Working under desperate circumstances, the Mariners proved willing to open their pocketbook in December when they signed free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 contract. In the final days leading up to spring training, beginning Wednesday when pitchers and catchers report to Peoria, AZ., general manager Jack Zduriencik tried to cap spending by adding a few more pieces to the lineup and starting rotation.
The Mariners are close to securing veteran pitchers Randy Wolf and Zach Miner to minor-league deals, according to multiple reports Tuesday.
Numerous others linked Seattle to free-agent right fielder Nelson Cruz, a 33-year-old who spent the past eight years with the Texas Rangers. In 2013, Cruz posted a .266/.327/.506 line in 109 games, including 27 home runs and 76 RBIs. He’s a two-time All-Star, but he’s also an admitted PED user: Last season, Major League Baseball suspended him the final 50 games for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal that derailed Alex Rodriguez’s career.
Zduriencik appeared eager to sign Cruz to a short-term, high-priced contract. His skills would create for Seattle a mix of advantages and disadvantages.
Adding him would force the Mariners to either reduce first baseman Justin Smoak’s playing time or rethink the outfield. It’s likely that Cruz, a defensive liability in right, would play some first base and designated hitter.
His presence could boost a lineup in need of a right-handed, middle-of-the-order producer, but could further burden an already crowded outfield as well as a first-base spot that is far from settled.
Another concern: If Cruz becomes a Mariner, right fielder/first baseman Logan Morrison (.242/.333/.375) — acquired in a December trade that sent reliever Carter Capps to the Marlins — might be forced into competition with incumbent left fielder Dustin Ackley, a former No. 2 overall draft pick upon whom management isn’t willing to quit.
In December, Zduriencik signed 32-year-old Corey Hart to a one-year, $6 million contract. The deal could earn him about $13 million if he meets its performance-based incentives.
Hart, a two-time All-Star with the Brewers at outfield and first base, missed all of 2013 following microfracture surgery to both knees. From 2010-12, he was a dangerous slugger, hitting .279/.343/.514. As important, he bats right-handed.
“We were awfully left-handed last year, so we need some balance,” manager Lloyd McClendon said last month at the club’s preseason luncheon. “We’ve talked about right-handed bats and where we (might) get that from. It’s not an easy equation. It’s a hard process. It’s a time-consuming process and at times it can get frustrating, but I’ll just say, stay tuned. We’re not done yet.”
With McClendon in his first year, Zduriencik working under a one-year contract, and newcomers to the outfield, second base, shortstop, catcher, designated hitter and pitching staff, there are few certainties.
What is known should encourage fans eager to put behind them a 71-91 season in 2013.
Dual aces Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma will be at the top of the rotation. All-Star closer Fernando Rodney, who last week agreed to a two-year, $14 million deal, will throw when the Mariners hold a close lead in the ninth. Kyle Seager will play third base and Cano will play second.
Every other spot, as McClendon intimated, will be decided in spring before the Mariners begin March 31 on the road vs. the Angels.
“I’m not fond of expectations, because I don’t want players to get caught up in expectations because I think you are focusing on the wrong things,” McClendon said. “This franchise has been knocked down. We’ve been on the mat for quite some time.
“It’s time for us to get up.”
Whether the Mariners challenge the Athletics, Rangers and Angels, all playoff contenders, in the AL West will depend in part on how they replace left fielder Raul Ibanez (signed with the Angels), DH Kendrys Morales (unsigned free agent) and No. 3 starter Joe Saunders (unsigned free agent).
The Mariners began the off-season by signing shortstop Willie Bloomquist, 36, to a two-year deal worth $5.8 million. Bloomquist, a Port Orchard native, was a utility player for Seattle from 2002-08. He’ll likely fill that role again while providing mentoring and depth to the Mariners’ young infield.
The competition between shortstop Brad Miller (.265/.318/.418) and second baseman Nick Franklin figures to be among the most interesting of the spring.
After making his MLB debut in May, Franklin impressed with a hot start and solid play at second base, but faltered toward the end. He finished hitting .225 with 12 home runs and 45 RBIs. When the Mariners signed Cano, Franklin was moved to shortstop, his natural position.
Most still consider him a longshot to make the team, though Zduriencik wasn’t willing to admit as much.
“I could sit here with Lloyd, myself and the entire coaching staff and we wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly what’s going to happen,” he said last month. “We were really excited about Nick being our second baseman going forward, but now he’s in a position where I think he comes into spring training and competes.”
The back of the starting rotation also remains a conundrum.
The Mariners signed former Twins starter Scott Baker to a one-year, minor-league deal with the hope that he has a strong spring and makes the team. Baker lost the 2012 season to Tommy John surgery and didn’t pitch again until September 2013. Prior to the injury, Baker, 32, was valuable during his eight-year career, going 63-48 with a 4.14 ERA.
Meanwhile, McClendon said he would be disappointed if Taijuan Walker didn’t break camp with the big club. Walker, 21, went 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA in three late-season starts despite having a raw complement of off-speed pitches to go along with a fastball in the mid-90s.
During the offseason, Walker was the subject of constant trade speculation.
“It was a little crazy,” he said at last month’s luncheon. “My mom definitely didn’t want me to go anywhere. She was always in my ear. ‘Ask Zdruriencik this. Find out if you’re going anywhere.'”
“I just tried not to pay attention to that stuff. I just let my mom do it,” he said. “It was hard, especially with social media.”
Southpaw James Paxton, 25, (3-0 with a 1.50 ERA) and Erasmo Ramirez, 21, (5-3, 4.98 ERA) should also get extended looks to break camp with the Mariners, though both are inexperienced and have never pitched an entire season. They’ll be contending with Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi and Brandon Maurer in a competition for the final three rotation spots.