Winter Report Card: Seattle Mariners
With little 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 2013.
2013 results: 71-91 (.438), 4th place AL West (Hot Stove Preview)
Heading into the offseason, Seattle was a team in desperate need of big bats in the heart of its order. The Mariners then made the biggest splash of the offseason by signing Robinson Cano to the third-largest contract in major league history, a 10-year, $240 million deal that matches the contract the Angels gave Albert Pujols two years ago. Cano, a perennial MVP candidate, is a superstar at a skill position who excels on both sides of the ball and boasts a line-drive swing that should play in any ballpark.
However, Cano is also 31, and while second basemen tend to suffer steep declines in their mid-30s, the Mariners have committed to paying him $24 million a year through the age of 40. What's more, reports indicated that the second-highest offer he received was something in the area of $175 million over seven years from the Yankees.
The concerns about Cano's contract would be less significant if Seattle was close to contention, but that's not the case. The Mariners won just 71 games last year, and while they graduated a number of talented prospects in 2013 (middle infielders Nick Franklin and Brad Miller, catcher Mike Zunino, starting pitchers Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer), it remains to be seen just how much of an impact those players will make, and one of them (see below) was displaced by Cano.
Meanwhile, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison are unlikely to represent an upgrade on outgoing free agents Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibañez. Hart is coming off a season lost to two knee surgeries and moving to a ballpark that can derail the career of a righthanded power hitter, and Morrison, whose 2013 was also shortened by knee surgery, has hit just .236/.321/.387 over the last two seasons. Both are poor fits in a Mariners lineup that will require one of the two to play leftfield.
Unfinished business: Bullpen, Nick Franklin
The Mariners had the second-worst bullpen ERA in all of baseball in 2013 (4.58, better than only the Astros) but they have made no move to improve their 'pen this offseason. Instead, they dealt 23-year-old Carter Capps to the Marlins for Morrison and, thus far, are letting lefty Oliver Perez walk as a free agent (per the above, Perez is still unsigned). With the influx of young talent to the rotation (add Erasmo Ramirez, 24 in May, to the three rookies mentioned above) Seattle could shift the overflow to the bullpen, but Maurer, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi all struggled in relief last year.
Meanwhile, the Cano signing has displaced incumbent second baseman Franklin, a former first-round pick and top-100 prospect who was a boon to the Mariners' lineup upon making his major league debut in late May. Franklin's bat went cold in August, but he won't be 23 until March and projects as a solid everyday middle infielder. Seattle could move Franklin over to shortstop, his primary position in the minors, but scouting reports suggest he's overmatched by the position, and the M's have 24-year-old sophomore Brad Miller there. Whatever their plan, they should cash in one of those young, talented, team-controlled middle infielders via trade before he withers on the vine.
Preliminary Grade: B
Cano is such a good and reliable player (average of 160 games played the last seven years) that it's difficult to come down too hard on the team that signed him, regardless of the contract. Seattle also gets credit for some of the moves it didn't make, such as trading Walker, a potential front-of-the-rotation starter as early as this, his rookie season. With all of the talent they have coming up, they're better off taking a long view than trying to force a 20-win improvement in one offseason. As it is, with the Mariners should still take a big step forward in 2014. Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and the 21-year-old Walker will lead the rotation and Cano will anchor a lineup that saw improvements from Kyle Seager (now 26) and Justin Smoak (27) in 2013 and should get a full season from Zunino (23 in March) and whichever of Franklin or Miller remains at shortstop. Of course, simply achieving mediocrity would be an improvement after last season.