There are just a few spots on the field where everyday upgrades are not necessary, but there are others where the chances significant resources are put into better personnel is neither wise nor very likely. Those include second base, third base, and for different reasons shortstop and catcher. Robinson Cano is the answer at second base, obviously, with Kyle Seager now one of the better third baseman in the game. The Mariners are very likely — and wisely, due to the lack of options on the free agent market and ultra-high cost via trade — to stick with what they have at shortstop (Chris Taylor, Brad Miller) and behind the plate in former No. 3 overall pick Mike Zunino.
There are, however, several others places to add necessary pieces. Before we get into specific pieces, let’s identify those areas.
One of Seattle’s biggest strengths in 2014 was their starting rotation, but there will be holes to fill heading into next season. Chris Young is a free agent and may look to maximize his salary on a one-year deal after a strong comeback campaign, although there’s reportedly mutual interest in a return to the Emerald City. King Felix Hernandez isn’t going anywhere and his second in command, Hisashi Iwakuma, is also under contract for 2015 with an affordable $7 million club option that reportedly was exercised last week. Iwakuma is a candidate for an extension beyond 2015 and locking up the 33-year-old should be among the priorities for Zduriencik.
The club entered this past season with the hope that top prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton would be able to provide two-fifths of the big league rotation. That wasn’t the case as Paxton missed significant time with injury and Walker struggled early with shoulder inflammation and then finding consistency once he was healthy. There’s also the case of surprise rookie Roenis Elias who is coming off a strong campaign that ended with some concerns over his elbow, though the team refuted claims that they were of any significance.
[pullquote]Seattle had 10 different pitchers start a game in 2014 and four made 28 starts or more. Healthy seasons from Paxton and Walker should replace Young’s 29 starts if he moves on this winter.[/pullquote]
A rotation consisting of Hernandez, Iwakuma, Paxton, Walker, and Elias is strong on paper, though there are legitimate concerns surrounding the latter three hurlers. When Paxton was healthy in 2014 he was a capable No. 3 starter and should he stay healthy in 2015 the club can expect 190 innings of that quality of work. Walker finished the season with a strong September and got some work in the Arizona Fall League in October. The stuff is absolutely there for the top prospect, but he’ll have to put a disappointing year behind him and move towards his top-of-the-rotation potential.
Elias struggled with command and eventually fatigue in 2014 but that was to be expected. Another year of experience should do the young left-hander wonders, but the question that will be asked is whether or not he’ll be able to make the necessary adjustments next year to stay on top of major league hitters.
If the club retains Young it’s possible that Walker starts the year in the bullpen or at Triple-A, but it’s likely the club would prefer to have him a part of the big league rotation. Erasmo Ramirez provides insurance for the rotation though he has had his share of struggles in the past. The Mariners have two bullpen arms that may have an opportunity to be stretched out in the spring for the rotation in Tom Wilhelmsen and Brandon Maurer. It seems unlikely that Wilhelmsen will transition to a starter, though he did pitch strong in several extended outings in 2014. Maurer came up through the system as a starter but excelled in the bullpen in the second half. It’s likely he gets at least one more shot at cracking the rotation, though he may be better suited to his role in the pen.
Seattle doesn’t need to add premium talent to the top of their rotation and may already have some in the form of Walker and Paxton, but it’s not impossible that they take a run at Jon Lester, or one of the other top starters available. Adding a pitcher like Lester, and to a lesser extent Brandon McCarthy for example, could make it easier for the Mariners to move a young pitcher in a deal for middle-of-the-order bat, if the free agent market dries up on them. If Seattle is to acquire the power hitter they covet via trade, it’ll likely be at the expense of one of Paxton and Walker, though there’s nothing to suggest that the club is intent on trading one of them at this time.
The rotation is in good shape and arguably is one of the club’s biggest strengths heading into 2015. However, no team can have too much depth in that department and the M’s should look to add a couple arms that can be stockpiled at Triple-A in case of emergency while the limited number of pitching prospects in the lower levels develop.
The bullpen is one aspect of the club that can maintain the status quo and arguably be just as strong in 2015. Joe Beimel is the lone reliever set to hit the open market and despite a strong platoon split, wasn’t used as a specialist. His 2.20 ERA in 45 innings may be difficult to replace, but his 4.18 FIP was nothing special and easily can be replaced on the cheap with another veteran. Beimel has expressed a desire to stay in Seattle, Lucas Luetge is one possible in-house answer.
Closer Fernando Rodney is under contract through 2015 and is expected to anchor the back of the relief corps again. Danny Farquhar and Yoervis Medina will likely return as set-up men with Charlie Furbush and Dominic Leone in the picture as well. Rookie Carson Smith should also be a fixture in the 2015 bullpen after a strong September in some big situations. Maurer and Wilhelmsen were mentioned as plausible rotation candidates but are likely to continue providing middle relief innings. Medina, Wilhelmsen and Maurer are the three M’s relievers most likely to be moved over the winter, at least from the club’s standpoint, as Farquhar, Smith and Leone have shown enough to take over full-time setup duties.
Once glance at the M’s returning outfield crop suggests Zduriencik and company have to be burning up the phones for better options. It’s clear the Mariners prefer Dustin Ackley over Michael Saunders, so expect Saunders to be traded over the winter, despite the fact that Saunders is a better player. The M’s should not bank on Ackley, either, though, since they already are counting on Austin Jackson to return to form. The time for hoping and wishing on players has to be over with after the club showed promise with 87 wins this past year. Since it’s probably too much to ask for the club to find an everyday centerfielder that can hit, hoping on Jackson’s rebound seems more likely and wiser than praying Ackley’s second half (again) is what he’ll be for 2015.
Either way, the M’s have at least one spot open in the outfield. There will be talk of free agents and trade targets alike, but if one regular is not acquired this winter in some manner, Seattle’s outfield is likely to be their weak spot, yet again.
One outside-the-box idea, however, is to shop some talent (including Jackson) in a deal to acquire another center fielder that is more adept at making consistent contact, though as previously stated it is not an easy position to fill. Something tells us Lloyd McClendon would balk at the idea of trading Jackson, a player he’s familiar with from his days in Detroit, almost no matter the return, and despite the fact he’s not the player he was three years ago by any stretch of anyone’s logical imagination.
First Base/Designated Hitter
Logan Morrison may have done enough to warrant a regular job to start 2015, and it doesn’t matter if he’s considered the DH or the first baseman at this point. He’s a capable first baseman, albeit fringe-average rather than anywhere near Gold Glove caliber. That still means the club has no designated hitter. There is more than one way to fix this; One, Zduriencik can try and spend money to add a proven DH, or two, the club can acquire at least two outfielders and give skipper Lloyd McClendon some flexibility within his lineup.
[pullquote]The St. Louis Cardinals were the only team to make the playoffs with an average runs scored per game of less than 4.00 with 3.82. The Mariners actually scored a higher rate of runs per game at 3.91, but the AL playoff team with the lowest average was the Kansas City Royals at 4.02 runs per game.[/pullquote]
It could be argued that the Mariners are in an enviable position heading into the winter. The pitching staff is strong on both the rotation and bullpen fronts, though both still have room for upgrades. Up the middle the club has strength at the catcher, shortstop, second base, and center field positions — providing a bounce back year from Jackson — which are typically regarded as the toughest to fill. Unless another higher-end centerfielder becomes an option, the M’s can look to bolster both corner outfield spots and one of first base or designated hitter, depending on where Morrison fits.
Seattle’s lineup flexibility stems from have no fixed DH at this time. If an upgrade at first base is the target, Morrison can move to DH and spot start at first. If a veteran corner outfielder with durability concerns is brought in, they can take a regular turn in the DH slot to preserve their health. The M’s could double up on the veteran corner outfielders and enter the year with four regulars that rotate through the DH position — any number of lineup possibilities are plausible.
For the Mariners to sign any free agent who has received and declined the $15.3 million qualifying offer, they would have to surrender their first-round draft pick, which will be No. 21 in the 2015 amateur draft.
The hole in the middle of the lineup is obvious, but Zduriencik can’t forget about the top of the order. Despite the strong month from Jones and the addition of Jackson, the leadoff position was a mess for much of the season. After being acquired Jackson did not hit anywhere aside from the leadoff spot in a Mariner uniform despite spending much of his time in Detroit this year hitting in the No. 5 and No. 6 spots. The centefielder posted an 81 wRC+ as a leadoff hitter in 2014 and has a reputation for being a streaky player who strikes out often. Paired with the uncertainty of Ackley, the M’s could have an issue setting the table for the bats of Cano and Seager.
Certainly Jackson performed below expectations in a Mariner uniform and is expected to produce more offense in 2015, but what if he doesn’t? McClendon was married to his leadoff hitters until he absolutely had to make a change. Almonte spent three weeks in the role despite clearly being over-matched and Chavez had a prolonged stint in the role despite clearly being a below average player. Saunders and Jones took turns at the top of the order as well, but they may not be regulars in 2015. Taylor is the most likely in-house option to hit in the No. 1 or No. 2 spots given his contact abilities, but he may be a stretch at this point.
The term leadoff hitter is largely an irrelevant term, but it’s vital that those receiving the most plate appearances each game are able to get on base.
The one thing that the Mariners absolutely cannot do this winter, if they fancy themselves playoff contenders for 2015, is fail to upgrade at least one of the outfield positions. A threesome of Ackley, Jackson, and Saunders is a legitimate major league outfield but they are all question marks entering 2015 due to injury and production issues. One question mark out of three is manageable, but two questions marks out of three is recipe for another disaster … and three “we hope he hits” is downright criminal.
One common denominator among postseason clubs, and especially those that have success in October, is depth. They can play matchup against good bullpens, they can cover injuries with satisfactory or better secondary options and they have reserves that can do more than just fog a mirror. Bench play is important in Major League Baseball and while the Mariners need a plethora of starting lineup additions, they could use a key backup or two to add to what they’ll carry over from last season.
Some of the depth issues will occur naturally should the club add, say, an everyday outfielder, pushing a current projected starter to a reserve role, but don’t count on Michael Saunders being in Seattle come Opening Day. There’s nothing wrong with acquiring a player that has proven he can produce in a part-time or platoon role, anyway.
In the end, the M’s need a lot of help. Most of their needs are in the everyday lineup where there boast merely two solid to very good hitters joined by a bunch of ‘we hope he hits’ options. Outfield, perhaps times two, and either first base or designated hitter are the obvious spots in the field to add such offense. Whether it’s free agency or the trade market, the Mariners have a number of roster spots to upgrade which may include adding a premium starting pitcher. There are few untouchables in the organization from the big leagues all the way to their top prospects and they have no business worrying much about protecting their first-round draft pick. Expect a lot of rumors, but a lack of action by the Seattle Mariners would surprise the entire league. The M’s are motivated from top to bottom, ownership to field staff, and they aren’t all that far away, particularly if they’re lucky enough to get marked improvements from a few of the young players in addition to a few key winter acquisitions.