Zduriencik still stirring offseason cauldron

ryan.divish@thenewstribune.comDecember 25, 2012 

Before panic or anger gets overwhelming, perhaps it’s beneficial to at least wait until next year before officially tossing aside the Seattle Mariners’ 2013 baseball season.

Yes, the Mariners lost out on Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher and even Cody Ross.

And while the trade for Kendrys Morales was definitely viewed as a positive among Mariners fans, the free-agent signings of Jason Bay and Raul Ibañez received tepid-to-irritated responses:

“Typical Mariners, signing guys who are well past their primes” and

“What are they doing?” were emblematic.

To be fair, general manager Jack Zduriencik isn’t done with this offseason. He is still looking to acquire another bat, starting pitching depth and perhaps a veteran back-up catcher. There are rumors of possible deals in the works after Christmas.

“We’ll continue to see what else is out there just to make the club better,” Zduriencik said earlier this week. “If there’s something that makes sense, we’re wide open to it.”

The addition of Morales and the signing of Ibañez raise questions about playing time and at-bats, and the Mariners have less than 100 days to figure it out before the season opener in Oakland on April 1.

A little over a year ago, Michael Saunders seemed destined for the minor leagues or headed for another organization due to a crowded Mariners outfield. But a solid spring and injuries to Franklin Gutierrez and Mike Carp gave him a chance to play every day. Saunders responded with a 19-homer, 57-RBI season, keeping him part of Seattle’s future.

Realistically, Ibañez’s days of being an everyday starter at designated hitter or outfielder are behind him. He was brought in to be a bat off the bench, an occasional starter and a role model for the younger players.

While Jesus Montero and Jason Jaso saw plenty of at-bats at DH last season, both are still viewed as catchers first. Morales should get the bulk of starts at DH. A switch-hitter with power, he’s still recovering from a gruesome broken left leg two seasons ago. Although Morales is finally pain free and plans to work on his conditioning during the offseason, the Mariners maybe unwilling to risk returning the former first baseman to his original position full-time.

The Mariners still have Justin Smoak and Carp available to play first. Smoak gave the Mariners a 42-game stretch of hope last season after being sent down to Triple-A. He returned with a changed swing and a new outlook, hitting .288 (40-for-139) with six homers and 13 RBI. He also had an .850 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

“We really felt the last five weeks or so, it was real,” Wedge said. “ … I’ve got a great deal of belief in Justin and feel this kid is going to be a strong contributor for us.”

A productive Smoak could platoon with Morales at first base, which would make Carp the odd man out. Carp, who also plays the outfield, is out of Triple-A options.

As for outfield playing time, the Mariners have Bay, Ibañez, Saunders, Franklin Gutierrez, Casper Wells and Eric Thames. One opposing big league scout characterized the players who manned the Mariners’ outfield last season as “a collection of fourth outfielders.”

Saunders might be the most complete player among them. He can play any of the three spots at an above-average level and his hitting has improved considerably. If Gutierrez is healthy and Bay returns to even 80 percent of his best years, Saunders could be the starter in right field.

There are numerous head-spinning options right now for Seattle. And potentially more if Zduriencik continues to add personnel.

But the GM isn’t concerned.

“These things have a way of working themselves out,” he said.

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish

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