How do you fix a team that has lost 100 games twice in three seasons?
That's the glaring question that general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge are tasked with in 2011.
After a few nice trades and additions propelled the team a giant step forward in 2009, they took another giant step back in 2010. Though most assumed that '09 team overachieved, the additions to the club last season led those same pundits to believe we'd at least see a similar outcome, perhaps even a better one.
With pitchers and catchers doing bullpen sessions and position players trickling in ahead of the mandatory report date this Friday, the team is getting a chance to have a hard, long look at their squad early.
It's a good thing, too, because there are questions that must be answered post-haste.
Would you like to see the future now?
Of course, we all would. Guys like Michael Pineda, Dustin Ackley, Josh Lueke and Dan Cortes are hoping to impress enough to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster, though they're realistic that it may not be in the cards.
Of the four, Pineda probably stands the best chance to join the club to start the season due to the team's need for starting pitching. After him, Cortes may be the next most likely if a need emerges in the bullpen. Having got a taste of the big leagues last September, Cortes should know what to expect.
The same service-time game is almost sure to be played with most, specifically Ackley.
With so many free agent retreads, reclamation projects and prospects in camp with some openings, the odds were good for some of these guys to make the club.
Because the team doesn't want to give service time to guys like Ackley, Lueke and Cortes, that opened a reserve infield spot and one or two bullpen holes.
You can't say Adam Kennedy is exactly tearing the cover off the ball, because he isn't. In 23 trips to the dish, he's batting a lowly .158 with five strikeouts. Though, when your competition is Josh Wilson (.174) and Luis Rodriguez (.118), you don't have to give up hope.
Yeah, we're talking about small samples for all these guys, but none of them are telling us anything we didn't already know about all them.
On the pitching side, none of starter Nate Robertson or relievers Manny Delcarmen and Chris Ray have been particularly good.
For Delcarmen it looks like his velocity decided to pack it in. Not something you want when you're gunning for an interim closer's role.
The Mariners may be better off playing some of their young filler. Though, Kennedy probably still stands a good chance thanks to being a grizzled veteran, something managers love. Toss in the ability for him to tutor Ackley when he arrives if you need more reason.
The M's have been tinkering with their infield defenders again.
This time around, they're trying Jack Wilson out at second base. You don't generally move a slick fielding player at a premium position off of that, but the Mariners seem to have sound logic for kicking the idea around.
Brendan Ryan provides similar defense at short (and unfortunately similar offense), and has a much better chance to stay healthy.
If the plan is to move Ryan to short after Ackley arrives in June, it may make sense to just stick Wilson at second base now. It might help keep him a little healthier and, more importantly, prime him for a reserve middle infield role that he could be in once Ackley shows up.
The team really can't press forward with Wilson as their everyday shortstop. He just won't hold up. You might be wondering how Ryan is any better, and that's a fine thought to have. Consider, though, that there is a big-time shortage of shortstops who can hit. So if you're going all glove, go with one that will actually be around without crutches.
Michael Saunders' clock is ticking.
The team, along with any scout you'll listen to, still sees serious problems with his swing. Jack Zduriencik has made public comments about how he's not where they want him to be, and has even said the Opening Day left field job is favored for Milton Bradley.
Considering all of Bradley's issues in the past and this offseason, and his history with Eric Wedge, that's a pretty strong statement.
Maybe he's trying to light a fire under Saunders. I don't see Zduriencik as that type, though.
The Mariners are trying to tweak his stance to get more consistency from his swing. The kid has lots of tools and raw ability, but translating it to at least some streaks of success has been a challenge.
For now, Saunders could be looking at a fourth outfielder or minor league assignment role.
With so many poor performances, someone has to get better in 2011.
The Mariners need improvement from Chone Figgins, Justin Smoak, Milton Bradley and Michael Saunders.
You could toss in Adam Moore also, but if Miguel Olivo is healthy I don't believe Moore gets the chance to do it. Franklin Gutierrez won a Gold Glove and is obviously an amazing fielder. His bat needs to come back around, though.
If the team can get improvement from three of them, and add in good performances from Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda when they arrive, they should be able to stave off another epic failure.
Milton Bradley is showing serious signs of fire and focus in spring training. If Saunders doesn't turn things around, Bradley is going to force his way into the starting left field job.
He's hitting the ball well for some gap power, leading the team with four doubles. The sample size is obviously pretty small with only 21 at-bats, but Bradley hitting .381/.458/.571 isn't a bad thing, and he's even trying to add value on the base paths.
He's stole one bag, and tried to steal home this weekend when the pitcher wasn't paying attention. Sure, he was called out (though, reports say he looked safe), but his head being in the game and looking for ways to create runs can't be looked at negatively.
I know you're all have the same thoughts I am. Can this attitude be sustained, and will his legs hold up?
History probably reveals the answer, but the M's are likely to squeeze what they can out of the $12 million owed to him this season however they best can.
In a small sample of games that don't matter, it looks like Figgins is getting back on track at the plate.
There were rumors that the team had a trade lined up with Oakland this winter, but that fizzled out. This isn't surprising as a player that made a lot of sense for them to sign last season now makes little sense to carry this year.
It's not that Figgins doesn't have some value, especially with his return to third and the assumption that his bat will be better.
What's concerning is the money left on his deal and the limited value he can add to a non-contending club.
So if he gets off to a hot start and another team calls, Zduriencik will surely listen, regardless of the comments he made after the Oakland deal died off. In fact, I wouldn't be too surprised if it's the Mariners GM doing the dialing.
For at least at least the first few weeks of April, the Mariners will have a huge hole.
With David Aardsma opening the season on the disabled list, the few ninth-inning leads the team may have early on will need to be saved by someone.
The Mariners have 33 pitchers in camp this spring. That's a lot, and it's by design. The club signed veterans like Chris Ray and Manny Delcarmen, traded for Aaron Laffey and invited youngsters such as Josh Lueke and Dan Cortes.
With so many options, it's clear the team hopes to find seven guys capable of handling relief duties from a large group. Competition brings out the best in guys sometimes.
If I were to guess, right now I'd say Brandon League has the edge. Delcarmen's velocity has eyebrow raising (in a bad way). Lueke has been solid, but the team isn't likely to stick a rookie in that role.
It's much too early to tell as of now, but it's something everyone will be watching.
While we know we can't count on Erik Bedard for much, it's nice to think a front-of-the-rotation guy is hanging around.
If the Mariners get one inning out of Bedard this season, he'll have improved over last season. If they can get 150 innings out of him, they'll probably do back flips.
As of now, Bedard has thrown well down in Peoria. The reports are that his velocity and stuff are there, but the most impressive quote thus far has been "pain-free." That the last one came from the horse's mouth is encouraging.
While we must refrain from getting excited, there's at least a chance that Bedard heads to Oakland with the team to start the season and adds serious value to the team.
Having lead the league in innings pitched as a 24-year-old last season, there's been a lot of talk about the possibility of his arm being overworked coming into 2011.
The Mariners took some steps to address this at the end of 2010, including not having Felix pitch the final game of the season even though it would have been his normal spot in the rotation and he needed only one strikeout to lead the league in that stat.
In the end, it didn't cost Felix the Cy Young or the $2.5 million bonus that came with it.
To start spring, he's been eased in slower than others, pitching in low-stress "B" games and such.
Don't worry too much about the reduced workload this spring.
You still get a full season to enjoy The King.