With a deep rotation, bullpen and a few off-season additions that upgraded the offense, the Mariners have positioned themselves to win the AL West.
When the Mariners traded reliever Brandon Maurer to the Padres for right fielder Seth Smith, it was fair to assume they were finished upgrading the roster this off-season.
To recap the past month: They signed the reigning major league home run leader in designated hitter Nelson Cruz. They replaced talented but oft-injured right fielder Michael Saunders with Smith, from San Diego, and former Cub Justin Ruggiano, forming a veteran platoon with two proven hitters who do well what the Mariners most struggled with in 2014: Getting on base.
In return for trading Saunders to the Blue Jays, Seattle received veteran southpaw J.A. Happ, shoring up the back end of a starting rotation that crumbled because of injuries and fatigue over the past season’s final month.
And, going back to the end of July, they addressed their centerfield mess — cough Abraham Almonte/James Jones cough — with a trade-deadline deal that brought Austin Jackson from the Detroit Tigers and sent second baseman Nick Franklin and his .213 career batting average to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Oh, and they locked up All-Star third baseman Kyle Seager to a seven-year, $100 million contract, with a club option for an eighth year.
So what else is out there for Seattle general manager Jack Zdruriencik?
“To say we’re done, I don’t think that would be accurate,” Zduriencik said this week. “I have discussions going on. I don’t think there will be anything big in terms of a multiplayer deal or some earth-shattering free-agent signing. But I think there are ways we can help our ballclub.”
Analyzing the Mariners roster reveals a team that looks ready to compete for the American League West title and end a playoff drought that goes back to 2001. FanGraphs predicts they will finish 2015 with the best record in the AL, at 89-73.
“I think we’re in a good spot,when you add Nelson Cruz, Ruggiano and Seth Smith, some starting pitching,” Zduriencik said. “That could really help us.”
Seattle’s starting rotation projects as Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Happ/Roenis Elias. That’s the core of a group that helped the Mariners lead the AL last season with a 3.17 ERA. Chris Young, the reigning AL Comeback Player of the Year, remains a free agent.
The bullpen, which led MLB in 2014 with a 2.59 ERA, remains a position of strength despite the loss of Maurer and uncertain future of veteran left-hander Joe Beimel (3-1, 2.20 ERA), who remains unsigned. That’s in part because of the late-season emergence of hard-throwing right-hander Carson Smith. Last month during the winter meetings, the Mariners selected southpaw David Rollins from the Houston Astros in the Rule 5 draft and have incentive for him to make the club out of spring training.
At this point, the bullpen appears the least of Zduriencik’s concerns.
“There was one club that called me and said we’ll take anybody you want to give us out of your bullpen,” he said earlier this week. “We have depth there and that’s a good thing. Now that we have extra starters, who knows how that will all play out? Could someone end up in the bullpen? We’ll see.”
The two biggest question marks are at first base at shortstop, though neither situation is dire.
Brad Miller and Chris Taylor will enter spring training competing for the starting shortstop job after both played well in spurts last season but failed to win the position outright. Manager Lloyd McClendon has said he’d prefer to not have them split time. There’s been talk of moving Miller to outfield.
The first base competition is equally intriguing.
After struggling with injuries for much of the year, first baseman Logan Morrison was probably the Mariners best hitter over the final month. In September, he batted .342 with five home runs, 11 RBIs and a 1.042 OPS in 24 games to finish the year with an OK .262/.315/.420 slash line.
But “LoMo” has never played more than 123 games in a season during his five-year MLB career. That came in 2011 with the then-Florida Marlins.
Which means he needs a backup. The top candidate is familiar.
“We’re going to work really, really hard with Jesus Montero in spring training. We’ve talked about the strides I think he’s made this winter,” Zduriencik said. “We’ll see if he’s a player or not.”
Attempting to resurrect his career, Montero is spending the off-season working out at the team’s spring training facility in Peoria, AZ., and has lost between 30-35 pounds, according to Zduriencik. The former top catching prospect was suspended late last season for an an embarrassing incident with a Mariners scout at a minor league game in Boise, ID. The scout, who has since been fired, had an ice cream sandwich delivered to Montero in the dugout. Montero reportedly responded by screaming obscenities and trying to take a bat into the stands to fight.
It was the lowlight of a lost season after Montero fell into the organization’s doghouse by reporting to 2014 spring training overweight.
Almost a year later, the converted first baseman has what is likely his last chance to make it in Seattle.
“In no way am I panicking about our first base situation,” Zduriencik said. “If we were put in a position where something would happen to Logan, I certainly think we could fill that role comfortably.”