It’s Day 27 of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, meaning it’s finally the alphabetically-determined time of my newly local team! After yesterday waxing lyrical about Oakland’s new star pitcher Sonny Gray, today I look at a fellow AL West club; the 2014 iteration of the Seattle Mariners. After a noisy offseason full of signings, coaching turnover, and postulations of contention, are the M’s actually ready to flourish though? (Here’s a hint: No!)
When God gives you 19 intra-division games against a team as hapless as the 2013 Houston Astros, you are supposed to take fully advantage and sing His praises; unfortunately last years Seattle Mariners said “meh”, and passed over the scheduling gift, going just 10-9 against one of the worst teams in baseball history. Even worse, they were actually lucky to do so averagely, allowing the punchless Astros offense 91 runs in those 19 games while scoring only 81 themselves. Needless to say, the 2013 Mariners (who went 71-91, though their pythagorean win expectation was just 67-95) weren’t especially good.
And so the offseason began with drastic change promised. First out the door was manager Eric Wedge, who reportedly felt the incredible foulness of Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik’s, president Chuck Armstrong’s, and CEO Howard Lincoln’s dissatisfaction with yet another losing season. Amidst the damning accounts of front office dysfunction, former Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon was hired to right the ship – Zduriencik’s third manager of his tenure, and the team’s seventh since 2007.
Faced with a wave of negative press while simultaneously attempting to improve their lackluster offense, the Mariners threw money overboard in an attempt to right the ship, inking 31 year old second baseman Robinson Cano to a ten year, $240 million contract (a contentious subject to be discussed in a later post). In securing free agency’s biggest prize early, Seattle headed to baseball’s Winter Meetings ready to spend further in order to alter the public’s perception of their tolerance for losing.
The additional deals promised never materialized though. With incumbent DH Kendrys Morales and his associated compensatory pick lost to free agency (at least so far – he remains unsigned), and in need of a power outfield bat to replace Raul Ibanez (… I know – you can’t be good if Ibanez is playing the field), the Mariners were strongly linked to Nelson Cruz, but couldn’t work out a deal with the righty slugger. Instead, the M’s settled for Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, who will split time in between the outfield, first base, and DH. Hart it must be added, who is expected to play 145 games and bat cleanup behind Cano, is already listed as day-to-day with knee tenderness – this after having missed the entire 2013 season recovering from surgeries on both knees. It appears then, that Seattle will be relying on significant improvements from former top prospects Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley (Jesus Montero seemingly out of the mix given his still-awful receiving and just incredible winter weight gain) to ignite an offense that has produced the least runs of any team over the last half-decade. Given their respective longstanding struggles, such a sudden reversal in fortunes seems unlikely.
With an enviable stable of young impact arms on the way to join Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma in the rotation, Seattle’s lack of urgency in regard to acquiring additional starting pitching was more understandable. Already though, the Mariner’s presumed biggest strength is hurting; Iwakuma will miss a further 3 weeks and the start of the season after catching his finger in some protective netting, whereas top prospect Taijuan Walker has himself a worrying case of shoulder soreness. With Danny Hultzen too already out for the season, suddenly the back end of Seattle’s rotation looks set to feature the relatively unproven James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez, veteran Scott Baker (returning from elbow surgery that kept him out of 2012 and most of 2013), or (gulp) Hector Noesi. With just Ervin Santana left available on the free agency market – who is apparently demanding a multiyear deal – it seems for now that Seattle will once again be pinning their hopes for respectability on the continued existence of King Felix’s healthy right arm.
Where the Mariners did make a splashy signing however, was probably at the least needed position; in giving former Ray and ‘proven closer’ Fernando Rodney a two year $14 million deal, they not only managed to antagonize sabermetricians everywhere, but blocked the more than capable Danny Farquhar from the role. With Farquhar having saved 18 of his 20 opportunities towards the end of last season, Tom Wilhelmson waiting in the wings, the proven volatility of closers, and the 36 year old Rodney’s horrific peripherals, the contract seems questionable at best; but hey, it’s not like the ultra-savvy Rays know anything about extracting value from unreliable relievers before letting other teams overpay for them.
After pledging change, Zduriencik has somewhat misguidedly delivered then. Even after his expensive capture of Cano though, and subsequent signaling of Seattle’s willingness to open the checkbook (quite rightly so too, given the TV money boom the team will soon enjoy), Cot’s Contracts pegs their opening day salary at just $73,994,643, the Mariners’ lowest payroll since 2000, and $32,342,136 below the ML average. With the perennially underrated defending AL West champions Oakland going nowhere, a re-tooled Texas squad, and the Mike Trouts too, their division would have looked plenty daunting even if Seattle had aced this past offseason; as it is, a fourth-place finish again looks likely. The Mariners are still the Mariners, dysfunctional as ever.
Perhaps next winter, it will be Zduriencik’s ass getting hit by the door on the way out.