By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
Among the other 29 major-league teams, it would be difficult to find a stranger offseason focal point than the Seattle Mariners have in Justin Smoak.
Bring him back in 2013 and half the fan base will rail about a cheap franchise willing to settle for mediocrity, and that general manager Jack Zduriencik can’t admit he was fleeced in the Cliff Lee trade.
Let Smoak go and the other half will scream that the Mariners have been too impatient again, that Smoak will flourish for another franchise as a power-hitting switch-hitter Zduriencik let slip away.
All this for a man who batted .217 in 2012, and had to hit nearly .350 in final month to reach that mark.
“The fans who don’t know if I can sustain what I did the last month? I’m right there with them,” Smoak said. “I want to see it for a full season, too.”
The final month of 2012, Smoak was the Mariners’ best hitter, a man who returned to his collegiate approach at the plate and found some measure of redemption.
“I’ll be the first to admit it: I’ve been lost this year and I hurt the team. I put that on myself. If I’d done the job as a cleanup hitter, we’d have won a lot more games this season,” Smoak said. “If I’m different, we’re a different team.”
After a 75-87 season and another fourth-place finish, Mariners fans would like more to look forward to than the woeful Houston Astros joining the American League West next year.
Zduriencik should have payroll to play with, even if the team doesn’t raise his budget. With Ichiro Suzuki, George Sherrill and Kevin Millwood coming off the books, that frees up $20 million.
Some of that will be negated by arbitration-eligible players such as Justin Vargas and John Jaso, and whether the team picks up the $3.5 million option on catcher Miguel Olivo.
So, what did the Mariners learn about themselves in 2012? What must they do to contend in 2013?
First, the pitching staff.
In the rotation, they’ve got Felix Hernandez, Vargas, 11-game winner Blake Beavan and rookie Erasmo Ramirez. Hisashi Iwakuma is a free agent.
In the wings, minor-league arms Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer. Look for the first of those arms to arrive next year.
In the bullpen, the Mariners have closer Tom Wilhelmsen, set-up men in Stephen Pryor, Carter Capps and Charlie Furbush, and good arms in lefty Lucas Luetge and right-handers Shawn Kelley and Josh Kinney.
“Our pitching and defense carried us,” manager Eric Wedge said. “We had to lean on our bullpen, and the young pitchers came away with experience that will make them better next year.”
“The strength of our farm system is pitching,” Zduriencik said. “We should start seeing more of that next season.”
Another thing to remember about pitching: Everyone needs it. Trading good young pitching for hitters? Easy.
The Mariners’ infield this season was improved defensively — Brendan Ryan and Dustin Ackley were solid up the middle. Kyle Seager continued to advance on his learning curve at third base.
Offensively? Other than Seager, whose 20 home runs and 86 RBI led the club, it was a disaster. Ackley, the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft, batted .226, Smoak .217 and Ryan .194.
In house, there’s rookie Carlos Triunfel and still-in-the-minors middle infielders Nick Franklin and Brad Miller.
Team mascot/infielder Munenori Kawasaki isn’t likely to return, but the Mariners likely will need a veteran infielder up the middle and — depending upon their decision about Smoak — a first baseman with a proven bat.
The Seattle outfield was a round-robin affair from spring training on, with Franklin Gutierrez missing more than 120 games. Michael Saunders had a breakout season, going from a sub-.200 career hitter to a man who batted .247 with 19 home runs and 23 stolen bases.
The Mariners tried Casper Wells, Trayvon Robinson, Carlos Peguero and Eric Thames, and didn’t find a regular among them. Wells is the closest, a fourth-outfielder type. Robinson, a switch-hitter, remains for now a fifth outfielder. Peguero and Thames have likely swung-and-missed their way out of a future in Seattle.
Nothing on the farm will be ready to contribute by next spring, which means Zduriencik can plum the free-agent market or look to make a deal for outfield help.
Behind the plate, the Mariners were a team without peer this season, carrying three catchers all year. None was the answer.
Olivo could throw, and hit 12 home runs. Jaso called a good game and hit. Jesus Montero remained a work in progress, at the plate and behind it, and hit 15 home runs.
The future is Mike Zunino, drafted in June. He played 44 minor-league games, including a stint in Everett, and batted .360 with 13 home runs and 43 RBI. He’s a baby, but what a baby.
Until Zunino’s ready, can the Mariners get by with Jaso and Montero? Yes, but they’re just as likely to bring aboard a veteran and use Montero as the designated hitter and occasional first baseman.
That leaves the DH.
Jaso and Montero got the lion’s share of at-bats there, but it’s another possible area of offensive improvement this offseason.
As for the manager, Wedge is two years into his three-year contract, and has done precisely what’s been asked of him — try to turn a roster of youngsters and journeymen into the core of a team that could contend next season.
Can these Mariners challenge Texas, Oakland and Los Angeles?
Not as presently constituted. Changing the hitting coach and bringing in the fences at Safeco Field should help the offense, though not nearly as much as one proven heart-of-the-lineup bat would.
Waiting for Ackley and Saunders, Zunino and Montero to reach their full potential — or carrying a Ryan next season — only works if there is someone the offense can rely on until that happens.
“You look at the potential there — a switch-hitter with power — and that’s what any team would love to have,” Wedge said. “You don’t find them often, and when you do, you need patience.”
For arguments sake, say the Mariners bring back Smoak and — voila! — he bats .270 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI. Zduriencik can point to Smoak, Beavan and Jaso as three players obtained, directly or indirectly, from the Lee trade.
The Mariners would be a better team, but they’d still need at least one more proven, productive bat.
Josh Hamilton is a free agent. So are David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Mike Napoli, Torii Hunter and B.J. Upton.
The Mariners are more likely to deal from strength and move pitching for hitting.
If they’re serious about contending, however, small fixes won’t work in 2013. No matter how good the pitching and defense, Seattle finished 14 games out of third place, not first.
Smoak and mirrors won’t make up that gap.