Mariners primed to make most of makeover
Cano, Hart, LoMo bring pop to lineup looking to complement Felix and Co.
SEATTLE -- With a new manager, a new mega-millionaire star and the likely promotion of one of baseball's premier pitching prospects, change is in the air at Safeco Field as the calendar turns to 2014.
Certainly it's going to take some follow-up on the field, but the Mariners are making significant moves to improve a club that has endured four straight losing seasons and slipped back to 71-91 last season after gaining ground the previous two years.
General manager Jack Zduriencik signed Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal that put Major League Baseball on notice that the Mariners mean business. Zduriencik has since added two-time All-Star Corey Hart and promising outfielder/first baseman Logan Morrison to the lineup.
Lloyd McClendon and an entirely new coaching staff was hired to replace Eric Wedge and his crew. And a few more smaller moves figure to still be on the horizon as the club fills out its roster and prepares to do battle in the rugged American League West.
Here are 10 questions facing the Mariners in 2014:
1. How much clout can Cano bring?
Signing the five-time All-Star second baseman was a bold move, adding one of baseball's premier players to a young roster in need of offensive thump. Cano can't do it alone, but it will be fascinating to see how he performs now with the pressure of a huge contract in a new environment where he's the focal point of a team trying to overcome a recent run of losing seasons.
2. Who will be the new president?
Chuck Armstrong's retirement will take effect at the end of January, and the Mariners hope to have a replacement on board by the time he walks away. Armstrong has been with the team for 28 of its 37 years, and CEO Howard Lincoln is looking for a replacement with similar contacts throughout baseball. Lincoln and Armstrong have been at the top of the Mariners' front office for a long time, so a new hire there could have considerable impact on the team's direction in future years.
3. Will the knees hold up?
Zduriencik is banking on three balky knees to now be healthy after signing Hart and trading for Morrison in a 15-minute span at the Winter Meetings. Hart had microfracture surgery on both knees and had to sit out all of last season, but he is a much-needed quality right-handed power hitter if he comes back at full strength. Morrison has missed the last two Spring Trainings and parts of the regular season as well after a pair of surgeries on his left knee while with the Marlins. Regarded as one of baseball's top hitting prospects three years ago, Morrison could be a welcome left-handed addition if he's as healthy as he says.
4. Are the young arms ready to roll?
With Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the Mariners are as good as anybody at the top of their rotation. But they'll need a couple of their youngsters to step up to fill out the starting five, and nobody will have bigger expectations than Taijuan Walker, the 21-year-old right-hander ranked as the No. 4 prospect in all of baseball by MLB.com. Also competing for spots will be rookie James Paxton and young returnees Brandon Maurer, Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi, all of whom have Major League starting experience.
5. Who'll man the outfield?
Hart and Morrison could split time in right field if they can get and stay healthy, but both are also capable of playing first base or could be used at designated hitter. The only veteran returnees in the outfield at this point are Michael Saunders and recently re-signed free agent Franklin Gutierrez, along with converted second baseman Dustin Ackley. Abraham Almonte flashed some interesting skills as a September callup, and Willie Bloomquist is capable of playing in the outfield as well after signing as a super utility man.
6. Is the door closed on the closer situation?
Danny Farquhar did an excellent job for the final two months last year after replacing a struggling Tom Wilhelmsen. Both will compete for the job again this spring, but Zduriencik has shopped around the free-agent market for another contender and had an offer out for Jose Veras before he signed with the Cubs. Zduriencik certainly would like to add another veteran or two to the bullpen mix, whether in the setup or closer's role, after trading Carter Capps from a group that ran out of gas in the second half last season.
7. Who'll win the shortstop job?
Brad Miller took over as the starter at midseason last year and played pretty well for a 24-year-old rookie, hitting .265 and displaying some decent pop. But barring a trade, he'll get a spring challenge from fellow rookie Nick Franklin, now displaced at second base by Cano. Franklin, 22, came up as a shortstop and is regarded as a stronger hitting prospect, though there were some questions about his defensive range at that position. Bloomquist should be a capable backup, so whoever doesn't win the job between Miller and Franklin likely would start the year in Triple-A Tacoma.
8. Does Justin Smoak take another step forward at first?
While many fans have been ready to replace Smoak the last two years, he posted a career-best .334 on-base percentage, improved his home run total for a fourth straight year -- hitting 20 despite missing three weeks with a strained oblique -- and is a solid defensive first baseman. The Mariners need more than a .238 batting average and 50 RBIs from that position though, and Smoak must show McClendon he deserves the job, given newcomers Hart and Morrison are capable of playing first as well.
9. How ready is catcher Mike Zunino to carry the load?
The Mariners are very high on the 22-year-old rookie, who played 52 games last year for Seattle in his first full year of pro ball after making a rapid ascension as the club's 2012 first-round Draft pick. Zunino already looks like the best defensive catcher the club has had in recent years, and he is strong in handling pitchers. He's capable of helping more offensively than last year's .214 average, but the Mariners presumably would be thrilled at this point if he can just shoulder the primary catching load for the majority of games. Zduriencik would like to add a veteran backup, given the only other backstop on the 40-man roster at the moment is Jesus Sucre, who has eight games of MLB experience.
10. What changes will McClendon bring?
The new skipper is the first to say that a manager is only as good as his players, which is why he's thrilled with the addition of Cano and Hart, a pair of All-Stars with some thump. But McClendon -- who's been the hitting coach for the Tigers the past seven seasons -- will have impact as well on his new crew, and it'll be interesting to see if his approach works better with some of the young hitters like Ackley, Saunders, Smoak and Jesus Montero, who didn't develop as quickly as hoped under Wedge's watch. How much McClendon manipulates the lineup, pushes the action on the basepaths, relies on his bullpen and the like will also be questions to watch once the games begin.