PEORIA, Ariz. – Michael Saunders took a pause from swatting baseballs deep into the outfield in order to offer up his assessment of how productive this Mariners winter has been.
“Things are going to be different this year,” he said. “There’s no way you can look at this lineup and think things are going to stay the same.”
Saunders was taking batting practice here last week with about a dozen other players, getting in some workouts before the start of spring training. Camp opens for pitchers and catchers with physicals on Tuesday, then on-field workouts Wednesday before the rest of the position players join in a few days later.
What Saunders was most encouraged about were the additions to the middle of the batting order, with Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse hoping to provide the type of punch from the Nos. 3 and 4 spots in the order not seen in Seattle in several years. That will enable others like Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero and Saunders to stay further back down in the order where they can find more of a comfort zone to maximize their potential.
Indeed, the combination of Morales and Morse, the fences at Safeco Field coming in and the hoped-for natural progression of young players like Seager, Dustin Ackley, Montero, Saunders and maybe Justin Smoak could jump-start an offense that’s been the league’s worst for three years running. Throw in 19 games against the Houston Astros and the Mariners could plausibly win as many as 85 games like they did in 2009.
That’s no sure thing, however, largely because of the question marks that surround the squad. The Mariners are about to make an investment in Felix Hernandez that will keep him in Seattle for seven more seasons and make him the marketing focal point for a lucrative new local television deal that will happen by 2015.
That television deal – if market trends hold – should be worth billions and will provide the Mariners additional revenues to compete with the $120 million-plus payrolls of division rivals in Anaheim and Texas for years to come. But the past three seasons have served as a holding pattern of sorts, with Mariners ownership unwilling to even match payroll levels from 2007.
During this time, the team allowed most long-term contracts to run out without replacing them while continuing to put a last-place product on the field. The result sees Hernandez as the only player under contract beyond the 2014 season while Hisashi Iwakuma is the only other Mariner committed to after 2013.
And it means that, despite the flurry of offseason moves made by general manager Jack Zduriencik, none of it has any sense of permanence. The Mariners say they made a very competitive long-term offer to Josh Hamilton, who disagreed with their assessment. They also attempted to deal for outfielder Justin Upton, knowing he had Seattle on his no-trade list, then could not convince him to waive it in order to join their team.
In the interim, free-agent outfielder Nick Swisher signed with Cleveland for a deal worth far less than many initially thought it would be. As of now, free-agent center fielder and leadoff man Michael Bourn – who the Mariners have looked into signing all winter – remains on the open market with a lack of big-money teams pursuing him.
But the Mariners, for now, are sticking with a payroll of about $85 million – before incentive bonuses are factored in – and maintaining a plan that will require significant improvement by younger players if the offense is to sustain any growth beyond 2013.
The pitching staff
One big question that could throw any talk of a winning 2013 season into jeopardy remains the pitching staff. Both the bullpen and rotation are still largely untested, even with the pending addition of veteran left-handed starter Joe Saunders once he takes his physical here this week.
Saunders fills an innings-void created when the Mariners traded Jason Vargas to the Angels in order to acquire Morales. But if the Mariners were nervous about how the realigned fences at Safeco Field might impact Vargas, they are unlikely to gain any sleep by swapping him out for a pitcher in Saunders who is very much his clone.
The M’s are bringing in reclamation projects Jeremy Bonderman and Jon Garland on minor-league deals to compete for back-end rotation jobs with the likes of Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi.
In the bullpen, the team hopes the second-half struggles of closer Tom Wilhelmsen prove a mirage and that youngsters Charlie Furbush, Carter Capps, Lucas Luetge and Stephen Pryor can build on some of the success they enjoyed last season.
Moving the fences
The fences coming in allowed the Mariners to stop fretting about outfield defense as much as they had. Additions like Morse, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay likely would not have been made before the fences came in and enabled the team to contemplate using those players in the outfield at times.
Where they all fit remains something of a mystery and competition between them and players like Casper Wells, Mike Carp and Eric Thames should be fierce. Again, if none of the moves pan out, the Mariners can simply dump all those veteran additions after this year and start over.
But this rebuilding plan, heading into its fifth year, is still mostly in the hands of young players when it comes to commitments beyond 2013. The only difference this year is that the Mariners have rented out multiple veteran bats to help guide their largely unproven core.
Where it will all fit come 2014 and 2015 is still anyone’s guess. But the winter additions should at least make 2013 more palatable for fans as they wait for the M’s to take a more serious shot at lifting payroll and their contention hopes in years to come.
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