The Mariners have sold a vision of hope for the future built around the bountiful prospects in their farm system. But as Opening Day looms two weeks from today, their present is still built substantially around veterans.And not just any veterans; they have numerous players on one-year contracts who don’t necessarily fit into the Mariners’ long-term plans. They are space-holders, designed to keep the Mariners competitive while the prized kids continue to ripen on the farm.
The Mariners will likely have 10 or even more players who will be at the end of their contracts, and thus eligible for free agency, when the season ends:
- Starter Joe Saunders, age 31 (he has a mutual option for 2014, but mutual options are rarely picked up; if the player has a strong year, he’ll want to test the market; if he has a poor year, the team may not want him back).
- Starter Jon Garland, age 33
- Reliever Oliver Perez, age 31
- Reliever Kameron Loe, age 31
- Catcher Kelly Shoppach, age 32
- DH/first base Kendrys Morales, age 29
- Shortstop Brendan Ryan, age 31
- Outfielder Raul Ibanez, age 40
- Outfielder Michael Morse, age 31
- Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, age 30 (team option for 2014)
If Jason Bay (age 34) makes the team over Casper Wells, a distinct possibility, that brings the number to 11. And Jeremy Bonderman (age 30) is still in the running for a starting job.
The upshot is that the team you see on April 1 in Oakland may not resemble the team that you see in the second half; certainly not the team you’ll see next year. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, really: A youth-oriented ballclub temporarily filled with seasoned ballplayers.
That’s not to say there’s not a strong youth element to this team, of course. Five position players slated for regular roles have had just one full season in the major leagues: catcher Jesus Montero, first baseman Justin Smoak, second baseman Dustin Ackley, third baseman Kyle Seager, and outfielder Michael Saunders. Much of the Mariners’ success will be pinned to those players making substantial improvements.
The bullpen will likely have two rookies (Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor, both of whom maintained their rookie status despite callups last year), and three other players still in the early stages of their careers in closer Tom Wilhelmsen and lefties Charlie Furbush and Lucas Luetge (provided Luetge makes the team).
But let’s look at the rotation. For all the talk about the “Big Three” and the preponderance of great young arms on the farm (which is accurate), it could well be an extremely experienced staff, depending on how the final battles play out. Felix Hernandez turns 27 the first week, which is hardly ancient, but this will be his eighth full season in the rotation. Hisashi Iwakuma, age 31, pitched 11 seasons in Japan before coming over to MLB last year. Saunders has been pitching in the majors since 2005, Garland since 2000, Bonderman since 2003. There is still a chance the Mariners could slip some youth into the back end of the rotation, with Blake Beavan (age 24), Erasmo Ramirez (age 22) and Brandon Maurer (age 22) all still in the running.
If all goes well, the Mariners should start to transition some of their frontline pitching prospects into the rotation during this season, the likes of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Maurer and even 20-year-old Taijuan Walker (if not this year, certainly next), along with the aforementioned Ramirez, Maurer and Beavan, if they don’t crack the rotation coming out of spring. A few relievers, like Carson Smith and Bobby LaFromboise, could be knocking on the door. Catcher Mike Zunino is not far from the major leagues – certainly, a midseason callup is not out of the realm of possibility if he shows as well this year as he did last. Infielders Nick Franklin and Brad Miller could be knocking on the door.
The Mariners are still a team in transition. They should be major players at the trade deadline, whether things go well or not. If the season falls apart, many of those would-be free agents would be obvious trade fodder. And if they are able to integrate some of their prospects into the lineup/rotation/bullpen, many of those would-be free agents would still be expendable. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Zunino tears up the minors, is called up in late June, and becomes the regular catcher. Jesus Montero moves to DH, and Kendrys Morales becomes a potential trade chip. That’s hypothetical, of course, but I don’t think it’s an unrealistic scenario. If by some chance the Mariners surge into contention in the first half, those decisions will become harder. The temptation will be to not mess with a good thing, even if it means potentially compromising the future. Those would be fun debates to have.
Of course, there’s always the chance that some of those players at the end of their contracts could be extended during the season, to take away their “place-holder” status. I wouldn’t expect it to happen with Morales, who is a Scott Boras client. That’s not how he rolls. But if someone like Bay or Garland or Bonderman resurrect their careers, I could see them expressing a loyalty to the organization that gave them the opportunity, as Perez did last winter. Morse seems very happy with the Mariners – but the lure of a making a big strike in free agency can be a powerful force.
I expect this to be one of the fascinating elements of the 2013 season: How the Mariners will juggle the delicate balance between the veterans on hand and the kids on the way.