Seattle Mariners offseason to-do list

The Seattle Mariners are stumbling along toward another season full of around 90 losses. The club needs to go 9-5 over the final 14 games just to equal last season’s 75-87 campaign. Changes are necessary, starting with an ownership group that is clearly unwilling to replace those in charge. Since the ownership isn’t going to change this offseason, we’ll skip to the next 16 items the M’s should have on their to-do list this offseason.

We’ll dive into specifics, such as player names, at a later date, but for now, here’s my proposed winter outline.

Hire a new manager

The limited progress the club has made under Eric Wedge clearly stagnated sometime between last all-star break and this past summer. Wedge is good for young players in a lot of ways, but there are far too many questionable decisions that even the benefit of the doubt can’t cover for anymore.

The Mariners need their version of Terry Francona or Joe Maddon; both have leadership skills, put together lineups that have proven to be as optimal as one could expect and know how to win. Even a rookie skipper, like Maddon was in 2006, can be the right move if he’s learned under the right mentor and has the kind of baseball experience and innovation to adjust to the roster and find an edge or two.

Hire a new general manager

It pains me to say this, because I like Jack Zduriencik. I believe I understand his vision and I believe in it, too, but I’ve come to one conclusion that forces me to include his dismissal here: The 2014 Seattle Mariners have almost zero chance to contend.

Sure, the club could go out and spend some money, make a trade or two for some proven impact talent to mix with a few of the young players that earn a starting job next spring and such a roster could compete. The problem with that theory is it’s far fetched. The free agent market is thin as it is, and expecting the M’s win out on multiple bats and a No. 2 or 3 starting pitcher, among other smaller yet valuable pieces such as a veteran reliever and backup catcher, is asking an organization that, under Zduriencik, has not done any of that over the course of the five years since the club hired the former Milwaukee Brewers scouting director.

So, if 2014’s ceiling is something less than 85 wins — probably the absolute minimum number of wins it will take to compete in September for a Wild Card spot in the American League next year — we’re talking about yet another season without relevant baseball the final 6-8 weeks of the season, if not longer. That’s just not good enough.

I’ll say this now, and if the club does end the Mariners career of Zduriencik after this season, I’ll say it all winter, and beyond: A new GM probably can’t be expected to win in 2014, either. The difference is, Zduriencik has had five years to be improve a team that went 61-101 the year before he was hired and appears destined for a win total im the low-70s, with last year’s 75-win plateau looking like a long shot.

Zduriencik and his staff have done some good things in Seattle, but the most important one — winning in the major leagues — hasn’t occurred, and the “inching” toward such a feat just won’t do. At this time, I have no suggestions for GM candidates, but I will if the time comes next month.

If Zduruencik is retained, it’s not the worst decision of all-time, but I see this very much like I see a player entering the final year or two of prime and bearing down on free agency. It’s better to trade that player a year too soon, rather than a year too late.

Sign 3B Kyle Seager to a multi-year contract

He’s not arbitration eligible until after the 2014 season, but Seager is the team’s best position player, and that’s just a statement by default. He can handle third base, is ridiculously consistent and he’s just a notch below the best third basemen in baseball, entering play Sunday batting .274/.346/.451 with 22 home runs, despite playing all but three games this season and being forced to bat in the middle of the order without the support of an average set of eight lineup mates.

Before this season I suggested Seager cut down the power swing just a bit, make more contact and hit for more average, while becoming a better hitter versus left-handed pitching. Perhaps settling in around .280 or .285 with 16-18 homers and an improved on-base percentage from the .316 mark he posted a year ago, and overall looking more like an everyday player, rather than everyday player on a bad team.

He didn’t sacrifice a bit of power — he’s on pace for more extra-base hits this season than last, but has drawn a few more walks whole maintain a similar strikeout rate and taking a full step forward against lefties. He’s 25 years old — 26 in November — a contract as long as five years could make a lot of sense for both sides.

That would buy out all of Seager’s arbitration years, plus one free agent year, after which he’ll be 30 years of age. Four years doesn’t make as much sense, because it only goes through the player’s arbitration years, plus his one club-controlled season. Three years may be preferred by the player and agent, but the trade-off of the one free agent year is a bigger salary in 2014 than he’d make if the club simple renewed his contract.

Seager is a keeper, and it’s time this winter for the Mariners to do just that, save a little cash along the way and show other young players that this is what you get when you perform.

Find offense without going to the greatest of lengths to do so

 You read that correctly. Contrary to my previous thought process, I no longer believe the Seattle Mariners should spend huge money on free agents this offseason. The market is awful and each of the bats comes with tremendous risk, perhaps sans their own free agent, Kendrys Morales. Good teams are clubs that build and sustain success. Those clubs use free agency to supplement or top off what they have. Using free agency to build your club doesn’t work, and there are very few exceptions.

Shin-Soo Choo cannot hit left-handed pitching — .211/.35/.247 (yes, .247 slugging percentage) in 2013, .199/.318/.286 in 2012 and .243/.340/.339 for his career. He’s also not a center fielder and he’ll turn 32 during the 2014 season. $15 million per season, or anywhere around that mark, for four or more years, is a bad idea for a platoon corner outfielder leaving the prime of his career.

Jacoby Ellsbury, when healthy, brings a lot to the table, including some pop, big-time speed, enough center-field defense to make up for his noodle arm and the ability to get on base. The problem is, he’s not healthy enough to warrant the Michael-Bourn-and-then-some contract he’s certain to get (Bourn signed for five years and $55 million last winter and probably could have gotten more if some breaks fell his way with the draft-pick compensation rules.

Ellsbury is 30 and isn’t magically going to start putting forth multiple 145-game seasons consecutively. He’s managed 130 games played or more just four times in seven full seasons, and is hurt again for the playoff-bound Boston Red Sox.

There’s not going to be any discount for the Mariners because Ellsbury is from Oregon and wants to return to the left coast, and the risk on a big-money deal is quite large. I may change my mind on Ellsbury if the market falls hard, but I don’t see that happening. Bourn’s $55 million came during an offseason when multiple center fielders changed teams, including the trades of Denard Span and Ben Revere. Ellsbury is likely to be all alone atop that pedestal.

There are other examples of bad ideas such as Hunter Pence, and I know what you are thinking: Then who do the M’s get? We’ll tackle that soon enough, but as I stated above, I don’t think there’s much of a chance the M’s can improve enough to contend in ’14, so I’d sure advise against “going for it” and loading up on bad contracts and killing the organization’s chances to find long-term success.

On top of avoiding throwing huge dollars at free agents, trading away any premium young talents — Taijuan Walker, for example — to gain a few years of a good player is a horrible plan. If it’s Giancarlo Stanton, different story, but not even Stanton is a no-brainer.

Don’t forget about the rotation

As the club searches for the right kind of hitters to add to the roster via trade and free agency, they also need two starting pitchers. One, a reliable innings eater that comes out of the bargain bin. Signing two of those might make sense, too, forcing the likes of Walker and James Paxton to earn their spot in spring training. Nobody should be handed a roster spot on a silver platter.

The other rotation necessity is someone to either pitch behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, or one that can supplant Iwakuma as the No. 2 starter, pushing ‘Kuma to the No. 3 spot. Again, we’ll discuss the names at a later date.

Do not rely on more than two of: Ackley, Smoak, Franklin, Miller

If all of the above are playing everyday come Opening Day 2014, it’s not necessarily a good sign. I think we know Smoak’s best isn’t good enough, despite some stretches this season when he was pretty good. Ackley has improved, but enough to play regularly? I don’t see it, yet. Franklin has struggled mightily of late, but he’ll figure it out and is the one I’m most comfortable with going forward. Miller, at the plate, should be just fine, though his glove still needs work.

If I had to pick two right now, it’s the two middle infielders. If Ackley or Smoak has to be a fallback option, fine. Just not both.

Say goodbye to Franklin Gutierrez

When healthy, Gutierrez is a nice player. He’s not a great player, may not even be a good player. But he’s valuable, when healthy. He’s healthy about as much as I sleep during the summers, however, and even on an incentive-laden deal, I don’t think he fits.

Designate Hector Noesi for assignment

Noesi has cleaned up his delivery and found his release point at times this season, but there’s still no useful breaking ball and he doesn’t have enough stuff to pitch in relief. He’s 55/60 fastball, 40/45 changeup, 30 breaking ball. Nope.

Decline the option on Joe Saunders

Pretty easy decision, as he’s not worth $7 million, even if he bounces back some.

Sign or trade for a veteran reliever with closing experience

I’m not suggesting a major signing for a Grant Balfour or Joe Nathan (if Texas declines their $9 million option, which they probably will), but names such as Edward Mujica, Fernando Rodney or Joaquin Benoit make some sense. The Mariners need more stability in their bullpen.

Sign or trade for a veteran backup catcher

A good catcher is most important, but bonus if he can hit left-handed, or hit at all.

Find a solid utility infielder that can play shortstop 

Clint Barmes might make some sense. Heck, at a much cheaper price than the $3-plus million he earned in 2013, Brendan Ryan could be a fit in that role. In theory, anyway. I’d bring in someone different.

Trade Michael Saunders

As much as I like Saunders’ physical tools and basic skillset, it’s pretty clear he’s not a long-term solution as an everyday player. He’s arbitration eligible and he and Ackley are a redundant pair.

There are at least a handful of clubs that will have interest in Saunders, who with the right piece of advice still could turn into something better than we’ve seen in Seattle.

This is also a route the club can take with Smoak if they find another option at first base. That position, however, is among the thinnest on the free agent market, which may leave trades as the lone avenue for an upgrade.

Re-sign Kendrys Morales

 Morales’ market has faded since May when he began DH’ing regularly, creating a myth that he can’t play first base. Is he good there? Not particularly. Can he play 140-plus games there? Probably not. Can he play 80 at first and 80 at DH? Of course he can.

With proper rest, something he did not get this season because the Mariners needed their best foot forward as much as possible — see: Seager, Kyle — Morales is passable at first, enough to stave off the “pure DH” tag and add a few dollars onto the end of his contract.

Having said all that, Morales is not having a great year — he’s been solid, and very useful — and a look around the league shows that not a lot of clubs are sure to be looking for such players. This all helps the M’s make a strong bid to retain Morales without getting into the 4-year, $50 million range that appeared plausible in May.

Slapping the tender on Morales probably seals the deal for Seattle, and though nearly $14 million for one year is too high, it probably helps the club get him for two years, instead, and at a better average annual salary.

Field calls on Hisashi Iwakuma

It may not result in the kinds of offers that would make sense, but with one year plus an option year left on Iwakuma’s deal — at a very, very affordable number — the Mariners should at least check the trade market for the right-hander. He’s had a great year, but isn’t necessarily a great bet to repeat it.

Trading him now for the right package of performing 0-3 types could be the wisest move. I’m not sure what clubs would be willing to part with for ‘Kuma, but at least need to find out where the league is on him.

Make it clear to clubs that the young players are not untouchable

 Not Taijuan Walker, not Brad Miller, not Nick Franklin, not James Paxton … maybe Mike Zunino, but that may be it, and that’s only because of the dearth of catching in baseball. If Seager still qualifies — OK, he does — I’ve already stated he should be signed to a multi-year deal, so he’s out, too.

It’s unlikely a deal including Walker will make sense, but you never know and it’s always valuable to find out what your players’ value is around the league. Always. Having inexpensive, talented young players, even if they aren’t yet considered established, with some experience — as Franklin and Miller have now — have good value and could be part of a package to acquire the kind of players the M’s can lean on for the long term, perhaps even a star-quality position player such as Stanton.

The Mariners are several players short of a good roster and handcuffing themselves to their own players for the sake of keeping their own players is preposterous. Most trades aren’t lopsided steals. To get good players you have to trade good talent.

I don’t know what will become of the M’s offseason. I don’t know who the GM will be in three weeks. I don’t have any idea if the big-name free agents will have any interest in Seattle. I don’t believe one offseason can flip this team into a winner.

What I do believe is that the above 16 items should be on the organization’s to-do list starting October 1.

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Jason A. Churchill

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