It's never a dull offseason with Jack Zduriencik as GM, but this year figures to be the best yet. It had better be, because next season's trajectory will have profound ramifications for the future. If Zduriencik hits, the Mariners could contend for a pennant by 2013. If he fails, Seattle could be rebooting yet another five-year plan.
Perhaps the most palpable issue is that next season will likely determine what the Mariners will do about Felix Hernandez. Another last-place or bottom-half finish may result in the ace being dealt out of town. Although Felix may genuinely want to stay, much can change in three seasons—especially if the M's are still bottom dwelling. Most likely the choice will be taken out of his hands. If the M's wait any longer after next season to decide, they risk not receiving maximum value for Hernandez—probably the most coveted asset in all of baseball.
The stakes are high. And Zduriencik likely has to show marked (by wins and losses) improvement to keep his job.
What transpires this offseason will dramatically impact the M's future fortunes. Zduriencik needs to pull another rabbit out of his hat, as the M's prepare for one of their most important seasons since 1995.
Paxton, originally drafted in the first round (technically a supplemental pick) in 2009, and then again in the fourth round 2010 knows how to drive a hard bargain. Just ask the Blue Jays, who were unable to sign him. And, before a last-minute deal in March it looked as if the M's were going to let him walk too.
But you can't blame the kid for knowing what he's worth.
Paxton has a great makeup, a mid 90's fastball and a power slider. Although he hasn't pitched in Triple-A yet, the Mariners under Zduriencik have shown a willingness to challenge their top prospects, and his Double-A numbers indicate he would be just fine—a 51/13 K/BB ratio means he can pitch anywhere he wants.
Look for him to be next year's Doug Fister, except without the overachieving.
At the end of last season the Mariners found themselves in a bit of a bind: too many decent prospects to take a look at, and not enough positions to play them in. Players like Casper Wells, Trayvon Robinson, Kyle Seager, Aledx Liddi and Mike Carp all clamoured for playing time.
Look for two or even three young players from the 2011 season to be repackaged this offseason. The Mariners like what they have in these players, but the prevailing thought is that the they need to consolidate their talent into one or two sure things playing at their natural position. Players like Seager, Robinson, and Wells did enough last year to make other teams believe they are legit prospects—and Michael Pineda did enough to make the league believe he is an ace in waiting.
As difficult as it would be to lose Pineda, the M's might get an offer they can't refuse for some real offensive talent. When you can't score runs, great pitching night after night can be redundant.
Brandon League had a fantastic 2011 season (aside from one bad week). And as Mariners fans already know from the J.J. Putz deal, dealing a good closer on a bad team can be a fairly painless way to cash in on some player equity. The M's don't exactly have many leads to protect, if you know what I'm saying.
Hotshot arms that never panned out as starters are a dime a dozen, and many of them find their game as relievers like League has. Tom Wilhelmsen comes to mind, and he's certainly shown shut-down stuff. The M's seem intent to try him in the ninth inning eventually.
However, League was on the block at the deadline last season and the M's elected to hang onto him. If the deal is not there, Zduriencik will be happy to hang onto the young closer again. He's not going to give League away.
This picture is not meant to influence your opinion of Chone Figgins...
Yes that's right folks, that lovable rascal will once again be patrolling... well, the dugout mainly.
Expect Eric Wedge to struggle to justify giving Figgins playing time. He may play as much as two or three times a week in the beginning if the M's have not seriously addressed third base, but that should wane as the season progresses (and Figgins regresses).
The front office wants to try and salvage some value from Figgins' contract. I don't expect them to get it. But it is the Mariners, so they'll likely drag this out until is gets real awkward.
The Mariners like Jason Vargas—and so will his next team.
The Mariners feel they simply have far too much pitching depth waiting in the minor leagues to pay Jason Vargas $5 million next season. His salary is set to double in arbitration after the 201 innings he pitched in 2011.
Is Jason Vargas worth it? Probably to someone else, yes he is. But the Mariners are going to need every penny they can spare this season to offset the top-heavy contracts of Ichiro and Chone Figgins. And with first round draft picks Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker brimming in the minors, the M's will have to tip their cap to Jason.
A good question. The M's may try to address this via trade as they look to exchange quantity for quality at key positions. However, don't expect any ringers in free agency. If the M's cannot upgrade significantly at this position expect them to give Alex Liddi another look.
In his 40 at-bats in the big leagues last year Liddi continued to struggle with strikeouts, with a whopping 17. But he did show excellent power at times, posting a .525 SLG percentage, as well as good footwork, fast hands and a cannon at third base.
Kyle Seager has shown that he deserves playing time, but his value really seems to be as a second baseman if not a utility player. If another team thinks he can be a starter I'd be surprised if he is still with the Mariners come spring.
The Mariners like how Liddi projects as a third baseman—if he could just master the strike zone. They are hoping to accelerate his learning curve in Venezuela, where they sent him to play winter ball in preparation for the 2012 season.
Maybe not entirely, but the Mariners are going to give him a chance to make the club out of spring training. If he doesn't make it right away, expect him to work quickly in Triple-A and perhaps join the club after his "super-two" status has been quelled in July.
Out of all the players drafted last year, Danny Hultzen was seen by scouts as the most major league ready—and was generally regarded as the safest pick (although some had others projected with higher ceilings).
Both Hultzen's and Paxton's emergence will be a key factor in the Mariners' decision to let Jason Vargas go—allowing them to replace both left-handed starters from last season in Vargas and Bedard. Having two lefty starters is ideal for playing at Safeco Field, because they can nullify the short porch in right field.
The Mariners front office is dreaming about a rotation of Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Blake Beavan (with Taijuan Walker on the way) and if all goes to plan I wouldn't dare wake them up.
After two bizarre, snake-bitten seasons in a row, the Mariners may be a little nervous about Franklin Gutierrez in CF. They love what he brings defensively (and in Safeco Field what an asset that defense is), but he has to be on the field, and he has to hit above his weight—which has been known to plummet whenever Gutierrez has these mysterious stomach issues.
The Mariners would love nothing more than for Gutierrez to manifest his potential. He is their ideal choice to succeed. But they would be foolish to rely upon that at this point.
If something comes along as Jack Zduriencik is packaging some of his younger players in trades, and the return happens to be a prized young center fielder, don't be surprised if he takes it and inserts him immediately.
Even after such a sharp decline in his production, a player like Ichiro has built up enough credibility to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Although it does not look good, I would be a fool to doubt the man that has defied so many expectations.
And so would Eric Wedge, though I get the sense that Wedge will not be nostalgic if the aging star fails to produce again.
I wont go over the gory details from last season, but many statistics suggest that Ichiro may have been the worst regular player in the game last year. If that trend continues I expect Ichiro to be gracefully phased out like a long, continuous decrescendo across the season. Ichiro may have built up equity with this community, but he has not shown Wedge much. This is a "what have you done for me lately" league.
That said, I have a feeling that while Ichiro's best years are behind him, he'll return to a .300 average and 200 hits next year—which would be a tremendous spark for this team.
It couldn't be. Could it?
When looking at the free agent market next year two players jump out immediately: Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols.
Fortunately for the Mariners some of the major players will be sitting this bidding war out; Boston and New York are set at first base and DH, the Dodgers have financial constrictions, and Texas is star-studded. By my estimate that leaves the Mets, Cubs and Angels as likely suspects to spend a lot of dough at first-base.
More good news for the Mariners is that the Cubs and the Mets have also been inept lately, so there's no advantage competitively. And the Angels' hands may be tied financially, as they are already paying Vernon Wells' gargantuan contract.
I still expect the M's to have to overpay to get Fielder, but I also see them as the team that makes the most sense. They are desperate enough to pay him (or they should be), they have the ability to pay for a legitimate major league product when they want to (2000-2007), and no other team needs Fielder like the Mariners do. Having a legitimate power-hitting lefty in the middle of the order changes the whole complexion of an offense that just barely managed to surpass 2010's historic low in runs scored.
The most significant potential snag for the M's is their policy that ties yearly payroll figures to the previous season's attendance.
"But wait," you ask, "if less people come to the games because the product on the field is bad, wouldn't that in turn lead to more lousy baseball as the owners spend less and less money?"
Last season Jack Zduriencik had to lobby ownership to amend their rules just slightly enough to pay for the 95-loss team. If this ownership group wants to get serious about saving their investment, they had better get their minds off of yearly profits and start to think long-term.
It takes money to make money.
Sometimes paying for the baseball team that you operate to be competitive can have, you know, attendance benefits.
Fortunately, now is the perfect time to loosen the purse strings. Prince Fielder is one of the only sure things in this game. He is one heck of a big fish—the Mariners would be wise not to let him get away.