SEATTLE -- Shortly after Hisashi Iwakuma finished up one of the best rookie seasons ever for a Mariners starter, the 31-year-old from Japan was asked about his thoughts on returning to Seattle next year.
But Iwakuma, one of five pending free agents on the Mariners roster, declined to offer any hints as to his future after wrapping up a 9-5 season with a 3.16 ERA.
"I didn't try to think anything of it. I just wanted to finish up," Iwakuma said through interpreter Daisuke Sekiba. "What's going to happen next, I'll think about later."
The Mariners certainly liked what they saw from Iwakuma, who went 8-4 with a 2.65 ERA in 16 starts after moving into the rotation in midseason. His ERA was the lowest as a rookie in club history for anyone making 10 or more starts, edging the 2.67 of Felix Hernandez in 2005.
Iwakuma obviously isn't your normal rookie, having been a standout in Japan for the past decade. But he was new to the Majors and it took time to adjust, which is why his initial time in the bullpen this season paid off in the long run.
"I learned a lot of things, physically how to pitch against hitters and afterward as I became a starter I got good experience because of the bullpen pitching," he said. "There's nothing different between the pitching, but the hitters have more power here than Japanese players."
And what did he learn about facing those power hitters?
"Don't pitch the cookies," Iwakuma said. "They're going to hit home runs, so I try to think about how to pitch to them."
His overall thoughts on his first season in the Majors?
"I'm very happy for the year," he said. "I finished up strong, so I feel very happy now."
The team's other pending free agents are catcher Miguel Olivo and pitchers Kevin Millwood, Oliver Perez and George Sherrill. Olivo has a club option for 2013, but isn't expecting to return. Millwood is pondering retirement, Sherrill is coming off Tommy John surgery and Perez had a nice comeback season as a reliever this year on a Minor League deal.
Mariners name top Minor League players of 2012
SEATTLE -- A breakout season by infielder Stefen Romero earned him the honor of the Mariners Minor League Player of the Year.
Reliever Carter Capps was named the Pitcher of the Year, infielder Brad Miller won the Heart and Soul Award and right-hander Brandon Maurer took home the Most Improved Player to round out the 2012 Mariners Minor League Awards, as announced by general manager Jack Zduriencik on Wednesday. All four were honored at Safeco Field during the final Major League game of the season on Wednesday.
Romero, 23, hit .352 with 23 home runs and 101 RBIs in 116 games combined between Single-A High Desert and Double-A Jackson. The infielder finished third among all full season Minor Leaguers in average and was named to the Baseball America 2012 Second-Team All-Star team.
"I just put my mind frame in situational hitting, that's one of the things they preach down on the farm a lot," Romero said. "Luckily, I had a lot of guys get on base for me in High Desert and in Jackson."
"Stefen had an outstanding offensive season combined between High Desert and Jackson," Zduriencik said. "He not only led the organization in many offensive categories, but was one of the top players in all of the Minor Leagues."
Capps, 22, went 2-3 with 19 saves and a 1.23 ERA in 39 games with Jackson and Triple-A Tacoma, and was selected by the Major League club on July 31. The hard-throwing reliever averaged 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings in the Minors.
With the Mariners, Capps has a 3.96 ERA in 18 appearances, including 28 strikeouts in 25 innings.
Miller, 22, who received the Heart and Soul Award for his exemplary play and leadership skills both on and off the field, hit .334 with 110 runs, 15 home runs and 68 RBIs in 137 games with High Desert and Jackson.
"Just a huge honor to be recognized," Miller said. "To get to represent the organization is huge. Just exciting. Totally out of the blue. I had a lot of fun my first pro season and this is just something else I'm proud of and excited about."
Maurer, 22, rebounded from an injury-filled 2010 and 2011 seasons to finish 9-2 with a 3.20 ERA for Jackson. He was named the Southern League Most Outstanding Pitcher.
Wells takes last visit to Safeco's changing outfield
SEATTLE -- With Tuesday's announcement that the Safeco Field fences would be moved in next year, with the biggest adjustment being in the left-center field "Death Valley" gap, right fielder Casper Wells went out that evening and drove two balls deep to the warning track in that exact spot in the 6-1 victory over the Angels.
What surely would have been two home runs and three RBIs in the new configuration, instead turned out to be a pair of long outs in an 0-for-4 day for Wells.
Did he wonder "what if?" at all on those fly outs?
"I guess so," Wells said with a shrug. "I don't make excuses though. If I was a little stronger, they'd have got out. If it was next year, that would have been a couple home runs, so that would be cool."
But Wells wasn't taking any great positive out of knowing things might be different next time.
"No. It's over," he said. "I hit the ball hard, that's the only thing that's optimistic. I had nothing to show for it, but I did my job and hit the ball hard. What are you going to do?"
Wells previously played for the Tigers and noted that Comerica Park remains "a graveyard in center" even after the fences were brought in there in 2003. So he's used to playing in big parks. He said the second long ball he hit Tuesday definitely felt like it should have gone out anywhere.
"The first one was a slider and I didn't swing as hard," he said. "The second one had to be a mid-90s fastball down and that one was a no-doubter in my mind. The pitcher put his head down. But, hey, if I get stronger, maybe they're out by 100 feet next year."
Wedge has his eyes on playoffs next season
SEATTLE -- As Mariners players sat in their clubhouse before Wednesday's season finale with the Angels, they watched with interest as the A's and Rangers battled for playoff positioning on TV.
Is it realistic for the Mariners to be in that position next year?
"That's what we're hoping to do," manager Eric Wedge said of playoff contention. "It may be a little quick when it comes to 'Rebuilding 101,' but it's not beyond the realm. Ultimately, what I want us to continue doing is getting better and doing it the right way.
"I came here to build a championship team and sustain that level of success. If that timetable is next year, then that's great. If not, I know we're going to continue to be better and get closer to that."
Wedge feels the Mariners made a successful step forward in 2012, improving from 67-95 in his initial year to 75-87 after Wednesday's season-ending 12-0 win over the Angels. He likes the young offensive core, the pitching and the defense. He likes the potential of some up-and-coming Minor League talent. And he knows more help is needed this offseason.
"The first thing that comes to mind is to continue to get better offensively," he said of winter plans. "If we can continue adding to that mix, that would be ideal. Without breaking it down looking at the free agent market and potential trade possibilities, you really can't dive too deep into it right now. But a veteran presence, particularly in the middle of the lineup, would be great. Easier said than done though."
• Manager Eric Wedge said he sees Brendan Ryan as his starting shortstop again next year. Ryan is in the final season of arbitration eligibility, so he remains under team control even though his two-year contract expires this year.
"I think he's going to hit better," Wedge said. "He's a much better offensive player than .195. If there's ever a player that gets in his own way offensively, Brendan Ryan is it. We're going to try to help him get the hell out of his own way next year. I think he's the best defensive shortstop in the game. A game changer."
• In addition to Ryan, the other Mariners eligible for arbitration this offseason are catcher John Jaso and pitchers Shawn Kelley, Josh Kinney and Jason Vargas.
• Asked about his coaching staff returning next year, Wedge said he was meeting with the coaches individually in the next day or two and would sit down with GM Jack Zduriencik, team president Chuck Armstrong and CEO Howard Lincoln early next week before finalizing things for next year.
Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. Josh Liebeskind is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.