For all intents and purposes, it looks like the M’s are done dealing heading into Spring Training. That doesn’t mean there aren’t important moves to make, but I don’t think anybody believes the M’s are going to cough up big bucks to sign James Shields or make a deal that brings Doug Fister back to Seattle.
Even so, Seattle made several small moves that shores up some team depth in areas of potential concern. On Tuesday the Mariners announced the signing of old friends, outfielders Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez. Chavez is the guy all statheads love to hate because he’s gotten too old to be a great defender and doesn’t walk enough or have enough power to be an offensive hero. Maybe, but he’s filled in well for the Mariners when others have gone down and nobody else was available. We’re on the third or fourth act of “Waiting for Guti,” who has fought half a decade of injury and irritable bowel syndrome. At age 32, don’t expect him to be 2009’s “Death to Flying Things.” Signed to minor league contracts, both guys will contribute to depth at the outfield position. I’d expect one or neither to make the team out of spring training.
The M’s also signed catcher John Baker to a minor league deal. It was looking a lot like they were going to take Mike Zunino and Jesus Sucre to Peoria as the major league catching tandem with only John Hicks as a minor league option in Tacoma. Hicks is a defense first guy who played well in AA Jackson last year, but has no AAA experience. Sucre is a good defender and offensive black hole. Zunino can hit fastballs a mile, but is also a strikeout machine. Baker, a veteran of seven major league seasons, offers the Mariners experience and options.
So, at this point, the Mariners have filled in some areas where there were legitimate depth questions in case of injury or flame-out by young players. It’s not like they’ve got Willie Mays ready to step in for Austin Jackson if he gets hurt, but at least there is someone with experience.
Despite these moves there are still areas of concern for the Mariners:
1. Can Logan Morrison stay healthy and productive enough to be the every day first baseman? In his five big league seasons, LoMo has played more than 100 games once, in his very productive 2011 season with Florida. Last year he managed 99 games and really struggled with the bat until an explosive August and September. The M’s have done little to address the Morrison question, though there are potential solutions with Jesus Montero and untested first baseman in waiting D.J. Peterson. By all accounts, Montero is in good physical condition, but was a terrible first baseman in Tacoma last year. I’m sure the Mariners would like to keep Peterson in the minors this year unless his production shows them they simply cannot.
2. How many relievers will the Mariners carry on their roster? Last year, manager Lloyd McClendon was not shy about populating his ‘pen with as many as eight relievers. For the most part that strategy paid off as the M’s had one of the most stubborn relief staffs in baseball. Today, with Brandon Maurer traded and Joe Beimel unsigned, the M’s are set to return with that same staff largely intact. While the Mariners and Tom Wilhelmson seem ready to swap figures and say nasty things about each other in arbitration, there is little reason to believe this staff will perform as effectively as last year’s crew. Unless, of course, they don’t and become the flammable 2013 bunch. There is talk that McClendon may not keep quite as many guys on the big league roster, which may allow another spot for one more bat on the bench. Four spots vs. three is a big difference and might allow them to keep a Franklin Gutierrez and/or James Jones available.
3. Pete Carroll’s right, competition is a good thing. For the first time in recent memory, the Mariners will have a lot of competition for roles on this roster. Brad Miller and Chris Taylor will duke it out for the starting shortstop role. And they’ll be able to look over their shoulders and see a highly considered Ketel Marte in the rearview mirror. The entire outfield will be under the microscope as Dustin Ackley, Austin Jackson, Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith vie for playing time. Yes there does seem to be a logical order to this, but DH/OF Nelson Cruz will also likely insist on some time roaming Safeco’s green pastures, and Gutierrez/Chavez/Jones will be looking through the window. How many at bats will Mike Zunino get if he continues to strike out in a third of his appearances? Will Baker, a lefty batter (not to be mistaken for Lou Gehrig or even Miguel Olivo with his 52 OPS+ average over the last five seasons) take some of those at bats? You can write Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager in thick black Sharpie on your scorecard, but there are some legit question marks for the remaining position players. In the rotation, same thing-Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and J.A. Happ are shoo-ins, but there will be a dogfight between Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Roenis Elias for the last two rotation spots. Barring injury, that’s a really good place to be.
While Steamer and other projections give the Mariners high marks heading into the 2015 season, honestly I just don’t buy it. Those same projections saw the Mariners as a barely .500 team last year. Of course i did too, which makes the projections for 2015 all that much more suspicious. This team definitely has some strengths. The starting pitching is good and deep. The bullpen was outstanding last year. The defense was at least average. The offense wasn’t very good. It seems to me the M’s have addressed some important areas-Cruz at DH is a huge upgrade, and the platoon in right should work. But it’s a team that’s thin. Anything like the train wreck that was Texas last year and Mariners will have a tough season. It’s hard to see how this team beats the Angels, but as some of the Halos’ best guys age, anything can happen.
Pitchers and catchers report to Peoria in less than three weeks. Then we’ll get to see the sausage made.