Winter report card: Seattle Mariners
With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
2012 Results: 75-87, 4th place in AL West (Hot Stove Preview)
It's been a bit over four years since Jack Zduriencik took over as general manager of the Mariners, and only a slight exaggeration to say that they've scored more than four runs in a game about half a dozen times during that span. Indeed, the Mariners have been an offensively challenged lot on Mr. Z's watch, scoring 124 fewer runs than any other major league team and 440 fewer runs than any other AL team, not including the Junior Circuit-bound Astros. They've averaged 3.59 runs per game over those four seasons, the last three of them losing ones, and while some of that is owed to their ballpark — which they're reconfiguring this winter — not all of it is. Last year they ranked fifth in the AL in scoring on the road at 4.47 runs per game, albeit with an unimpressive bating line of .247/.300/.403 — unimpressive until one sees their home line of 3.17 runs per game on .220/.291/.331 "hitting."
Given the paucity of on-base percentage in both of those splits, you might conclude that trading the player who led the team in that category by 78 points might not be the best way to go about upgrading, but that's exactly what the Mariners have done in sending away John Jaso, who hit .276/.394/.456 with 10 homers in 361 plate appearances, to Washington in a three-way deal that brought back Michael Morse. As a platoon player at the plate and a below-average defender behind it, the 29-year-old Jaso has his limitations, but he also has three years of club control remaining, whereas Morse, who's coming off a modest .291/.321/.470 showing with 18 homers in 430 PA for the Nationals, can be a free agent after the coming year, his age 31-season, in which he'll make $7 million.
At least Morse brings a bat with some life in it. The same may not be said for the 34-year-old Jason Bay, who hit just .165/.237/.299 with eight homers in 215 PA for the Mets last year amid injuries (a broken rib and a concussion) and .234/.318/.369 with 26 homers in 1,125 PA over three mostly unfortunate seasons in Queens before being released with some $21 million still remaining on his deal. It's a stretch to say that the 40-year-old Raul Ibanez does either, at least after noting that he hit just .208/.269/.365 with five homers in 216 plate appearances away from Yankee Stadium last year, and .224/.287/.359 away from home over the past three seasons. The plan appears to be for the lefty-swinging Ibanez and the righty-swinging Bay to platoon in leftfield, where to be fair the team received just a .207/.277/.370 performance in 2012. They'll pay Ibanez $2.75 million and Bay $1 million in the hopes they can clear that low bar. Another possibility is that the dynamic duo forms a DH platoon, where again, the Mariners got less than nothing in 2012 (.214/.287/.310).
That's a moving target because of Morse's nominal versatility — he can play either outfield corner or first base, albeit not particularly well — and the Mariners' still-harbored hopes for 26-year-old first baseman Justin Smoak, a former top prospect who hit .217/.290/.364 in 535 PA last year. That performance is slightly worse than his career line, yet the mirage of a .341/.426/.580 September/October showing — privileging his last 101 plate appearances, as opposed to the 1,320 that came before them — means Jack Z just can't quit him. Also in the mix at first base or DH is the freshly acquired Kendrys Morales, who after missing the previous year and a half with a broken leg hit a modest .273/.320/.467 with 22 homers in 522 PA for the Angels in 2012. The 29-year-old will make $5.25 million in 2013, his final year before free agency.
Zduriencik did at least manage to quit Figgins, cutting him with $8 million remaining on his contract after a .181/.262/.271 showing in 2012, his second straight season below the Mendoza Line. He also let Olivo, who hit .222/.239/.381, depart as a free agent, though the subsequent trade of Jaso has thinned the team's catching corps considerably (more on which below). His moves have left the uninspiring Casper Wells, Eric Thames and Mike Carp, all of whom contributed significantly to that leftfield mess, on the outside looking in, though some of those players at least have time on their sides.
Meanwhile, the trade of Jason Vargas for Morales and the free agent departure of Kevin Millwood — who combined for 378 1/3 innings of 4.02 ERA work (a 93 ERA+) — has created a significant void in the rotation behind Felix Hernandez. At the moment, the other four spots appear to belong to Hisashi Iwakuma, Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi, a group has youth on its side, with only Iwakuma over 30. Better pitchers — prospects Tajuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton — are on the way, but not immediately, so adding a low-cost veteran innings-eater such as Joe Saunders (in whom they're rumored to be interested) would make some sense. On the other hand, there's merit to seeing what they have in the rest given that only Beavan made more than 20 starts for them last year and that this team isn't going to contend.
Unfinished business: Catching trouble. The departures of Jaso and Miguel Olivo leave 23-year-old Jesus Montero as the only catcher on the roster, suggesting he's the likely starter. Hailed as one of the top hitting prospects in all of baseball coming into last season, Montero was acquired in a January 2012 deal with the Yankees that cost Seattle Michael Pineda and another pitching prospect because New York — and most other major league teams — wasn't convinced he had a future behind the plate. His rookie season was unimpressive, to say the least. Splitting time between DH and catcher, he hit just .260/.298/.386 with 15 homers and 25 unintentional walks in 553 PA, though his road performance (.295/.330/.438 with nine homers) was at least respectable. Behind the plate, he threw out just 17 percent of opposing base thieves while allowing 1.0 stolen bases per nine, the fourth-highest rate of any catcher with at least 400 innings. He also ranked 11th out of 53 such catchers in terms of missed pitches (passed balls plus wild pitches) per nine at 0.48, about 20 percent higher than the major league average; Olivo (0.49) was even worse, but had just one more passed ball in 138 more innings.
Though 2011 first round pick Mike Zunino is the likely catcher of the future, he's just 21 years old, with 15 games above Low-A in his first professional season, and isn't likely to see action with the big club in 2013. Right now, the wonderfully named Jesus Sucre is the nominal backup, but the 24-year-old has no experience above Double-A, and last year's (.271/.319/.315) suggest he isn't even a major league caliber backup. Some veteran help is called for, but the free agent pickings — Rod Barajas, Kelly Shoppach, Brian Schneider, Chris Snyder, Yorvit Torrealba, Matt Treanor — are slim. A better move would be to trade for Boston's Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Oakland's George Kottaras, who was dislodged from the roster by the Jaso deal. One way or another, there's still work to be done. Preliminary grade: D+. The Mariners have trimmed some deadwood and bet on youth in at least some places, but they've also made several questionable decisions, and it's tough to see how they've actually moved forward. Only the arrival of the Astros will keep the Mariners out of the AL West basement for a fourth straight year.