Among the other 29 major league teams, it would be difficult to find a stranger offseason focal point than the Seattle Mariners have in Justin Smoak.
Bring him back in 2013 and about half the fan base will rail about a cheap franchise willing to settle for mediocrity, and that general manager Jack Zduriencik can’t admit he was fleeced in the Cliff Lee trade.
Let Smoak go and the other half will scream that the Mariners have been too impatient again, that Smoak will flourish for another franchise as a power-hitting switch-hitter Zduriencik let slip away.
All this for a man who batted .217 in 2012, and had to hit nearly .400 the final month to do that.
It was a season in which the Seattle Mariners improved by eight wins, traded Ichiro Suzuki, kept Chone Figgins and saw Felix Hernandez pitch a perfect game.
Franklin Gutierrez got hurt again and again and again, while manager Eric Wedge discovered – late in April – that he had a hitter in John Jaso, and six Mariners pitchers combined for a June no-hitter.
The were disappointments such as Dustin Ackley, Hector Noesi, Brandon League and Mike Carp. Surprises such as Michael Saunders, Tom Wilhelmsen, Jason Vargas and Kyle Seager.
And there was Smoak, whom fans couldn’t agree upon.
“The fans who don’t know if I can sustain what I did the last month? I’m right there with ’em. I want to see it for a full season, too,” Smoak said.
The final month of 2012, Smoak was his team’s best hitter, a man who had turned to his collegiate approach at the plate and found some measure of redemption.
“I’ll be the first to admit it. I’ve been lost this year, and I hurt the team. I put that on myself. If I’d done the job as a cleanup hitter, we’d have won a lot more games this season,” Smoak said.
“If I’m different, we’re a different team.”
After a 75-87 season and another fourth-place finish, Mariners fans would like more to look forward to than the woeful Houston Astros joining the American League West next year.
Zduriencik should have payroll to play with, even if the team doesn’t raise his budget.
With Ichiro, George Sherrill and Kevin Millwood coming off the books, that frees $20 million.
Some of that will be negated by arbitration-eligible players such as Vargas and Jaso, and whether the team picks up the $3.5 million option on catcher Miguel Olivo.
What did the Mariners learn about themselves in 2012? What must they do to contend in 2013?
First, the pitching staff.
What they have:
In the rotation, they’ve got Felix, Vargas, 11-game winner Blake Beavan and rookie Erasmo Ramirez.
Hisashi Iwakuma is a free agent.
In the wings are minor league arms such as Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer. If not out of spring training, a few of those arms will begin arriving next year.
In the bullpen, the Mariners have closer Wilhelmsen, setup men in Stephen Pryor, Carter Capps and Charlie Furbush, arms like left-hander Lucas Luetge and Shawn Kelley, and candidates like Noesi and Josh Kinney.
“Our pitching and defense carried us,” manager Eric Wedge said. “We had to lean on our bullpen, and the young pitchers came away with experience that will make them better next year.”
“The strength of our farm system is pitching,” Zduriencik said. “We should start seeing more of that next season.”
Another thing to remember about pitching: Everyone needs it. Trading good young pitching for hitters?
The Mariners’ infield this season was improved defensively – Brendan Ryan and Ackley were solid up the middle, Seager continued on his learning curve at third base.
Offensively? Other than Seager, whose 20 home runs and 86 RBI led the club, it was a disaster. Ackley, the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft, batted .226, Smoak .217 and Ryan .194.
CUPBOARD NOT BARE
In house, there’s Figgins and his $8 million salary, rookie Carlos Triunfel and still-in-the-minors middle infielders like Nick Franklin and Brad Miller.
Team mascot/infielder Munenori Kawasaki isn’t likely to return, but the Mariners will likely need a veteran infielder up the middle and – depending upon their thoughts on Smoak – a first baseman with a proven bat.
The Seattle outfield was a round-robin affair from spring training on, with Gutierrez missing more than 120 games. Saunders had a breakout season, going from a sub-.200 career hitter to a man who batted .247 with 19 home runs and 23 stolen bases.
The Mariners tried Casper Wells, Trayvon Robinson, Carlos Peguero and Eric Thames, and didn’t find a regular among them. Wells is the closest, a fourth-outfielder type. Robinson, a switch-hitter, remains for now as a fifth outfielder.
Peguero and Thames have likely swung-and-missed their way out of a future in Seattle.
Nothing on the farm will be ready to contribute by next spring, which means Zduriencik can plumb the free-agent market or look to make a deal for outfield help.
Behind the plate, the Mariners were a team without peer this season – carrying three catchers all year. None was the answer.
Olivo could throw, and hit 12 home runs. Jaso called a good game and hit. Jesus Montero remained a work in progress, at the plate and behind it, and hit 15 home runs.
The future is Mike Zunino, drafted in June, who played 44 games in the minors and batted .360 with 13 home runs and 43 RBI. He’s a baby, but what a baby.
Until he’s ready, can the Mariners get by with Jaso and Montero? Yes, but they’re as likely to bring aboard a veteran and use Montero as the designated hitter and occasional first baseman.
That leaves the DH.
Jaso and Montero got the lion’s share of at-bats there, but it’s another possible area of offensive improvement this offseason.
The Mariners are far too aware of their most glaring need. So much so that one day after the season they brought back the entire coaching staff – except for batting coach Chris Chambliss.
He’s gone, and the search is on.
As for manager Wedge, he’s two years into his three-year contract, and has done precisely what’s been asked of him – try to turn a roster of youngsters and journeymen into the core of a team that could contend next season.
Can these Mariners challenge Texas, Oakland and Los Angeles?
Not as currently constituted. Changing the hitting coach, bringing in the fences at Safeco Field should help the offense, though not nearly as much as one proven heart-of-the-lineup bat would.
Waiting for Ackley and Saunders, Zunino and Montero to reach their full potential – or carrying a Ryan next season – only works if there is someone the offense can rely upon until that happens.
SMOAK AND MIRRORS WON’T DO
Seager isn’t enough.
“You look at the potential there – a switch-hitter with power – and that’s what any team would love to have,” Wedge said. “You don’t find them often, and when you do, you need patience.”
For argument’s sake, say the Mariners bring back Smoak and – voila! – he bats .270 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI. Zduriencik can point to Smoak, Beavan and Jaso as three players obtained, directly or indirectly, from the Lee trade.
The Mariners would be a better team. And they’d still need at least one more proven, productive bat.
Josh Hamilton is a free agent. So are David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Mike Napoli, Torii Hunter and B.J. Upton.
The Mariners are more likely to deal from strength and move pitching for hitting.
If they’re serious about contending, however, small fixes won’t work in 2013. No matter how good the pitching and defense, Seattle finished 14 games out of third place, not first.
Smoak and mirrors won’t make up that gap.
BREAKING DOWN THE TEAM
Staff writer Larry LaRue assesses the 40-man roster for the Mariners.
RHP Blake Beavan Will open spring training as a fifth-starter candidate.
RHP Carter Capps A man with a 100-mph fastball? Yes, there’s room in the bullpen
LHP Charlie Furbush Durable, tough, and lefties hit .147 against him.
RHP Felix Hernandez An elite talent who hasn’t won more than 14 games since 2009.
LHP Danny Hultzen First-half wunderkind, second-half fade. Could be ready for ’13.
RHP Hisashi Iwakuma Rock-solid once in rotation, he’s a free agent with many suitors.
RHP Shawn Kelley Fastball/slider middle reliever. Mariners might package him in a trade.
RHP Josh Kinney Pitched with slider and guts, but do Mariners want to go to arbitration?
LHP Lucas Luetge Baseball rarity: A Rule 5 acquisition who helped his new team.
RHP Yoervis Medina Second year in Double-A bullpen solid, but he’s 24. Roster spot not secure.
RHP Kevin Millwood A free agent. Mariners say, “Thanks for everything, and good luck!”
RHP D.J. Mitchell Part of the Ichiro Suzuki trade, he’s 25-year-old Triple-A starter. GM Jack Zduriencik likes him.
RHP Hector Noesi A disaster in rotation, much better as long reliever. A spring project.
LHP Oliver Perez Free agent coming off marvelous comeback season. He’ll have options.
RHP Stephen Pryor Young, strong setup man. Slimmed down, a potential closer.
RHP Erasmo Ramirez At 5-foot-11, a 22-year-old with heart, stuff, command. He sticks in ’13.
LHP Mauricio Robles At 23, hasn’t found it yet. He may, but there are lefties ahead of him.
RHP Chance Ruffin Couldn’t find it in ’12. He’ll lose roster spot.
LHP George Sherrill Now a free agent after going on 60-day DL. Not on 40-man roster.
LHP Jason Vargas Led team in wins, arbitration eligible. In line for big raise.
RHP Tom Wilhelmsen Amazing journey continues. Now he’s a closer!
John Jaso Better left-handed hitter than a catcher. Has a job for ’13.
Jesus Montero Rookie wasn’t what Mariners fans hoped he could be.
Miguel Olivo Free agent if Mariners decline his option. They’ll likely do so.
Dustin Ackley Huge step back this year was stunning. Needs huge step up in spring training.
Mike Carp A man without a position, likely without a future in Seattle.
Chone Figgins A man without a position or future – but with one year and $8 million remaining on his contract.
Luis Jimenez Team’s best batting practice showman. Not worth roster spot.
Munenori Kawasaki The team mascot in ’12. Unlikely to keep that job.
Alex Liddi Young enough to blossom, but hasn’t. Tough enough to stick?
Francisco Martinez At 22, hit .232 with no power in Double-A. It may come.
Brendan Ryan Gold Glove-style defense, below .200 offense? Likely gets another year.
Kyle Seager Solid glove and hit for power and production.
Justin Smoak Just when they thought he was bad, he showed them he could be good.
Carlos Triunfel Still just 22, the kid can play. Will it be here?
Franklin Gutierrez If he’s not healthy, he has no role.
Carlos Peguero Power is hypnotic. Everything else he does breaks the spell.
Trayvon Robinson He’s 25 and a fourth/fifth outfielder. Every team has two.
Michael Saunders Went from afterthought to part of the future. Now, for an encore?
Eric Thames Streaky power, plenty of strikeouts, not much defense. Enough said.
Casper Wells If ’13 season began today, he’d be in OF. More likely, he’ll be good fourth OF.firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @LarryLaRue