It’s been ten years since the Seattle Mariners drafted Michael Saunders in the 11th round of the 2004 Amateur Draft, and it appears as though they’ve found out what they’ve got in the Canadian-born outfielder. Heading into his first season as an arbitration-eligible player, he appears to be a lock to play everyday in either center or right field in 2014 after passing the 130 game plateau in a second straight season. Not to mention the lack of superior alternatives currently on the roster. Saunders enjoyed somewhat of a breakout season in 2012, his first full year in the big leagues. The .247/.306/.432 line he posted may not be all that impressive, but he managed to steal 21 bases and hit 19 home runs; good for 2.4 bWAR and 2.1 fWAR overall. Often considered a glove-first player, UZR suggested otherwise with his -8.2 rating on the year, although that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a poor defender. The Condor didn’t improve on his ’12 season they way most hoped as his steals and homers fell to 13 and 12 respectively, and his line dropped to .236/.323/.397 in 2013. He did get closer to being an average defender according to UZR however, with a -4.2 UZR rating. A couple interesting stats to note from Saunders’ 2013 season: despite playing in only seven less games compared to ’12, he totalled 85 fewer plate appearances; he improved his walk rate to 11.5 percent from 7.8 percent in ’12; his BABIP was only one point higher than in ’12; his ISO fell from .185 to .160 in ’13; he had a 5.4 UZR rating in 246 innings in right field compared to a -9.6 UZR rating in 627 innings in center field. The increased walk rate is a big plus to take away from 2013 since he’s struck out in approximately a quarter of his career plate appearances. Steamer projects a similar walk rate in 2014, but anything over his 9.1 percent career walk rate would be another step in the right direction, unless he suddenly discovers how to maintain a .270 batting average. The 27-year old’s regression in his ISO and home run numbers are concerning, but it’s possible he was affected by a shoulder injury beyond his April trip to the disabled list. Officially it was a right shoulder strain, so perhaps Saunders’ mechanics as a left handed hitter were affected due to any amount of lingering discomfort. A look at Saunders’ statistics from last May, his first full month after being on the DL, and we find a measly .187/.282/.297 line and a 54 WRC+. While it’s fair to suggest his shoulder injury may have had something to do with that, a look at his career line in May of .194/.265/.299 and 58 wRC+ suggests that May just hasn’t been a very good month for the Canadian. It’s not unusual for players to slump for particular parts of the year as those statistics tend to even themselves out over the course of an entire season. For what it’s worth, Saunders’ best offensive month thus far in his career has been July. Shifting gears to the defensive side of the ball, Saunders may be best suited to handle a corner position in the outfield rather than center despite the fact his athleticism and speed make doing so look appealing. His bat doesn’t necessarily profile him as a corner outfielder, but he does enough things at the plate as well as on the base paths to make up for it. Since regular center fielder Franklin Gutierrez battled multiple injuries over 2011-13, Saunders found himself playing more and more in the middle which isn’t entirely surprising considering 27-year old played the bulk of his minor league career there. Keeping Saunder in either right or left field may be a little difficult in 2014 as the Mariners are expected to have newcomers Logan Morrison and Corey Hart spend time in right when they’re not filling the designated hitter role, given Justin Smoak’s presence at first base. As it stands, Gutierrez, Abraham Almonte, and Dustin Ackley make up the rest of the outfield depth. Given Gutierrez’s previous health issues he’s no sure bet to manage even 60 games this year, and despite Almonte impressive cameo appearance this past September, Seattle may prefer to let him play as much as possible at Triple-A to start the year at least. Ackley played 50 games in center last year and managed a -7.0 UZR or a -19.7 UZR/100. While that’s far too small a sample size to draw precise conclusions from, on the surface it appears that the natural second baseman may require a long transition to become a decent full-time centerfielder. The former second overall draft pick spent less than 100 innings in left field in ’13, an even smaller sample size to accurately analyze, so for the time being, we won’t. With a certain shiny new second baseman in the picture, Ackley may have to find a home in the outfield if he’s to remain in Seattle, and that home may be left field. So we’ve established Saunders is a quality corner outfielder at this point, and it’s quite safe to say the Oliver projection system also likes him given his projection of 3.0 fWAR in 2014; the Steamer projection disagrees and projects 1.0 fWAR. That valuation isn’t that farfetched provided Saunders finds some consistency at the plate. Although his base running metrics suggest he’s above average on the base paths, he simply strikes out too much and doesn’t hit for enough average to be a dependable leadoff hitter. Saunders did spend the majority of April and May of last year hitting in the top two lineup spots and spent a stretch in August of 2012 hitting in the two spot as well. He’s probably better suited to hit between the sixth and eighth spots in the order currently considering his pop. It’s reasonable to suggest he’ll see more time at the top of the order given the Mariners’ alternative options. Saunders projects to earn $2 million in ’14 so if he struggles it won’t be costly to the Mariners, but if he’s able to sniff his projected value of 3.0 fWAR, that’s excellent value. Age 27 is still relatively young for a player, so there’s a good chance there’s still some room for Saunders to grow before he hits his ceiling as a player. All told, if Saunders can spend a healthy year in a corner outfield position he’ll be a valuable piece for Seattle in the coming year and beyond. However, too much time as a centerfielder could change that in a hurry.Go!

The Seattle Mariners may or may not land right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. Whether or not that occurs does not impact the value of the M’s young pitching collection, namely right-hander Taijuan Walker and southpaw James Paxton. It doesn’t make them more expendable and it doesn’t mean it “frees them up” to be traded. I get the sense, based on nothing but the lack of movement on additional position players, that the Mariners may be treating Paxton and Walker equally. I think that’s a mistake. I get Walker. He’s still very young, has good present stuff, is very athletic… you know the drill here. I understand Mike Zunino being kept off the block, too; catchers are very, very difficult to find. So difficult that the value of solid catchers cannot be understated. The rest of the “prospects” and young, unproven talents in the organization? I don’t see any reason to make them truly untouchable in trade talks. There is a chance Paxton turns out to be better than Walker, but it’s clear the 21-year-old has the bigger upside and his timetable isn’t that far behind Paxton’s, if it is at all. Making both untouchable or near-untouchable — AKA, being afraid to trade them — makes little sense to me. The Mariners drafted both pitchers. The principal scouts that did so are still in the organization. The club has drafted pitchers since then — Danny Hultzen and Edwin Diaz, for example — and will continue to make solid choices on amateur talent. In an organization where the cupboard is still barren at the big-league level, particularly in terms of outfielders — true, two-way outfielders who aren’t a liability on defense and don’t come with considerable injury concerns — one would think this offseason is an opportunity to pick an untouchable, Walker, and see if there is a player on the trade market the club could acquire in exchange for a package headlined by Paxton. That isn’t to say trading Paxton and others for just any decent outfielder is a good idea, but protecting Paxton as if he’s a surefire ace (not even Walker is that) and showing a strong reluctance to move him to acquire the right outfielder would be absurd and utterly ignorant. I don’t know the Mariners are employing this stance, I’m just saying they absolutely should not be. Tanaka or not, this club will grow dangerously close to running out of options to make the team watchable on offense, let alone any kind of kinda-sorta first-half contender. Robinson Cano, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison will not fix the lineup. Brad Miller, Mike Zunino, Michael Saunders and Dustin Ackley cannot be expected to combine to equal such significant improvements — all of a sudden, on the parts of Saunders and Ackley after two years of struggles — and Kyle Seager absolutely cannot be relied upon to be one of the three best hitters — in my opinion. Right now, he’s the second-best bat, meaning two more hitters are necessary or Cano1 is nothing but a PR move. If I could get Matt Kemp from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Paxton, Nick Franklin and, say, John Hicks, I’d pull the trigger so fast that not even William Henry McCarty could react fast enough to hit the kill switch. It’s a risk, but one the Mariners cannot afford to decline. I don’t know if that specific deal, or one like it, would work for the Dodgers, but if that kind of value can net Kemp, it’s a no-brainer. He’s healing up this winter, a bit faster than some expected, too. It doesn’t have to be Kemp, however, and it doesn’t have to be an outfielder, per se, although that is the weakest position on the roster as of today. Seattle is in no position to hoard prospects and sit around and wait for five or six young players to figure it out in 2014. The clock is ticking, both on the offseason and on Cano’s value to the baseball team. Right this second, the club has not improved a whole lot. Kendrys Morales is gone — and it appears there is almost no chance for him to return, considering Hart and Morrison join Justin Smoak as 1B/DH types, at least some of the time — so the improvement is essentially the difference between Cano and Morales. It’s a nice bump player-for-player, especially since Cano is a solid glove at second and Morales was a DH in 2013, but in the grand scheme, the 25-man still is mediocre. I repeat my statement from December: Make Cano count. Label the elite off limits, use a few of the other young talents and prospects to get what the club doesn’t have. That’s one of the two reason they were signed in the first place. Don’t pretend there was just one. Don’t pin the hopes of vast improvement in 2014 on the status quo finding the magic potion. Paxton isn’t going to turn into Sandy Koufax or even Cliff Lee. Kemp might turn into Kemp of 2011, though.Go!

While fans would love to see something bigger and better, at least eventually, it looks like the Seattle Mariners are turning to a familiar face to fill an outfield role for next season. Former Gold Glove winner Franklin Gutierrez is reportedly close to returning to the club with which he’s spent the past five seasons. There’s yet to be official confirmation of a deal at this time, but there had been rumors both parties were interested in a reunion. Tuesday’s reports came via Twitter from FOXSports.com’s Jon Morosi: Mariners close to bringing Franklin Gutierrez back on a 1-year, major league contract sources tell @FOXSports1. — Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) December 18, 2013 Mariners have been encouraged by recent reports on Franklin Gutierrez’s health, need a right-handed outfield bat. — Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) December 18, 2013 The 30-year old hasn’t played a full season since 2010 and has appeared in just 173 games over the past three years. Any deal for Gutierrez would likely be an incentive laden, one-year pact that may have a club option attached. While he’s far from the right-handed power bat the Mariners desperately need, he still hits left-handed pitching well enough and is more capable of patrolling the spacious Safeco Field than most. Gutierrez has put up a .255/.305/.383 line in his tenure with the M’s and has been a consistent, plus defender when he’s been able to stay on the field. Gutierrez figures to be a depth piece at this time as he can’t be counted on to stay healthy long enough to be much more. Currently, the M’s have Michael Saunders and Dustin Ackley slated to cover the bulk of the center field duties in 2014, but an ideal scenario has one of them occupying a corner outfield spot, at least part of the time, where each profiles better defensively. It also appears that part of the plan to have Logan Morrison see time in left field, so the more legitimate options the club adds the better, since Morrison belongs at first base. PI’s Alex Carson likes the move so long as there’s another outfielder on the way and the Mariners aim for Gutierrez to be a fourth outfielder to start the upcoming season. As with free agent addition Corey Hart, a one-year deal based on incentives carries minimal risk for the club. The only issue however, is that while Hart and Gutierrez could represent impact moves, the Mariners still should be looking to make another significant upgrade to the lineup. The free agent outfield market has slimmed mightily with options such as Chris Young and Marlon Byrd finding new employers already. Rick Ankiel and Grady Sizemore represent the best of the remaining centerfielders on the open market, but like Gutierrez, there’s significant injury baggage with both. The Mariners clearly have the inside track on Gutierrez’s medicals and his familiarity with the organization makes him a more attractive option than, say, Seattle-area native Sizemore. There’s nothing wrong with picking up Gutierrez for another season, let’s just hope the club has a bigger fish they’re trying to hook in terms of the outfield. Remaining Free Agent Outfielders Ankiel Jeff Baker Jason Bay Roger Bernadina (CF) Brennan Boesch Shin-Soo Choo Chris Coghlan Tyler Colvin Trevor Crowe (CF) Chris Dickerson Jeff Francoeur Sam Fuld Reed Johnson Nelson Cruz Raul Ibanez Laynce Nixx Xavier Paul Juan Pierre (CF) Derrick Robinson Sizemore Andres Torres Delmon Young DeWayne WiseGo!

Saturday, ESPN The Magazine’s Buster Olney tweeted that the Seattle Mariners are “bound” to end up signing one of three free-agent starting pitchers in Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez. This was not a report of anything imminent or even one suggesting a deal is near, but it does make sense. The Mariners need a No. 2 or 3 starter to support the efforts of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. When I see reports of interest or even suggestive tweets such as Olney’s — which is certainly more than just a common-sense statement — I check in with a few of my own sources to see if I can find out anything additional. What I asked was this: “Anything more than speculation to Buster’s tweet about Garza, Santana and Jimenez and the M’s?” The text responses I received: “For sure.” ————- “When we checked on Matt (Garza) we heard Seattle, (Red) Sox, Twins, Yankees. Too rich for our blood.” ————- “We like Garza and Jimenez; Maybe they (Seattle) like them more, because we’re not getting very far.” The dollars and years are likely be upwards of Ricky Nolasco‘s 4-year, $49 million deal, rather than in the neighborhood of Jason Vargas‘ 4-years and $32 million or Phil Hughes‘ 3-year, $24 million contract reported Saturday. Each of the three, I’d guess, will cost $15 million or more for five or more seasons. The Mariners may have to be even more aggressive to convince any of them to agree to come to a club that doesn’t presently appear to be a contender in 2014. To get any of the three, Seattle may have to be willing to go six years and $75-85 million. None of the three, in my opinion, are that valuable, but sometimes it takes what it takes and for the Mariners it might be well worth a gross overpay or two to not only improve the team but show other players that they mean business. Of course, an “overpay,” even if it’s truly market value, will send many of you running and screaming down the halls. Exercise this: If you, as a Mariners fan, went into hibernation for the next six weeks, woke up in mid-January and learned that your team had added Garza, Grant Balfour, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, Dioner Navarro, Clint Barmes and Rajai Davis, you’d be at least somewhat excited that the 25-man roster could be competitive, if not a contender in 2014. [In no way am I suggesting the above will happen, or anything like it. Just making a point.] I’d assume the first thing you searched for on the internet after learning about such acquisitions would not be about the players’ salaries. World Series odds? Analysis from the pundits? How to get tickets? Not the player salaries. And once you did finally see them, you wouldn’t flip out and curse the moves. Why? Because the roster was improved greatly. The problems with spending big money on free agents is 100 percent subjective. There is no salary cap and the luxury tax is not something the Mariners are anywhere near. They could give a free agent like Garza $30 million per season and that doesn’t mean they cannot, and won’t, still add other necessary players. Individual player salaries are only damaging when the club decides it will not continue to invest financially because it’s hit its self-imposed limits. At any rate, don’t let the starting pitching interest fool you. The Mariners are hot after offense at several positions. Timing A lot of you have expressed your frustration with the fact that the Seattle Mariners have not signed a free agent or made a trade for a prominent player. I get the urgency, but it’s early. Not having done anything up to now does not suggest they won’t, can’t, or have lost out on players they want, or should want. If Christmas approaches and nothing significant has occurred, it may or may not be time to assume nothing major will. That really depends on what’s left in free agency, and how many trade-available types remain. But yes, in 3-4 weeks, I, too, will want to have seen something big go down. Doesn’t have to be the blockbuster of the offseason, doesn’t have to be the perfect transaction or set of transactions, but something substantial, yes. Until about that time, however, I don’t see any reason to worry, complain, freak out or even be frustrated. This may be a good time to reiterate what I said two months back: I don’t believe it’s possible that the Seattle Mariners go from where they are now — a 70-75 win team — to contender status. In my opinion, it would be asking too much for any general manager to accomplish such a task. That isn’t an excuse for Jack Zduriencik. That’s just the truth, as I see it. A lot of things would need to break the Mariners’ way for 85-plus wins to be possible in 2014, and free agent deals and impact trades are only part of that. They’d also need some of their young players to step up and be very good next season, including a few bullpen arms. The Trade Front I shared all the free-agent names I’d heard linked to the Mariners here, and I even included some trade scenarios that have been bandied about since the end of the World Series. Another name that is out there is Chase Headley — though his potential availability has never gone away since the San Diego Padres have yet to get his name on the dotted line of a contract extension. The Mariners like Headley, and would play him in left field, but it does not appear the Padres’ asking price is even in the neighborhood of what the Mariners may be willing to offer. From what I can gather, the Mariners are trying very hard not to include James Paxton in trade packages, while all but refusing to discuss Taijuan Walker. Zduriencik told me earlier this offseason that Hernandez, Iwakuma and Seager were untouchable, so it appears they are trying to rob someone in a bulk deal. Ultimately, Paxton, Franklin or Miller will have to be involved in a trade, if Walker is truly off limits in almost all instances — perhaps for Giancarlo Stanton he’s available — or the M’s aren’t going to be able to acquire impact talent via trade, in my opinion. Brandon Maurer, Michael Saunders, Erasmo Ramirez and Carter Capps, even all in the same package, isn’t going to net the Mariners Matt Kemp, Stanton or any of the ilk. I imagine their stance — if that truly is a stance and not just a distant appearance — will change, if it hasn’t already. Most likely Mariners (40-man Roster) to be traded 1. Justin Smoak, 1B 2. Michael Saunders, OF 3. Tom Wilhelmsen, RHP 4. Brandon Maurer, RHP 5. Hector Noesi, RHP 6. Nick Franklin, 2B/SS 7. Yoervis Medina, RHP 8. Erasmo Ramirez, RHP 9. James Jones, RF10. Blake Beavan, RHPGo!

As the Seattle Mariners continue their managerial search, I’ve changed up the manner in which I’ll make trade suggestions and cite potential matches as the club turns its attention to the roster soon after the World Series. Rather than one drawn-out piece in October, I’ll discuss multiple possibilities via numerous pieces over the next several weeks. I started that Sunday by suggesting the M’s and Detroit Tigers could hook up again. The Mariners need a lot of help — understatement of the decade, right? What they don’t need are aging players with bloated contracts — does any team need that? But in order to make significant progress, the organization may have to make some concessions in terms of how perfect everything fits together, including taking calculated risks with contracts and trading young players the team has drafted and developed. Jack Zduriencik’s former employer has two players I feel are fits in Seattle to enough degree that a phone call should be made. Carlos Gomez, a terrific centerfielder who has exploded at the plate the past two years, and right-hander Yovani Gallardo. It’s easy to see why Gomez fits; team-friendly contract — three years, $24 million — through 2015. He’s 29 years old in December, a right-handed batter and would be a natural fit at lead-off. He’s not going to be easy to get, assuming Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin is even willing to have the conversation, but if I were Melvin and owner Mark Attanasio, no player on my team is untouchable after the struggles the past two years. The 28-year-old Gallardo, drafted by Zduriencik in the second round of the 2004 Draft, struggled at times in 2013, with his strikeout rate sinking to 7.17 after sitting between 8.99 and 9.89 the previous four seasons, though his FIP basically stayed the same as 2012. The concern is with Gallardo’s health; his velocity was down a full tick for the second straight season, but his other pitches held serve for the most part, and if he’s given a clean bill of health he’s the kind of risk the Mariners should look into taking. Gallardo is due $11.25 million in 2014 and the club holds an option for 2015 at $13 million. The contract is perfect. If the M’s like what Gallardo gives them in 2013, they have the option to bring him back for another year. If he regressed or shows more signs that he’s injured — or actually suffers a significant injury — they can buy him out at $600,000. His performance could bounce back after two non-ace seasons in a row, provided his medicals check out, and he’d fit nicely sliding into the No. 3 spot behind Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. I’m not suggesting the M’s go after Gomez or Gallardo, however. I’m thinking a Gomez-Gallardo package deal. So, how do the Mariners get Gomez and Gallardo from the Brewers, who finished 74-88 this past season? And how do they do that without trading away so much that it’s counterproductive? Offer the Brewers what they don’t have, of course. What the Brewers don’t have, generally speaking, is enough young talent. The M’s have some of that. The only young players I’d mark untouchable are Mike Zunino and Taijuan Walker. I’d be willing to move any other player in a package for Gomez and Gallardo, even if that means middle infielders Nick Franklin or Brad Miller have to be involved. Left-hander James Paxton plus Miller or Franklin is a decent start. Shortstop prospect Chris Taylor, right-handers Tom Wilhelmsen, Carter Capps, Brandon Maurer, Yoervis Medina, Carson Smith, Dom Leone, Danny Farquhar and Erasmo Ramirez, and left-hander Charlie Furbush, as well as outfielder Michael Saunders, first baseman Justin Smoak, and infielder-outfielder Dustin Ackley could also provide value in such a trade. The only other prospect that should be protected is D.J. Peterson, who can’t be traded until February, anyway. Names such as Edwin Diaz, Victor Sanchez, both right-handed starting pitchers, could be included. If certain other clubs wanted to make the same trade, they’d probably be able to outbid the Mariners — since Walker and Zunino aren’t likely to be discussed to any level. [Yes, it’d help if left-hander Danny Hultzen were healthy.] The Brewers’ position as a team with a non-contending roster with significant holes without a strong farm system to supplement it exponentially, could help the M’s. It might be a slight ‘bulk’ style trade, but those have worked out for clubs in the past, including when Zduriencik dealt closer J.J. Putz to the New York Mets for Jason Vargas and Franklin Gutierrez. Trades are difficult to consummate, of course, and the Mariners would have to give up a good chunk of legit talent, so this idea has little chance, at best, of happening, but it’s the kind of idea, with the kind of players, that the Mariners need to consider, and it’s not like the Brewers are contenders that have no business talking trades that include their best players. And no, the Mariners should not try to trade for Ryan Braun.Go!