Mariners manager Eric Wedge and GM Jack Zduriencik on expectations, leadership, health and more

At this time year ago, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik admitted that, “This is going to be a challenging year at the big league level for us. Let’s not kid ourselves.”

A year later, when asked about his team’s place in the AL West pecking order, Zduriencik said, “Who knows what’ll happen?”

Um, I suppose that counts as progress, right?

Kidding aside, the Mariners, who will head to Arizona for spring training next month, do feel good about the direction the organization is heading in as it prepares for the 2013 season. Nobody is going to make any bold guarantees after a 75-87 season, but there is plenty of optimism for the future.

“In regard to how we see our future and where we see ourselves at right now, we feel like we’re in a very, very good place,” manager Eric Wedge said at the team’s annual pre-spring training luncheon. “I get questions often in regard to the timetable of us being a championship team. The only thing I can tell you is that we’ll be better and we’ll continue to get better as we have the last couple of years, and at some point in time we will be a championship team.”

Wedge even went as far as to say that he believes his team, 60-deep (in other words, how many player they’ll have at spring training) is as talented as any in baseball. Now mind you, he’s not saying the Mariners will be the best team in baseball this season, there’s a big difference from being deep from 1 through 60 and being the best team when it comes to a 25-man big-league roster.

One big reason for Wedge’s optimism is the addition of the strong veteran leadership he is expecting to get from players like Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay. The Mariners’ clubhouse wasn’t entirely devoid of veteran players last season, but the likes of Ichiro Suzuki, Miguel Olivo and Chone Figgins weren’t exactly taking on big-time leadership roles. Wedge wasn’t too subtle in saying as much.

“If you look at the veterans we had in our clubhouse last year versus to the veterans we have in the clubhouse this year, it’s night and day,” he said.

Asked to elaborate on that comment, Wedge said, “You guys know who the veterans we had last year were, and you guys know who the veterans are coming in this year, so you can probably figure that out. I mentioned the guys we have coming in, and I’m not going to talk about guys who aren’t here anymore, but you can look at their role or their impact, or lack thereof. It is what it is. This is professional sports, this is the big leagues, this is the highest level. Either you help or you don’t. If you help, you’re on board with it; if you don’t, then we’re going to eliminate you. That’s what we’ve done and we’ve been very consistent with it. We’re looking for people to be a part of this.”

Health update

The Mariner will head to spring training in very good shape from a health standpoint. As trainer Rick Griffin pointed out, the Mariners had players spend fewer days on the disabled list than any team last season. Only two players are coming off of surgeries, and neither is expected to be limited in spring training.

Second baseman Dustin Ackley had arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur from his ankle after the season and is now running with no limitations. Griffin said Ackley never used his hurting ankle as an excuse but said, “I think it hindered him quite a bit.”

Shortstop Brendan Ryan also had surgery right after the season ended to remove a bone spur from his elbow. Like Ackley, Ryan won’t be limited this spring.

Centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez, he of many health issues in recent years, has “No issues of any kind,” according to Griffin, and reported weighing in at a healthy 197 pounds.

First baseman Justin Smoak has put on nine pounds while lowering his body-fat percentage, Griffin said, and is much more agile than before. And speaking of Smoak, despite his struggles last season, he will have every chance to win the starting job again this season.

“I have every anticipation that he’s going to be our first baseman this year,” Wedge said.

More pieces needed

The Mariners will almost certainly make a few more moves between now and the start of the season. At the very least, they need to add another catcher—Jesus Montero is the only one on the Major League roster at the moment—and they’ll likely add another starting pitcher to compete for a spot at the bottom of the rotation. While Wedge and Zduriencik said they wouldn’t rule out a young pitcher winning a job in spring training, they’d also like to add a veteran arm or two for depth.

Zduriencik also talked a bit about the team’s attempt at landing slugger Josh Hamilton in free agency, though he never named Hamilton while doing so. Zduriencik praised ownership for their flexibility in allowing them to go after a big-money target, and said that (again without naming Hamilton), the Mariners made, based on reported figures, “a more aggressive offer than the team he’s currently with.”

On the trade that sent John Jaso to Oakland and brought Mike Morse to Seattle from Washington, Zduriencik said one factor in that was that last year’s first-round pick, Mike Zunino, is, “right around the corner.”

Asked about the possibility of extending Felix Hernandez (recent reports have come out that the Mariners and Hernandez have been in talks about a four-year extension) Zduriencik wouldn’t get into details, but said the Mariners have “every intention of keeping Felix here for the long term.”

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