With season over, time for Mariners to evaluate options

I told you it wasn’t going to be pretty.

The Mariners finished 2011 with a 67-95 record (good enough for the 3rd overall pick in the 2012 draft), scored a league worst 556 runs and saw Ichiro, their perennial All-Star, begin his decline with a mere 184 hits and a .272 avg.

But it was necessary. And now with 2011 as an experience, every single one of the 18 rookies who saw action and the first full season guys like Justin Smoak, can go into the offseason with the knowledge of what it will take to be successful for 162 games.

Then on the other end is the front office and Manager Eric Wedge who get to evaluate what they saw from those 18 rookies, from the 25 veterans that they put on the field and start making decisions on their 25-man roster next year.

“We’ve had these young guys here long enough now for the most part that we have a pretty good idea of what  we have,” Eric Wedge said to a host of media gathered around him after the team’s final game Wednesday night. “We may not be able to set it in stone … We’re going to have to get into next year and beyond for that.”

Essentially Wedge and General Manager Jack Zduriencik have done their evaluations and are in the process of using that information to construct a foundation for the future — beginning with 2012.

But as Wedge points out in the second part of his comment, that process is ongoing — as it should be for well run organizations. You’re always developing and evaluating talent but it’s never more apparent nor important than when a team is in a rebuilding phase as the Mariners are now.

With 2011 in the books, the Mariners have gained valuable insight into what players they can begin to set in stone as part of a foundation that will lead the franchise to contention throughout the rest of the decade.

Here’s a position-by-position analysis of where the Mariners stand going into a critical offseason and an opinion on who some of those “foundation players” may be.

Catcher: Miguel Olivo returns for the final year of the 2-year contract he signed last season and although his bat provided some badly needed offense — he finished with a team high 19 HR and 62 RBI — he also hit just .224 in 130 games and committed 11 errors, yielded 11 pass balls and let countless other pitches get through him for wild pitches. Before he does return, Olivo will be asked to lose weight and improve his agility behind the plate so that he can be a better defender.

He also will be asked to play less. While he is one of the team’s best on-field leaders and can’t be dragged off the field, 130 games is too many for any catcher not named Brian McCann to be playing. The Mariners had Josh Bard and Chris Gimenez see action behind the plate as backups to Olivo in ’11 but neither is under contract for 2012 and appear unlikely to return barring injuries.

The key factor here may be Adam Moore who played in just two games in ’11 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Moore will participate in the Arizona Fall League beginning in November, and depending on his success, could challenge for the starting job in spring training.  How Moore fares will dictate how strenuously the Mariners front office goes after FA catchers on the market.

First base: Despite having a disappointing season to his own admission, 24-year-old Justin Smoak, has a firm hold on the job. Smoak lost his father in April, the person who taught him the game and whom he talked with nightly about his successes and failures. If that weren’t enough, he had the pressure of being the only good hitter in the lineup for the first two months of the season and dealt with injuries to his thumbs, face and groin. It was a trying year full of hardship for Smoak, one that he will use as a learning experience and be better for as he enters the second full year of his career in ’12.

Other options at first include Mike Carp who played the position while Smoak spent time on the disabled list and will certainly spell Smoak intermittently in ’12. But Carp is mostly a DH for this team moving forward.

Second base: Dustin Ackley made his major league debut on June 17th and from that time forward became the Mariners’ most consistent hitter. But that was somewhat expected, the fact that he could more than hold his own at the position defensively (which he did) was a welcomed surprise. After all, he had spent just 14 months playing it before he was called up.

Ackley is a cornerstone of the future for the M’s,  a player who should eventually hit leadoff through the end of the decade and beyond. Backing him up at second will probably be former college teammate Kyle Seager. Utility infielders Adam Kennedy and Luis Rodriguez each saw time in ’11 but are not under contract for ’12 and may not return. If either does, they will see limited action as a bench player.

Shortstop: One of the major highlights in ’11 for the Mariners was the play of Brendan Ryan who will return in ’12 for the final year of his contract — that is if the equilibrium problem that sidelined him in September is a thing of the past come spring training.

Ryan, though, will face challenges from Seager and highly touted shortstop prospects Carlos Truinfel (21) and Nick Franklin (20). The addition of Ryan last season, getting him from the Cardinals for two seasons, coincides perfectly with the timing of Franklin’s projected ascent to the majors. Can you say, “stopgap”?

Third base: Other than outfield, probably the one spot with the most questions. Chone Figgins began ’11 as the everyday starter only to hit below .200 for four months before being benched in favor of the rookie Seager. Seager (23), and another rookie, Alex Liddi (22), could be the main contenders for the starting job in spring training.

Not out of the question is a trade or free agent signing that brings in a player with the complete package that is desired from a starter at the position. Seager brings a steady glove and .300 potential bat but lacks power while Liddi brings power but needs more seasoning in the other areas.

Further down the road are youngsters Francisco Martinez (21) and Phillips Castillo (17) whom a “stopgap” type player may suit perfectly.

Outfield: Because of the way outfielders can be moved around from left to right to center, we’re going to group the players contending for these three jobs all in one category.

The Mariners began ’11 with Ichiro Suzuki manning right, Ryan Langerhans in center and Milton Bradley holding down left field. Well suffice to say that won’t be the case in ’12.

Both Langerhans and Bradley are gone and it appears unlikely that fourth outfielder Michael Saunders will ever fulfill the promise the franchise held for him for so long. The Mariners saw the biggest infusion of talent last season occur in the outfield and it is likely that all three positions will be open to competition come spring training. Who will emerge?

Well, with the team opening its season in Japan it is highly unlikely Ichiro does anything but return to the team in ’12 and will once again be the opening day starter in right no matter how he performs in spring training. The other starters should be Franklin Gutierrez in center (provided he transforms his body with added strength in the offseason) and Greg Halman in left. The fourth outfielder will be Casper Wells (again, provided he’s healthy) whom I project to be platooning in right field by June.

Trayvon Robinson, Carlos Peguero, Johermyn Chavez and Chih-Hsien Chiang will start the season in Tacoma in ’12 while Mike Wilson will be released. This clearly is a spot where Zduriencik could look to make a move in the offseason, trading one or two of this stockpile to acquire someone more ready to start in left. However, I believe the team can afford to allow Halman learn on the job, provided he learns quickly which I believe he will.

Designated Hitter: Mike Carp is the man here. Carp finished the season hitting .276 with 12 HR and 46 RBI in 290 ABs. Carp can also play first or some left field but frankly, he’s not an everyday left fielder and with Smoak at first, his main spot will be DH.

Competition could come from Prince Fielder if the team somehow manages to sign him or Wily Mo Pena if he’s retained. Don’t look for either to happen.

Starting Pitching: Frankly, the strength of the club. If the Mariners have a wealth of talent at one spot in their organization it is starting pitching. After all, this is a club that traded Doug Fister (who had four more years of club control!). They better have some arms that they believe are better ready to pick up the slack to make such a move. To answer succinctly: they do.

Blake Beavan, Charlie Furbush (acquired in the Fister/Pauley deal with Detroit) and Anthony Vazquez are rookies that all saw action in ’11 although Beavan looks like the only serious candidate for a rotation job moving forward. Furbush is more suited for the bullpen and Vazquez needs more seasoning.

With Felix Hernandez and probably Michael Pineda holding down the 1 and 2 spots in the rotation, the team will enter ’12 with three spots up for grabs. Who gets them?

Beavan will almost assuredly grab the No. 4 or 5 job. Where a casual observer will begin to notice the depth of talent at this spot is with youngsters James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and 2011 No. 2 overall pick Danny Hultzen who will be brought into spring training to contend for jobs in the rotation.

I think you will see James Paxton emerge as the No. 4 starter, Danny Hultzen spend a couple of months in Tacoma before making his pro debut in June and Walker spend time at AA before coming up in September.

Who gets the No. 3 job and where is Jason Vargas in all of this? Good question. I think Vargas gets non-tendered or packaged in a trade after the team signs Japanese phenom Yu Darvish. Darvish will be the No. 3 starter.

Bullpen: Brandon League was a revelation in ’11 as closer for the Mariners, his first season in such a role. Whether he comes back for ’12 is a whole another question. I think he does as the team looks to contend for a division title, it will need a sure thing at closer.

Filling out the bullpen will be mostly a spring training quest. There are a number of candidates for every role from set-up on down to long relief man. If the Mariners go with a 7-man pen to start out the season, I think the odds-on favorites to make the opening day pen in ’12 have to be: Tom Wilhelmsen, Josh Lueke, Chase Ruffin, Shawn Kelley, Dan Cortes and Charlie Furbush.

Steve Delabar, Jamey Wright (who had his best season of his career in ’11), Cesar Jimenez, and Jeff Gray will also be in the mix as will several minor leaguers like Erasmo Ramirez and Stephen Pryor. And don’t forget Zduriencik’s affinity for signing guys off the street to minor league deals to compete. No matter who comes out of spring training holding down a job, the pen will be one of the strengths of the team.





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