With little more than two weeks 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 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
2014 Results: 87-75 (.537), third place in AL West (Hot Stove Preview)
Key Departures: LHP Joe Beimel*, OF Chris Denorfia, DH Corey Hart, RHP Brandon Maurer, DH/1B Kendrys Morales, RF Michael Saunders, 1B Justin Smoak, RHP Chris Young* (*free agent, still unsigned)
The Mariners missed the playoffs by a single game in 2014, finishing with their best record since 2007 and outscoring their opponents on the season for the first time since 2003. With most of last year's American League playoff teams suffering losses this offseason, the opportunity for Seattle to snap a 13-year playoff drought was clearly upon them. Whether or not things will break their way in the coming season remains to be seen, but it's indisputable that they made themselves better this offseason by significantly upgrading their lineup.
Consider this: In 2014, Justin Smoak (who was non-tendered in December), Corey Hart and Kendrys Morales (both of whom departed as free agents) combined to hit .203/.277/.335 in 770 plate appearances. Replacing those three will be Nelson Cruz, who led the majors in home runs last year and has hit .271/.332/.514 with an average of 29 homers a year over the last six seasons. Cruz, who will turn 35 on July 1 and signed a four-year, $57 million contract, has his shortcomings, but he hasn't hit the disabled list since 2011 and won't be asked to play the field often if at all as a Mariner. He will have to contend with Safeco Field, which devours righthanded power hitters, but even with a park correction and some expected regression from a spike year, he should have little difficulty out-producing the combination of Hart, Morales, and Smoak.
The adjustment to the new ballpark will be less significant for Seth Smith, who has hit .254/.345/.419 over the last three seasons for the Athletics and Padres. Smith, 32 and signed for $13 million over the next two seasons with a $7 million option for 2017, comes via a pair of moves that effectively saw the Mariners trade Michael Saunders and Brandon Maurer for Smith and J.A. Happ (Maurer going to the Padres for Smith, Saunders going to the Blue Jays for Happ).
The net effect of those trades was to swap fading potential for veteran reliability. Happ is a reliable utility arm who can be stashed in long relief as insurance for the young back half of the Seattle rotation, which no longer had room for Maurer. Smith, meanwhile, is a valuable bat as long he has a righthanded platoon partner, and the Mariners acquired that for him by flipping 25-year-old minor league reliever Matt Brazis to the Cubs for Justin Ruggiano, a career .266/.329/.508 hitter against lefthanders. Given that the Mariners' rightfielders in 2014 (primarily Saunders, Endy Chavez — who is back as a non-roster invitee — Stefen Romero and Chris Denorfia) combined to hit .255/.308/.413 last year, the combination of Smith and Ruggiano should be an upgrade, as well.
As for Chris Young and Joe Beimel, though both pitched well in Seattle last year and remain unsigned, the Mariners would be wise not to bring back either. Both are in their late 30s (Beimel will turn 38 in April, Young will be 36 in May) and hadn't pitched in the majors for several years prior to 2014 due to arm surgery (Young since 2012 due to shoulder surgery, Beimel since 2011 due to Tommy John surgery). Neither pitched as well in 2014 as their ERAs would suggest, posting strikeout rates and fielding independent pitching figures of 5.9 K/9 and 5.02 for Young and 5.0 K/9 and 4.18 for Beimel.
Unfinished Business: Bench
Beyond Ruggiano, the Mariners made no improvement to a bench that is still highly dependent on homegrown players who have thus far struggled to establish themselves as viable major leaguers, such as Romero, James Jones, Brad Miller and Jesus Montero. That might not be as problematic if the Mariners' lineup were more robust, but shortstop, catcher, centerfield and leftfield all carry question marks heading into the season. Chris Taylor, Mike Zunino, Austin Jackson, and Dustin Ackley all deserve a chance to prove themselves heading into the season, but with the Mariners expected to be in the playoff hunt, upgrading their alternatives at those positions would have been an inexpensive way to avoid potentially disastrous results at those positions.
Preliminary Grade: B+
Not included in the comings and goings above is the seven-year, $100 million extension the team gave to third baseman Kyle Seager in early December. That's a big contract, but one we praised at the time: Seager, who will be just 33 in its final year (not counting the $15 million option for 2022), is one of the most underrated players in the game, or was until the Mariners made him a nine-figure player. Put that in the plus column for the Mariners, who didn't make as big a splash this offseason as they did last year, but did well enough to be considered serious contenders heading into 2015.