Since the final out of last season, the Seattle Mariners have worked almost nonstop to fix everything that went wrong.
They hired a new general manager, manager and coaching staff.
They signed a power-hitting first baseman, Russell Branyan.
They pulled off the biggest trade of the offseason in the 12-player, three-team deal last month at the winter meetings. The trade brought them stellar defensive outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez, along with pitcher Aaron Heilman and four others who will help increase their minor league depth, but it cost them closer J.J. Putz, top reliever Sean Green and outfielder Jeremy Reed.
They added two others in the Rule 5 draft — infielder Reegie Corona and left-handed pitcher Jose Lugo — and brought back catcher Jamie Burke on a minor league contract.
What’s left to accomplish before spring training begins in early February?
In fact, there may not be enough time or payroll for new GM Jack Zduriencik to build the team just the way he wants it before the April 6 season opener.
There’s still no designated hitter, no new outfielder who makes up for the 110 RBI lost when Raul Ibanez left as a free agent, no clear-cut answer at closer after Putz was traded and no left-handed relief specialist.
Despite the moves so far, there’s isn’t a clear indication that the Mariners have improved an offense that ranked 13th among the 14 American League teams in runs and RBI, and 12th in home runs.
Branyan brings enticing left-handed home run potential, but also a pattern of inconsistency at the plate and the possibility he’ll strike out more than 150 times.
With Gutierrez in center field and Chavez in left, along with Ichiro Suzuki in right, the Mariners have one of their best defensive outfields ever. There’s little power among those three and, in an ideal world, the Mariners would sign a better-hitting left fielder and keep Chavez available off the bench.
The DH job needs a significant upgrade after the 15 home runs they got out of that spot last year was the worst in the league.
There are some intriguing hitters available — Adam Dunn, Sean Casey and, yes, Ken Griffey Jr. — but it seems unlikely that the Mariners will spend much on free agents. The budget may not allow it.
The Mariners’ payroll in 2009 is expected to be less than $110 million, and close to $90 million of it could be tied up after the team deals with Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard and Aaron Heilman, who all are eligible for arbitration.
No job in the bullpen is certain at this point.
With Putz and Green having been traded, the Mariners need a closer and right-handed setup man, and they’ve operated without a solid left-handed specialist since they traded Arthur Rhodes to the Marlins midway through last season.
Zduriencik, manager Don Wakamatsu, the coaches and scouts will get their heads together soon to discuss the best options to fill those holes.
Brandon Morrow saved 10 games last year when Putz was injured, but he has been converted into a starting pitcher. Morrow prefers to start but says he will do what’s best for the team.
Mark Lowe wants the closer job and will get a serious look at spring training, and Heilman is a possible closer although he wasn’t enamored with a bullpen role last year with the Mets.
There’s no clear answer for the left-handed relief job, either.
Cesar Jimenez and Justin Thomas had less success against left-handed hitters than righties. Jason Vargas, obtained in the trade with the Mets, has limited big-league experience but has held lefties to a .212 average, which should warrant a good look at spring training.
Three months and one day remain before the Mariners open the 2009 season at Minnesota, and while it may seem there’s plenty of time to fix what’s broken by then, there’s not.
Quick fixes aren’t part of the Mariners’ plan anymore, and Zduriencik’s goal is to build a team that remains strong in the future. He refuses to call this a rebuilding year, although it seems clear that putting together the team as he wants it will be an ongoing process.
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com