After the Mariners signed veteran utility infielder Rickie Weeks, Seattle seems finished adding to its roster before pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Peoria, AZ., Friday.
The move capped an aggressive off-season in which general manager Jack Zduriencik parted with players once thought to be integral parts of the organization’s future in RF Michael Saunders and 1B Justin Smoak, added the reigning MLB home run king in DH Nelson Cruz and locked 3B Kyle Seager into a seven-year, $100 million contract.
After finishing the 2014 season 87-75, one game behind the Oakland Athletics for the final American League wild card spot, the Mariners enter 2015 with legitimate reason to think they should be better, although Bovada.com recently said “as good,” setting Seattle’s 2015 over/under regular season win total at 86.5. That’s tied for second in the AL with Boston and behind only the Los Angeles Angels, and fifth in MLB (five teams in each league make the postseason).
The Mariners’ playoff drought dates to 2001. But for the first time this decade, conventional wisdom says they can compete with the Angels and A’s for the AL West crown.
The biggest reason?
After finishing last season tied for 11th in AL runs with the Red Sox (3.91 per game), the Mariners should improve offensively. Cruz, who hit 40 home runs playing in pitcher-friendly Camden Yards, is Seattle’s new cleanup hitter after the 34-year-old signed a four-year, $57 million deal this off-season that included a $1 million signing bonus.
Need a reason to think he won’t regress? Of those 40 home runs, 25 came on the road. Even if the right-handed Cruz does hit a bit worse at Safeco Field, he’ll still be a monumental upgrade over last season’s DHs, who combined to post a league-worst .190/.266/.301 mark because of down years from rusty Kendrys Morales and injury-riddled Corey Hart.
Both are gone. Hart signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract, plus $2.5 million in performance bonuses, with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Morales agreed a two-year, $17 million deal with the Kansas City Royals to fill the void when DH Billy Butler left for the A’s.
The Mariners will also feature a new right fielder after Zduriencik traded Michael Saunders to the Toronto Blue Jays for left-handed veteran starter J.A. Happ.
Met with some derision, the move came after Saunders frustrated manager Lloyd McClendon and apparently Zduriencik with an injury-riddled 2014 season. Saunders posted a .273/.341/.450 slash line but played in 78 games because of a hyper-extended knee, a shoulder strain, and an oblique injury that was prolonged when he contracted an illness during a paternity leave stint.
After six seasons, Saunders is gone, and in come Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith, who are likely to platoon. Smith, 32, hit .266 last season with 12 home runs and 48 RBIs in 136 games last season with the Padres. To get a left-handed hitter, Zduriencik sent reliever Brandon Maurer to the Padres Dec. 30 for Smith, who has an .839 career OPS against right-handed pitchers.
A few weeks prior, the Mariners acquired Ruggiano from the Chicago Cubs via a trade for right-handed minor-league pitcher Matt Brazis. Ruggiano, also 32, is a right-handed hitter with pop, as evidenced by the .766 OPS he had last season in 81 games. But his biggest asset is probably his .836 career mark against left-handed pitching.
Ruggiano is set to make a bit more than $2.5 million next year, while Smith will pull in $6 million in 2015 on a deal that runs through 2o16, and has a $7 million team option for the following season.
Zduriencik said he wants the competition to play out in spring training. But neither is opposed to platooning.
“I’d like to think anything I’m asked to do, I’d be able to figure out,” Smith said after the trade, via MLB.com. “If it’s an every-day player, I’d come to the park and that would be my role. I’d do my work and try to do the best I could. Or if they ask me to be a guy that doesn’t play every day, but plays a lot, that’s what I’d do. Ultimately it’s up to them and what they want and I’ll embrace whatever role I’m given.”
“I want to be part of that lineup every day,” Ruggiano said, via MLB.com. “But I’m here to fill whatever role they want me to fill and help Seattle win some games.”
The Mariners never posted a winning record or had a serviceable offense with Justin Smoak serving as the primary first baseman since he came over from the Texas Rangers in the 2010 Cliff Lee trade. Last year, Smoak finally lost his job to Logan Morrison, spending most of the season in Triple-A Tacoma after landing on the DL in early June. The Mariners after the season allowed the Goose Creek, SC., native to enter free agency, and he eventually signed with the Blue Jays, joining Saunders.
Will he be missed? Smoak hit .226 with a .696 OPS over five seasons in Seattle, with his best year coming in 2013, when he batted a measly .238 with 20 homers and 50 RBIs.
Morrison is the favorite to be Seattle’s every-day first baseman. He was perhaps the team’s best hitter in September, posting a .342 batting average with five home runs and 11 RBIs. But the 27-year-old has never played more than 123 games in a season during his five-year MLB career. He could be challenged this spring by a trimmed-down Jesus Montero or Weeks, who will serve as Seattle’s do-everything utility man. After spending the past 11 seasons as the Milwaukee Brewers second baseman, the 32-year-old agreed to an incentive-laden deal with the Mariners.
Zduriencik said afterward Weeks, a .249 career hitter with significant pop, figures to play the corner infield and outfield spots as he tries to establish himself in Seattle. For what it’s worth, he played outfield in college.
“I’m not going to say it’s easy,” Weeks said of the move last week. “Anytime you change positions, it will take work. But I’ve never had a problem working. It’s just getting the reps in spring training. I’ll be playing a lot of positions probably.”
Outside of acquiring Happ, the Mariners didn’t do much to alter their pitching staff. Why would they?
They were first in the AL last season with a 3.17 ERA, second in MLB only to the Washington Nationals’ 3.03 mark.
But they did choose to not re-sign veteran right-handed pitcher Chris Young after Young went 12-9 with a 3.65 ERA in 30 appearances (29 starts) last season en route to winning MLB’s AL Comeback Player of the Year award. The 35-year-old tired during the stretch run, and McClendon three times was forced to re-shuffle the rotation to allow him extra days rest. In four September starts before being shut down, he went 0-3 with an 8.59 ERA in 14.2 innings.
Happ will likely take his spot in the rotation — McClendon intimated as much this off-season — while left-handers Roenis Elias and James Paxton and right-hander Taijuan Walker battle for the final two spots in the rotation. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma remain among the best 1-2 punches at the top of the rotation in the Majors.
The bullpen, which finished 2014 first in the majors with a 2.59 ERA, needs only to secure a replacement for situational left-hander Joe Beimel.