Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik has stockpiled young players through trades and the draft. Some are likely to be used in trades this offseason as the Mariners attempt to fill holes in their offense.
The meaning of another 90-plus-loss season for the Mariners won’t be fully understood until other numbers are pared down.
As their losses compounded over the final three months, the Mariners were also growing in numbers at several positions. Through trades, amateur signings and promotion of minor-leaguers, the Mariners added depth at all three outfield positions, the infield, designated hitter and both the starting rotation and bullpen.
Not all the young players appear ready for prime time, as witnessed by some dismal performances down the stretch. But what the 2011 season has provided are pieces the team’s management must use over the winter to construct a more permanent product that can eventually contend.
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“We’re starting to see some things emerge,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said shortly after a series of midsummer trades that significantly bolstered depth in the majors and upper minors. “We’ve got a ways to go. But we’re starting to see some pieces and we’re excited about it.”
That excitement is unlikely to last, however, if 2012 becomes a sixth 90-loss season since 2003. Mariners fans expect bigger things, starting this winter in terms of how Zduriencik parlays his newfound depth into trades and fills holes via free agency.
“It is a process to ultimately build a championship team,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said of a club that — three years into its rebuilding — might finally be advancing beyond the initial stage of shedding unwanted veterans and stopgap types. “And if you shortcut it, or you try to speed it up, it will bite you in the ass every time.”
Seattle began 2011 with a $94 million payroll for current players and some already departed. The on-field payroll was actually in the upper $80 millions, though take away a near-invisible Ichiro the first four months, a benched Chone Figgins and a released Milton Bradley and it was more like a $50 million team.
The Mariners will enter 2012 with Ichiro and Figgins still taking up $27 million of the payroll. Figgins has two years left at $9 million per and appears untradeable. The Mariners might engage in contract extension talks with Ichiro this winter despite his still being signed at $18 million through 2012.
It’s against that backdrop that Zduriencik must operate, with attendance declining and likely payroll as well. Zduriencik will start with a team about $25 million lighter than the one he began 2011 with, given the confirmed and expected departures of Bradley, Jack Wilson, Jack Cust, David Aardsma and Adam Kennedy, and Yuniesky Betancourt’s leftover salary commitments.
Aardsma could be re-signed to an incentive-laden deal, but certainly won’t be offered arbitration now that he’s scheduled to miss much of 2012. But of that $25 million in payroll wiggle room, $7.5 million will be eaten up in a salary hike for Felix Hernandez and another $1.5 million will go to a raise for Franklin Gutierrez. Brandon League and Jason Vargas are also each in line for about $2.5 million in arbitration raises, leaving only $11 million of that initial $25 million.
And that’s only if the team maintains payroll at current levels. In other words, Zduriencik must get creative with the player surplus compiled.
The most valuable surplus might be in starting pitching, with Michael Pineda a potential top-of-the-rotation arm. Blake Beavan made his debut as well and looks like a back-end rotation fixture, while Charlie Furbush has struggled but is in the mix as well.
The team will give Class AA starter James Paxton a shot in spring training, and 2011 No. 2 overall draft pick Danny Hultzen will get a look, as well. Taijuan Walker, the second-round pick from 2010, could be the best of the bunch but is likely a year away. The Mariners also have Erasmo Ramirez climbing the ranks, so the rotation could soon be cluttered indeed.
That leads to the Mariners possibly trading — or even non-tendering — Vargas, in order to shave costs if they decide he really is a back-end starter set to earn mid-rotation money. They have the option of also dealing one of the younger arms — other than Hultzen, who is not yet eligible for trade — or could package Pineda for an impact return.
In the bullpen, newcomers Tom Wilhelmsen and Steve Delabar are challenging Josh Lueke and Dan Cortes as future eighth- and ninth-inning arms. Shawn Kelley is also working to return from injury and Chance Ruffin was acquired via trade, meaning the Mariners are piling up in the back end and might not want League back at nearly $5 million after arbitration.
League and one or more relievers could be traded, or the Mariners could keep their closer if they decide they could contend in 2012.
But a contender will require serious offensive upgrades. Wedge has spent the season trying to get hitters to be more aggressive on hittable pitches — with mixed results and a team record in strikeouts.
Wedge said there are players he now views as “pieces” he’d never imagined as such back at midseason. He said he’s held back from laying into the team at times when he doesn’t get expected results, adding that it’s part of them getting to know his expectations.
“Just in general, just the game itself,” Wedge said of those expectations. “Not just in any one area of the game. The game itself. The intangibles, the way you carry yourself. What’s expected of you. Accountability and all that.”
The team’s biggest position-player surplus is in the outfield, with Gutierrez, Mike Carp, Michael Saunders, Casper Wells, Trayvon Robinson and minor-leaguers Greg Halman, Carlos Peguero, Mike Wilson, Johermyn Chavez and Chih-Hsien Chiang potentially vying to fill future spots.
The Mariners have more than $13 million committed to Gutierrez the next two years and could free up significant money by trading him. But the same underperforming bat that would make Seattle want to deal him would make it tough to find a suitor for him, and no young outfielder appears to have Gutierrez’s two-way upside if that’s ever reached.
Filling the outfield corners could be easier, though Ichiro’s continued presence will block any future right fielder. In left field, Saunders has the best glove while Carp has shown the biggest bat, and the team faces decisions on whether to keep both.
Carp adds intrigue to the team’s first base/DH spots, having been interchanged repeatedly with injury-plagued Justin Smoak. Add the potential to go after free agent Prince Fielder and both spots could get thrown wide open.
Fielder would appear to be the perfect first base and middle-of-the-order answer for a struggling offense, though at a pricey $20 million per season, that would require cost savings elsewhere. Importing Fielder would relegate Smoak largely to DH status while perhaps leading to Carp playing left field or being traded.
The Mariners could trade for a power-hitting third baseman — given the scarcity of free agents. They have Figgins, Kyle Seager and Alex Liddi there at the big-league level — the first two lacking power and Liddi needing more seasoning.
In the minors, Carlos Triunfel is only 21 and playing in AAA, but has seen his power decrease. The Mariners also imported minor-league third baseman Francisco Martinez — considered by some the “jewel” of the Doug Fister trade — but he likely won’t be ready for a bit.
Seager is blocked at his best position — second base — by Dustin Ackley, the only rookie regular who’s a lock anyplace. Lately, the team has tried Seager at shortstop in place of injury-plagued Brendan Ryan.
Adding to the shortstop mix is AA prospect Nick Franklin and second-round pick Brad Miller, who could compete for “shortstop of the future” honors.
There won’t be room for all and the Mariners will have to make a call on Seager — either keep bouncing him around, or trade him. Seager could be kept as the third baseman, though that would be a stretch for a team lacking traditional power elsewhere.
The Mariners have Miguel Olivo back one more year at catcher, though he’ll almost certainly have to play fewer games. That means either bringing in someone new or giving another shot to Adam Moore — out all year with a knee injury — to show he’s at least a candidate for full-time duty.
“We’re still not there,” Wedge said of the team he needs. “We’re still working on it.”
Zduriencik agrees the team is far from finished. He’ll need a miracle to fill all the holes in one offseason. But he now has more players to seek answers with.
And as the fourth season of his rebuilding effort approaches, he’ll need to produce something tangible to take fans’ minds off all the losses.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com