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January 28, 2013 at 9:12 AM

Mariners heading into spring training with intriguing offense

The return of Michael Morse to Seattle is one of the intriguing upgrades the Mariners have made this off-season. Photo Credit: AP

Great to be back in town after a couple of weeks overseas. While I was away, I watched with interest as the Mariners attempted to upgrade their offense, getting rejected by Justin Upton before trading for Michael Morse. There were many things I wanted to write at the time, but with only texting capabilities, a few blurbs on Twitter were the best that could be managed from the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Looking at it now, the Mariners have as intriguing an offense as I can remember since I started covering the team late in 2006. They have clearly upgraded the middle of their batting order with both Morse and Kendrys Morales, while the wild-card to all of this is what moving in the fences could do for the club as far as power potential. When you look at the money involved, the Mariners effectively pulled off the acquisitions for a money cost of about $2 million between what they are paying Morales and Morse compared to the arbitration awards given Jason Vargas and John Jaso — the players given up in trade.

For my part, Vargas at $8.5 million is too pricey for a team determined to keep payroll below $100 million, so that’s a no-brainer and he should do well in Anaheim with a team that can afford that for a mid-rotation lefty. As for Jaso, I know there was a lot of teeth-gnashing locally over his departure, but again, the Mariners were not the type of team that were going to benefit the most from his services.

Jaso’s fate with Seattle was pretty much sealed the minute the Mariners made catcher Mike Zunino their No. 1 draft pick. With the idea to fast-track Zunino to the big leagues in a year or two — and 23-year-old Jesus Montero around as last winter’s big trade acquisition — there was not going to be enough playing time for Jaso a season or less down the road. The Mariners actually explored trading Jaso at last summer’s July 31 deadline and even after that and were somewhat surprised not to find much demand for his services.

One Mariners official I spoke to about Jaso in December told me the club had thought he profiled as the perfect addition for a National League contender, given how many more pinch-hitting opportunities he could have had in that league. The Mariners valued Jaso highly in exactly the role he was used in — as a part-time catcher and stellar late bat off the bench. They knew that part-time success in a limited number of at-bats does not always translate to the same numbers when playing time increases to 500 or 600 at-bats in a full-time role. That factor, plus Jaso’s defensive limitations behind the plate (one reason he caught consecutive games only three times all season) meant he was never going to be afforded a full-time opportunity by the Mariners.

And that’s why the team spent most of this off-season including him in trade proposals — from the late November talks with the Pirates about a deal for outfielder Garrett Jones that we reported on, to the Upton negotiations with Arizona, then, finally, to the Morse trade. Going forward, I think the A’s are the perfect AL club for Jaso. They are coming off a division title and hoping to contend again, wanted a second catcher to go with young Derek Norris and stand to benefit greatly from having a steel-nerved Jaso come off the bench late — given all the close games their still-young squad played last year.

If Jaso can develop beyond a part-time role in Oakland, then good for him. Point is, he was never going to get that chance with Seattle given the big commitments the Mariners have already made to get both Zunino and Montero. And as a backup catcher/pinch-hitter, Jaso’s $1.8 million arbitration award is about the limit a lesser-payroll team would want to spend for that. Jaso will be getting pricey his next two club controlled years if he indeed has peaked in the role best-suited to his abilities, so, the trading “three years of Jaso for one year of Morse” has been, I think, a tad overstated.

So, enough about Jaso. Now, on to the Mariners moving forward.

One thing I haven’t seen discussed all that much is just how many one-year deals the team has committed to. There are benefits and drawbacks to that.

The obvious drawback is that the team has limited control over what the future will look like beyond the 2013 season. Even if Morales, Morse and Raul Ibanez help revitalize the team’s offense, all of them could be gone after this season.

So, clearly, the Mariners need some of their incumbent players — Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Montero — to take a step forward. In Montero’s case, it’s mostly his bat that needs to progress, but the team would also like him to become capable of being a backup catcher to Zunino down the road. If that happens, then the catching situation is rectified and Montero (if his bat improves versus right-handers) can play the rest of his games at DH, a spot that will become freed up by the expiration of one-year contracts to Ibanez, Morales, Morse etc. after 2013.

Now, if Montero still raises doubts about his abilities going forward, then the Mariners could look into extending some of their one-year DH guys. Ditto for Smoak as a first baseman. If Smoak comes out and slugs 25 homers this year, gets his OPS up to .800 or higher and shows he can put up numbers other than in September call-up season, the Mariners will be set at first base.

If not, then you worry about extending the one-year guys like Morales or Morse so somebody can take over at the infield corner.

That appears to be what the team is doing. They have yet to give up anybody significant from their young core and have bought a little more audition time for some of the younger guys to demonstrate what they are capable of.

Still, this being Year 5 of the rebuilding from Bill Bavasi’s team, I’d like to see the Mariners try to acquire a little more future stability going forward. They are still below the stated budget limits they claimed to have heading into the off-season and there remains a solid outfield addition they could make via free agency with Michael Bourn.

I know the concerns out there about giving up the 12th overall pick for Bourn (as well as the slot money for a first-round pick) but for me, 12th overall is far different from a top-3 pick the Mariners have enjoyed three of the past four seasons. The Mariners currently have a farm system rated No. 2 overall by Baseball America, but the big league team has been rated near the bottom of MLB for three years running. Clearly, this is an occasion when a club could afford to sacrifice a bit of the farm to help the product that butters its bread — the MLB product.

Bourn would give the Mariners a full-time center fielder for the next several years as well as the leadoff hitter they don’t currently have. The Mariners were already prepared to deal away two high-round picks in Nick Franklin and Taijuan Walker in the Upton talks, but now don’t have to. So, I don’t see where a 12th overall pick and loss of slot money is going to decimate the farm. The 12th overall pick and maybe another pick in rounds two-through-10 potentially lost due to lesser slot money is not something that will be helping the Mariners for several more years at the big league level in any event. And neither is likely to amount to the talent level Bourn has already set for himself in the big leagues. This isn’t the NFL draft. There are far more risks associated with MLB first-rounders versus the stability of players already established in the big leagues.

If it’s the money the Mariners are worried about, they have the $8 million from Chone Figgins coming off the books next year and can simply decline the 2014 option for Franklin Gutierrez. That’s another $15 million “found” right there between the pair.

If it’s the draft pick, well, like I said, the Mariners were going to deal away Walker and Franklin to get Upton. They didn’t have to and now, the farm system is a lot stronger because of that. They can afford, I think, to eat the 12th overall pick and slot money and buy themselves some more future stability at center field and leadoff for years to come in Bourn. No, I don’t think that every player with Bourn’s skillset is going to turn into Figgins. That’s a defeatist attitude and a silly one given all the successful center fielders who have played well into their 30′s with Bourn’s profile. Thing is, when you have power hitting corner outfielders — and Michael Saunders projects as one — you don’t need a mashing center fielder. Now that Ichiro is gone, the Mariners can actually try sticking some power hitters in both corners.

So, that’s my take. I think it’s been a decent off-season for the Mariners so far when it comes to improving the offense, despite all of their previous setbacks. But my opinion could quickly change if all of those improvements are gone after 2013 and the young players really don’t blossom the way the Mariners hope they will with the fences coming in.

That’s why, I think, the Mariners can still help themselves by spending some of their remaining free agency payroll on Bourn.

Part of me also wonders whether all of these one-year deals by the Mariners aren’t an indicator that the team is expecting a major cash infusion at some point after the season begins. Let’s keep an eye on the ownership structure in the months ahead. But for now, even if the ownership stays exactly the same for another several years — which I highly doubt, given past reporting on this issue — these are the challenges the team faces moving forward: establishing some more permanent improvement.

In other words, it should be a very interesting spring as we see how all of this plays out and whether there is still room for somebody like a Jason Bay, added before the recent moves. After that, it will be even more interesting to see how the new fence allignment impacts the team. From the additions we have already seen, it appears the Mariners feel playing the outfield corners will be much easier with the fences coming in. When I spoke to Mariners officials about this last month, they told me they could not be certain but were optimistic that left field would be easier for a defender. Based on the acquisitions of Bay, Ibanez and Morse, I’m thinking the M’s privately feel left field will be a lot easier from a defensive perspective. Remember, the Mariners had stats maven Jeff Kingston (assistant GM) do a comprehensive study of Safeco Field before moving the fences in. It’s possible the team’s proprietary stats info is a lot more optimistic about the potential for defensive improvments than they have been letting on.

Yes, opposing teams could benefit — especialy offensively — from the fences coming in as well. But the real gain to the Mariners here would be from a longer-term, psychological perspective. Other teams have to play just a series or three at Safeco all season before returning to more hitter-friendly venues. The Mariners play half their games at an offense-draining park. What the team doesn’t want are players who begin a slump at home and see it carry over on to the road. Or who begin slumping on the road in dread of returning home. They don’t want the ballpark getting into players’ heads all season, as I alluded to in a story last June about how Safeco Field had become a topic of player conversation.

So, we’ll see what happens. I’d be lying if I told you I could predict what will happen with the offense this year. That wasn’t the case the past three years when it was pretty obvious the team was going to be terrible at scoring. That alone makes this coming season and the mid-order additions something worth watching. I’d feel a lot better if there was more of a sense of permanence to it.

But hey, the off-season still isn’t done yet. Let’s see what the team does the next few weeks and months ahead when it comes to addressing 2014 and beyond.

0 Comments | More in trades | Topics: Jack Zduriencik, John Jaso, kendrys morales

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