2011 begins now for Mariners

There are now exactly 70 games left in the 2010 season for the Seattle Mariners yet with their standing of last place in the AL West at 36-56 currently and 17 games back of Texas, this team is essentially playing for 2011 and has been for some time.

Now that doesn’t mean that each game isn’t important. The team still wants to win as many games as it possibly can but for different reasons than before. When the season began the goal was to make the playoffs so the team won games with that in mind. Well now the team seeks to win games to instill a winning tradition. With the team turning towards developing its younger players, winning to instill that winning tradition and to fuel success is the goal.

Each game now becomes about individual successes as much as team success. As the team lends more playing time to the guys it believes are the cornerstones of the future, your Justin Smoak’s, Michael Saunders’ and Adam Moore’s, the goal of each game is to see their improvement.

So while 2010 for all tense and purposes is over for the Seattle Mariners, 2011 has already started.

The management and front office are already in the process of assessing each individual on the major league roster for its future plans for next season and beyond.

And in assessing where this team is headed into the future, without a doubt 2011 is going to be largely a year for growing pains. I say this because the Mariners have already earmarked certain guys (Smoak and Saunders) as cornerstones for their future. Then, taking into consideration the vast amount of holes on this club and the small amount of long term contracts currently on the roster (Felix, Guti and Ichiro being the only guys with two plus seasons left on non-rookie contracts), it’s in an obvious rebuilding stage.

So taking the current roster and contract status into consideration, here’s what 2011 looks like for the Mariners:

1B: Justin Smoak

2B: Dustin Ackley

SS: Jack Wilson*

3B: Chone Figgins*

C: Adam Moore/Rob Johnson

RF: Ichiro Suzuki

CF: Franklin Gutierrez

LF: Michael Saunders

DH: Russell Branyan/Milton Bradley*

Starting rotation: Felix Hernandez,  Jason Vargas, Ryan Rowland-Smith,  Doug Fister, Michael Pineda (ETA June)

Each player I left an asterisk next to has serious question marks about their future with the team entering this offseason. Jack Wilson has only played in about half the team’s games this season and has unquestionably been a disappointment since being brought over from Pittsburgh at the trading deadline last year.

Dustin Ackley, pictured here in an at bat as a Tar Heel last year, will be an instrumental piece for the Mariners as they turn to the future beginning in 2011

Wilson is owed $5 million next year so the team is somewhat committed to him. General Manager Jack Zduriencik will be shopping him around for the rest of the month, if he’s not dealt by the deadline then you can be rest assured he’ll be placed on waivers to see if anyone wants to put a claim in. I’ll tell you right now, Jack Wilson one way or another, will not be on the Mariners 2011 roster. Whether he retires or is traded or just plain dfa’d, Wilson will be gone.

Then there’s Chone Figgins. Talk about a disappointment. Zduriencik gave Figgins a 4 year, $36 million deal in November hoping his OBP with the Angels in 2009 would come over and be a huge catalyst for the top of the order.

It hasn’t happened.

Hitting just .228 with a meager 22 RBI and 38 runs scored as the M’s prepare to play the White Sox tonight. Not only that, his defense at second base as been barely adequate.

The problem here is he’s unmovable. And with three years and $27 million remaining plus an option, there’s no chance the team will release him. However, there are some options with Figgins. Because of his versatility he can really be put anywhere other than catcher around the diamond. With Lopez’s contract coming up and Jack Wilson being all but gone, Figgins could be moved to either third base or shortstop as Ackley slides into second for the long term.

While third may seem the most logical, I’d like to really quickly take a look at what this team could potentially look like with Figgins playing SS for the majority of 2011. Suddenly now 3B is open and either a kid like Matt Mangini is given an opportunity or if the organization feels like he or their prospects further back (a Carlos Truinfel, Alex Liddi or Nate Tenbrink for instance) aren’t the answer they could go the free agent route for a long term or stop gap solution.

So third base becomes one spot where the team could significantly upgrade. Then there’s the DH position.

Branyan has a option for ’11 and as long as he stays healthy through the conclusion of this season, I think you can safely expect that option to be picked up. After all, Zduriencik didn’t reacquire him just to help provide pop in a weak lineup for the final three months of a lost season. Milton Bradley is the big question mark.

With 1 year and about $12 million I believe still owed to him and perhaps the Cubs for Carlos Silva, it’s a safe bet that he’ll be back for 2011. I, however, predict that with the team giving Saunders the everyday playing time in left and positioning itself for a complete rebuilding season, Bradley will realize that not only will his playing time be diminished but that he won’t be wanted back. I think a buyout of some sort will ensue and Bradley will become a free agent. Either that or released. The Mariners owner has deep pockets and let’s face it, that contract whether the name on it is Silva or Bradley, was a wasted one that the team has been itching to get rid of.

This leaves the team, as you can probably see, with two lineup spots available for upgrade. Third base because it’s much easier to find an upgrade there than at short so Figgins takes over there with nobody in the farm system quite ready, and DH because Bradley isn’t cutting the mustard and Branyan has an option that may or may not be picked up.

And other than some miracle happening like Ichiro asking to be traded, 1B, 2B, RF, CF and LF are all locked up. Catcher really is the only question mark, but it is hard to see the team going away from Moore and Johnson with some veteran stop gap that won’t be here when the team begins to flourish in 2012 and 2013.

So really, the only openings for major FA signings this offseason are going to be in the pitching department. Zduriencik may target one or two pitchers to fill the No. 2 and 3 holes in the rotation while pegging Vargas to fill the No. 4 hole and Fister to fill No. 5 until June rolls around and they’re ready to let Michael Pineda who will be 22, start racking up some big league innings.

And then of course the bullpen which really could and probably should be blown completely apart. I’d personally like to see them go after a FA closer like Rafael Soriano and piece the rest of it together with young minor league arms like Anthony Varvaro, Josh Fields, Josh Lueke, Erasmo Ramirez and the arms currently up in Brandon League, Brian Sweeney, Chris Seddon, David Pauley, David Aardsma and Garrett Olson.

If I were to predict the offseason right now, I foresee Zduriencik focusing on roster turnover and building through the youth of the organization’s farm system. There really isn’t going to be any quick fixes in free agency so going for the more long term, fiscally sound fixes will be the modus operendi for this franchise.

In short, I would really focus on how each individual performs over the final 70 games. Because outside of probably six players — Felix, Guti, Ichiro, Smoak, Saunders and Vargas — the entire roster is open for change. And if you’re paying close attention to the way Zduriencik is operating right now, those changes will be coming from within.


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