernando Rodney Free Agent

Mariners.com

Those moves have undoubtedly made the Mariners a better team, especially on the offensive side. They ranked 12th in the AL in runs scored last season, which came after four straight seasons as the lowest-scoring team in the league.

Is it enough to make them contenders in the AL West, though? At this point I'd be inclined to say no, as there is still work to be done if they hope to be playing in October.

The Oakland Athletics have captured back-to-back AL West titles and look to be strong once again, the Texas Rangers have as dangerous a lineup as any in baseball with the additions of Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, and the Los Angeles Angels still have an incredibly talented roster that just needs to play to its potential.

That potentially leaves the Mariners as the fourth-best team in their own division. The potential is there for them to pull off a surprise, but some things need to happen if they are going to make that happen.

Here is a look at what those things are:

 

Get solid rookie seasons from Taijuan Walker and James Paxton.

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

The Mariners had one of the best one-two punches in baseball last season atop their rotation in Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, and they'll be back atop the staff once again this season.

Those two combined to go 26-16 with a 2.84 ERA in 64 games last season, but the rest of the team's starting pitchers were just 29-42 with a 5.24 ERA over 98 starts.

Enter prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, both of whom saw time down the stretch last season and have been among the top pitching prospects in the game for several years now.

Walker, in particular, looks to have an incredibly bright future, and he enters the season as a consensus top-three pitching prospect in the MLB.

Those two will likely be handed rotation spots from day one, and they will need to hold down those jobs and post at least respectable numbers for the Mariners to have any chance of contending.

 

Sign another veteran starting pitcher or get a healthy season from Scott Baker.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Even if Walker and Paxton pan out and are able to hold down their two rotation spots for the entire season, the No. 5 spot remains up in the air.

Incumbents Erasmo Ramirez, Hector Noesi and Brandon Maurer are expected to battle minor league free-agent signing Scott Baker for the job this spring. 

Baker missed all of 2012 following Tommy John surgery, finally returning last September to make three starts for the Chicago Cubs down the stretch. Prior to the injury, he was a solid starter for the Minnesota Twins, going 55-37 with a 3.98 ERA in 134 starts from 2007-2011.

He'll make $1 million if he can make the Opening Day roster, with another $3.5 million available in incentives. The Mariners would love nothing more than for him to impress this spring and give the young rotation another veteran arm.

If the team doesn't think he can win that job, though, signing someone like Paul Maholm, Chris Capuano or even bringing back Joe Saunders could be a wise move to help add some depth to the back of the starting rotation.

 

Sign Nelson Cruz

LM Otero/Associated Press

The Mariners have already spent a ton this offseason, but they may not be done, as Bob Nightengale of USA Today tweeted that the team is "all-in" and optimistic about landing free-agent slugger Nelson Cruz before the offseason is over.

Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders have a loose grasp at best on starting jobs in the outfield, and adding Cruz to the mix would take some pressure off Corey Hart, considering the need to protect Robinson Cano.

The team's first-round pick is protected after finishing with the sixth-worst record in the league last year, and they already gave up their second-round pick to sign Cano, so the qualifying offer tied to Cruz doesn't mean much.

As the offseason goes on, his price has no doubt dropped. If the Mariners can add a proven slugger like Cruz on a reasonable two-year deal, they could really take a big step forward offensively.

 

Keep Corey Hart and Logan Morrison healthy and productive.

Al Behrman/Associated Press

Last offseason, the Mariners traded for Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse in an effort to bolster their offensive attack and received a mixed bag in return. They've taken a similar approach this offseason with those two both gone, adding a pair of first baseman/outfielder types to the middle of the lineup.

Corey Hart missed all of the 2013 season with a pair of knee surgeries, and chances are he'll be used as the primary DH in an effort to keep him in the lineup. He was fairly durable leading up to last year, averaging 139 games per season from 2007-2012.

If Hart can return to his 2012 form—when he had an .841 OPS with 30 home runs and 83 RBI hitting in the middle of the Milwaukee Brewers lineup—he'd provide some much-needed protection for Robinson Cano in the middle of the Mariners' order.

Logan Morrison burst onto the scene with 23 home runs and 72 RBI as a 23-year-old for the Florida Marlins back in 2011, but he's had trouble staying on the field since. Various knee injuries have limited him to just 178 games the past two seasons.

Still just 26, the potential is certainly there with Morrison, and if he can give the team 20-plus home runs and a respectable batting average out of the No. 6 spot in the lineup, it would be big for their overall production.

Counting on two guys who battled knee injuries last season is certainly risky, especially considering the team's lack of depth behind them. If they can stay healthy and produce to their capabilities, Seattle's offense could climb into the top 10 in the American League for the first time since 2007.

 

Play better in close games.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

This one could be greatly influenced by the Rodney signing, but the Mariners will need to do a much better job in close games if they hope to have a real chance at earning a postseason spot.

Last year, they were 19-29 in one-run games and 6-15 in extra innings, giving them the most extra inning losses of any team in baseball.

Squeaking out wins in close games and grinding out a victory in extra innings not only helps from a record standpoint, but those are the kinds of things that bring a team together and help build momentum over the course of a season.

On the flip side, consistently losing close games can certainly take its toll on a team mentally and bring any potential momentum to a screeching halt.

 

Conclusion

Regardless of whether or not the Mariners add any more pieces to the puzzle this offseason, they have already shown that they are committed to putting a winning team on the field with their all-in approach.

Can the Seattle Mariners make the playoffs in 2014?

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They will still have their work cut out for them if they want to reach the playoffs in a deep American League, though, and they could have trouble even finishing as the third-best team in their own division in 2014.

Still, they are a team that has improved significantly this winter, and if the aforementioned things happen they could have a real shot this season.

At the very least, a run at their first winning season since 2009 seems reasonable. Expectations will likely be much higher than that entering the year, regardless of whether or not they are realistic.

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