By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
Before panic or anger overwhelms you, perhaps it’s instructive to at least wait until 2013 before officially throwing away the 2013 baseball season for the Seattle Mariners.
Yes, the Mariners lost out on Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher and even Cody Ross.
And while the trade for Kendrys Morales was definitely viewed as a positive among Mariners fans, the free-agent signings of Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez received tepid to irritated responses.
“Typical Mariners, signing guys who are well past their primes.”
“What are they doing??”
To be fair, the general manager Jack Zduriencik isn’t done with this offseason.
Zduriencik is still adjusting the roster and trying to make moves to improve the team and organization. Zduriencik is still looking to acquire another bat, starting pitching depth and perhaps a veteran backup catcher. There are rumors of a possible deals being in the works in the days after Christmas.
“We’ll continue to see what else is out there just to make the club better,” Zduriencik said earlier this week. “If there’s something that makes sense, we’re wide open to it.”
The addition of Morales and the signing of Ibanez brought with it several questions about roster shape, playing time and at-bats. How will it all work? Who will play where? Who is the odd man out?
Well, the Mariners have almost 100 days to figure it out before 2013 season opener in Oakland on April 1.
A little over a year ago, Michael Saunders seemed destined for the minors or headed for another organization in a crowded outfield. But a solid spring, an injury to Franklin Gutierrez and later injuries to Mike Carp kept him playing every day. Saunders responded with a 19-homer, 57-RBI season, keeping him part of the Mariners’ future plans.
So worrying how Mariners manager Eric Wedge is going to fit Morales, Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, John Jaso, Bay, Ibanez and others into a lineup day in and day out is kind of pointless.
Rosters have a way of working themselves out.
“We’re confident there’ll be enough at-bats to go around to make it work for everyone,” Zduriencik said. “At the end, if you add a piece that makes your club better, then that’s just better.”
Realistically, Ibanez’s days of being an every day starter at designated hitter or outfield are behind him. He was brought in to be a bat off the bench, a sometime starter and a role model for the plethora of young players on the team.
While Montero and Jaso saw plenty of at-bats at DH last season, both are still viewed as catchers first. It’s why Montero has spent the offseason working on his conditioning and quickness. The two catchers will likely platoon there according to the day’s starting pitcher. Jaso’s success as a pinch hitter will keep him on the bench on the days a left-handed pitcher starts, greatly reducing his overall number of plate appearances.
Morales should get the bulk of starts at DH. A switch-hitter with power, he’s still recovering from a broken left leg two seasons ago. For the first time since the incident, he is completely pain free and able to run and condition in the offseason without any residual effects. He believes he’s capable of going back to being an every day first baseman. But at this point, why take the risk?
The Mariners still have Smoak and Carp available to play first base on a daily basis. After failing to meet lofty expectations set for him after being acquired from the Texas Rangers, Smoak gave the Mariners a 42-game stretch of hope last season after being sent down to Class AAA Tacoma. He returned with a changed swing and a new outlook.
Smoak hit .288 (40-for-139) with six homers and 13 RBI. He also had an .850 on-base plus slugging percentage.
“We really felt the last five weeks or so, it was real,” Wedge said. “He really made some positive changes with his hands, with his approach, and with his swing that allowed him to drive the ball from both sides of the plate the way you like to see him drive it. Whether it be from the right hand side or the left hand side. I’ve got a great deal of belief in Justin and feel this kid is going to be a strong contributor for us.”
So if Smoak is producing, they can play him four days a week at first base and give Morales a few days there to keep his legs healthy. It does seem like Carp, who also plays the outfield, may be the odd man out. He is out of Class AAA options and could never capitalize on his positive September of 2011.
As for the outfield playing time, the Mariners have Bay, Ibanez, Saunders, Gutierrez, Casper Wells and Eric Thames. One opposing big league scout characterized the players who manned the outfield for the Mariners last season as “a collection of fourth outfielders.”
They all have their individual flaws.
Center fielder Gutierrez has all the talent and ability to be an every day productive outfielder. He proved it in 2009, hitting .280 with 17 homers and 70 RBI. But since then, injuries have kept him off the field. He played in just 40 games last year and 94 the year before.
Even Wedge admitted that he can’t allow himself to think of Gutierrez as a 5-day a week starter because of the past few seasons.
Bay has also had his injury issues, and he still must prove he can return to being a productive big league hitter. There are some who have their doubts.
Thames has some power and showed glimpses of hitting ability, which the Mariners need. But he’s also considered a subpar defensive player in either corner outfield position.
Ibanez is a defensive liability. He struggled in left field at Safeco in his previous stint with the Mariners. He can make an emergency start in left field and not be a problem. But at age 40, he can’t play there every day. It would not end well.
Wells is a solid defensive player, but he’s streaky as a hitter and has issues with swinging and missing pitches.
Saunders might be the most complete player. He can play any of the three spots at an above average level. His hitting has improved considerably. If Gutierrez is healthy and Bay returns to even 80 percent of his best years, Saunders could be the starter in right field.
Because Thames still has Class AAA options left, he might be out of the mix. Wells could stay on the team because of his defensive ability. But don’t be surprised if the Mariners trade for or sign another outfielder, which might force Wells out of the organization.
There are so many options and/or possibilities right now for the Mariners. And there will likely be more if Zduriencik continues to add players. It will lead to more new questions. But Zduriencik isn’t concerned.
“These things have a way of working themselves out,” Seattle’s GM said.