BY Adam Lewis 08:30AM 02/12/2014

Uncertainty, promise surround 2014 Mariners

With GM Jack Zduriencik on a one-year contract, the Mariners were offseason aggressors. The result should make for an intriguing spring under new manager Lloyd McClendon.

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik has a few more decisions to make about his starting rotation and lineup before Opening Day. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Working under desperate circumstances, the Mariners proved willing to open their pocketbook in December when they signed free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 contract. In the final days leading up to spring training, beginning Wednesday when pitchers and catchers report to Peoria, AZ., general manager Jack Zduriencik tried to cap spending by adding a few more pieces to the lineup and starting rotation.

The Mariners are close to securing veteran pitchers Randy Wolf and Zach Miner to minor-league deals, according to multiple reports Tuesday.

Numerous others linked Seattle to free-agent right fielder Nelson Cruz, a 33-year-old who spent the past eight years with the Texas Rangers. In 2013, Cruz posted a .266/.327/.506 line in 109 games, including 27 home runs and 76 RBIs. He’s a two-time All-Star, but he’s also an admitted PED user: Last season, Major League Baseball suspended him the final 50 games for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal that derailed Alex Rodriguez’s career.

Zduriencik appeared eager to sign Cruz to a short-term, high-priced contract. His skills would create for Seattle a mix of advantages and disadvantages.

Adding him would force the Mariners to either reduce first baseman Justin Smoak’s playing time or rethink the outfield. It’s likely that Cruz, a defensive liability in right, would play some first base and designated hitter.

His presence could boost a lineup in need of a right-handed, middle-of-the-order producer, but could further burden an already crowded outfield as well as a first-base spot that is far from settled.

Another concern: If Cruz becomes a Mariner, right fielder/first baseman Logan Morrison (.242/.333/.375) — acquired in a December trade that sent reliever Carter Capps to the Marlins — might be forced into competition with incumbent left fielder Dustin Ackley, a former No. 2 overall draft pick upon whom management isn’t willing to quit.

In December, Zduriencik signed 32-year-old Corey Hart to a one-year, $6 million contract. The deal could earn him about $13 million if he meets its performance-based incentives.

Hart, a two-time All-Star with the Brewers at outfield and first base, missed all of 2013 following microfracture surgery to both knees. From 2010-12, he was a dangerous slugger, hitting .279/.343/.514. As important, he bats right-handed.

“We were awfully left-handed last year, so we need some balance,” manager Lloyd McClendon said last month at the club’s preseason luncheon. “We’ve talked about right-handed bats and where we (might) get that from. It’s not an easy equation. It’s a hard process. It’s a time-consuming process and at times it can get frustrating, but I’ll just say, stay tuned. We’re not done yet.”

With McClendon in his first year, Zduriencik working under a one-year contract, and newcomers to the outfield, second base, shortstop, catcher, designated hitter and pitching staff, there are few certainties.

What is known should encourage fans eager to put behind them a 71-91 season in 2013.

Dual aces Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma will be at the top of the rotation. All-Star closer Fernando Rodney, who last week agreed to a two-year, $14 million deal, will throw when the Mariners hold a close lead in the ninth. Kyle Seager will play third base and Cano will play second.

Every other spot, as McClendon intimated, will be decided in spring before the Mariners begin March 31 on the road vs. the Angels.

“I’m not fond of expectations, because I don’t want players to get caught up in expectations because I think you are focusing on the wrong things,” McClendon said. “This franchise has been knocked down. We’ve been on the mat for quite some time.

“It’s time for us to get up.”

Whether the Mariners challenge the Athletics, Rangers and Angels, all playoff contenders, in the AL West will depend in part on how they replace left fielder Raul Ibanez (signed with the Angels), DH Kendrys Morales (unsigned free agent) and No. 3 starter Joe Saunders (unsigned free agent).

The Mariners began the off-season by signing shortstop Willie Bloomquist, 36, to a two-year deal worth $5.8 million. Bloomquist, a Port Orchard native, was a utility player for Seattle from 2002-08. He’ll likely fill that role again while providing mentoring and depth to the Mariners’ young infield.

The competition between shortstop Brad Miller (.265/.318/.418) and second baseman Nick Franklin figures to be among the most interesting of the spring.

After making his MLB debut in May, Franklin impressed with a hot start and solid play at second base, but faltered toward the end. He finished hitting .225 with 12 home runs and 45 RBIs. When the Mariners signed Cano, Franklin was moved to shortstop, his natural position.

Most still consider him a longshot to make the team, though Zduriencik wasn’t willing to admit as much.

“I could sit here with Lloyd, myself and the entire coaching staff and we wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly what’s going to happen,” he said last month. “We were really excited about Nick being our second baseman going forward, but now he’s in a position where I think he comes into spring training and competes.”

The back of the starting rotation also remains a conundrum.

The Mariners signed former Twins starter Scott Baker to a one-year, minor-league deal with the hope that he has a strong spring and makes the team. Baker lost the 2012 season to Tommy John surgery and didn’t pitch again until September 2013. Prior to the injury, Baker, 32, was valuable during his eight-year career, going 63-48 with a 4.14 ERA.

Meanwhile, McClendon said he would be disappointed if Taijuan Walker didn’t break camp with the big club. Walker, 21, went 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA in three late-season starts despite having a raw complement of off-speed pitches to go along with a fastball in the mid-90s.

During the offseason, Walker was the subject of constant trade speculation.

“It was a little crazy,” he said at last month’s luncheon. “My mom definitely didn’t want me to go anywhere. She was always in my ear. ‘Ask Zdruriencik this. Find out if you’re going anywhere.’”

“I just tried not to pay attention to that stuff. I just let my mom do it,” he said. “It was hard, especially with social media.”

Southpaw James Paxton, 25, (3-0 with a 1.50 ERA) and Erasmo Ramirez, 21, (5-3, 4.98 ERA) should also get extended looks to break camp with the Mariners, though both are inexperienced and have never pitched an entire season. They’ll be contending with Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi and Brandon Maurer in a competition for the final three rotation spots.


YourThoughts

  • notaboomer

    sign erik bedard and trade him to the orioles for adam jones.

  • 1coolguy

    UNCERTAINTY??? GEEEEZ Adam, do your job.

    The only thing uncertain about the M’s is how many losses over 90 they will have each year.

    The only certainty is Lincoln will never leave.

  • jafabian

    Jack should give up on Cruz and re-sign Kendry. Cruz is just using the M’s to get a bigger contract from someone. with Kendry they can let Smoak play first but if he doesn’t work out then Kendry can play 1B. He’s cheaper than Cruz as well I bet. If they want an OF they should try Juan Pierre or even (gasp) Jason Bay.

  • RadioGuy

    If Cruz is that much of a defensive liability in the outfield and more likely to be a DH or 1B, how is he different from Morrison or Hart? It makes more sense to try bringing Morales back and shopping Smoak, who’s been little more than an occasional tease for three seasons. We KNOW Morales can hit at Safeco Field, he’s three years younger than Cruz and hasn’t built his numbers by using PEDs (although no drug in the world can improve your hand-eye coordination).

    Maybe I’m nuts (and it wouldn’t be the first time), but I’m not against moving Cano to the outfield and keeping Miller and Franklin intact up the middle defensively. Cano is a better defensive 2B than Franklin (and Ackley is better than both of them there), but moving from the infield to the outfield didn’t hurt Alfonso Soriano or Craig Biggio and would even save a little wear and tear on Cano’s 31-year-old body while keeping his bat in the lineup.

    BTW, Ackley played CF after his call-up from Tacoma, not LF, and he seemed to respond fairly well to the move. It would be nice if McClendon wasn’t a station-to-station manager when it comes to baserunning because we DO have guys with some speed, including Ackley. Why not try taking advantage of that? Opposing pitchers can feel more comfortable knowing they don’t have to worry about someone on first base attempting to steal second.

    As for Paxton, he’s now 25 and it’s getting about time to fish or cut bait with him. At that age, it’s hard to call a guy a “prospect” the way you can with 21-year-olds like Walker or Ramirez. Give Paxton some starts in Arizona and see how he responds before ticketing him for another year in Tacoma. September can deceive, but he looked ready last season.

    I’m from Missouri on Rodney at this point. He had one lights-out year in 2012, but he’s otherwise been unreliable with an ERA usually in the mid 4′s and a WHIP of 1.5. Great stuff when it’s working, but you have to throw strikes and keep batters off base and those are two things that, historically, he hasn’t really done very well.

    Even with everything I just rambled about, I still think the talent is on hand for this team to post a winning record this season. Then again, I was saying the same thing a year ago. Once bitten…

  • ollie swensen

    iwakuma out 4-6 weeks, taijuan pitching shoulder soreness, montero acknowledges that eating caused him to be overweight, but he’s on a diet plan now. management unwilling to give up on a former #2 overall pick that continues to show only potential.
    typical.

  • Big

    Nothing happen here folks, move along. The M’s do what the M’s do. Chase average or declining talent and pay good money. There is no hope in Sodo.

  • lee cousins

    I don’t think J.Z. can see for he has Smoak in his eyes,
    How much longer do we have to endure the Smoak experiment, I don’t get it, my own personal feeling are at some point Smoak may turn out to become a serviceable 1st basemen but at what expense to watch him year after year under perform, patience is only a good thing if you don’t mine waiting, I feel like I’ve been to the doctors office one to many times, now that we have Hart ,and Morrison in the lineup their is some hope this will finally get resolved…………, you know maybe this post belongs somewhere like last year, but then even second hand Smoak is not good for your health.