The month of October will be dominated by the presidential debates and, on other sports fronts here, the Seahawks and Husky football seasons. But for those who worship locally in the church of baseball, thoughts will begin turning to the Seattle Mariners' 2013 prospects.
The 2012 season does not formally end for the Mariners until an Oct. 3 home game against the Los Angeles Angels. But we already know about this season. The team's win-loss record will be better than last year's but there was no surprising rise, as experienced this season by the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics, clubs with seemingly mediocre rosters which battled into playoff contention. Home attendance will have continued its steady downward drift (to something over 1.7 million) since the 3.5 million of 2001 and 2002.
This season went according to "the plan" as articulated by Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge — a plan whereby a cornerstone talent such as pitcher Felix Hernandez and some mid-level veterans would stabilize the roster, while talented young players would rise from the farm system, develop further at major-league level, and provide the basis for a competitive team in 2013 or 2014.
As part of the plan, imposed by the Howard Lincoln/ Chuck Armstrong senior-management team, payroll would be reduced during the rebuild and not leave room for acquisition of higher-talented "bridging" veteran players.
Touted young players got an important year of major-league experience in 2012. Some will likely be around for years. Others disappointed us or are still in a don't-know-yet category.
But sufficient knowledge has been gained this year to know what must happen in the off-season in order for the Mariners to rise to contention. Jack Z. and Wedge know the holes that must be filled.The only question is whether Lincoln/Armstrong will give them the flexibility to do it.
Pitching and defense: These are the "musts" for any team not blessed with a murderers row of home-run hitters. The Mariners did well on both fronts this season. Hernandez reinforced his status as one of the league's two or three top starting pitchers and was backed by starters such as Jason Vargas, Hisashi Iwakuma, veteran Kevin Millwood (probably retiring at the end of this season), and up-and-comers such as Blake Beavan and Erasmo Ramirez. Iwakuma's contact expires at season's end, but he wants to return here and any kind of decent offer should do it.
Coming right up in the minor-league pipeline are highly touted young starters such as Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Brandon Maurer, and several others. The 2012 Mariners were blessed with effective left- and right-handed middle-relief pitchers, both veteran and young. And they found a closer in Tom Wilhelmsen and a couple more potential closers in Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps. Additional middle-relief pitchers and closers are in the farm system.
The Mariners have what is probably the American League's best defensive team this year. Shortstop Brendan Ryan, the captain of the infield, is perhaps the major leagues' best defensive shortstop. He anchored a strong infield defense including third baseman Kyle Seager, second baseman Dustin Ackley, and, most of the time, first-baseman Justin Smoak.
Centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez, once regarded as the best outfield defender in the league, missed most of the season for the second straight year because of illness or injury. His absence, though, provided a chance for Michael Saunders, who had not previously lived up to his potential but who blossomed both afield and at bat in 2012. He is a certain starter, in one of the three outfield positions, in 2013.
When Ichiro Suzuki was traded in late season, it gave playing time to outfielders Casper Wells, Eric Thames, and flyer Trayvon Robinson in particular. All are good defenders and have physical talent, but none stepped forward in 2012 with impressive batting numbers.
Most of the catching was to be handled in 2012 by veteran journeyman Miguel Olivo, with highly touted batting prospect Jesus Montero and John Jaso filling in behind him. But as the season progressed, Jaso played himself into the lineup with timely hitting and professional catching. Montero also proved better than expected behind the plate, if sometimes erratic at bat.
Olivo and his comparatively expensive contract may be gone after 2012, leaving Jaso and Montero to split time at catcher until young Mike Zunino, the Mariners' No. 1 draft choice this year, takes charge there. He could do so as soon as next year. He hits, fields, and leads.
Hitting: This was the team weakness going into the season and remains so at season's end. The team lacks a couple 25 to 30 home-run, 85 to 100 runs-batted-in mainstays in the middle of the batting order. It also lacks hitters who can deliver with men on base. Bunting skills also were surprisingly weak. There were some 2012 free agents available who could hit for extra bases and deliver in the clutch, but they signed elsewhere.
Do present roster players fill that need?
Smoak was once thought to be such a hitter and has shown flashes over the past two seasons. He could come through in 2013, but he also could fall short again. It would be risky for the Mariners to wait and see. Wells and Thames have hitting potential, but they, too, have not done it yet and are well past rookie status.
Seager, Ackley, Saunders, and Montero, maybe Smoak, and a healthy Gutierrez could provide internal hitting improvement next year, but probably not enough to establish themselves as No. 3 or No. 4-hitting fixtures in the lineup. A professional general manager, and Jack Z. is that, will be looking in the off-season to acquire two professional, veteran hitters for the middle of the batting order.
The free-agent crop is not promising; trades would be necessary to acquire them.
Luckily, the Mariners have a surplus of the commodity most sought in major-league baseball — pitching. Hernandez will not be traded ,but the Mariners have half a dozen veteran or young pitchers with real trading value.
They also have a couple minor-league infielders and outfielders who are not yet ready for the major leagues, but who could be attractive to other teams able to wait a couple years for their development. Smoak and Montero still have unmet potential and are attractive to other teams. Either or both of them could be included in a package designed to get two reliable, professional hitters.
Zduriencik, since coming here from Milwaukee, has been a huge improvement over his predecessor Bill Bavasi, who made some stunningly bad signing and trade decisions. Jack Z. has made generally sound decisions — along with a couple stinkers, such as signing Chone Figgins to a rich four-year contract and trading starter Brandon Morrow to Toronto for an already departed and erratic relief pitcher Brandon League. He's no doubt learned from the Figgins and Morrow blunders, though, and appears to have a good sense of what the team needs and how to get it. Wedge has been a stabilizing force as field manager.
The big question mark for 2013 lies with the Lincoln/Armstrong tandem. As the team's fortunes have fallen, they have cut payroll. Promotional and nostalgia events, dancing groundskeepers, and other attractions can continue drawing respectable crowds to Safeco Field. But, in order to return to the 3-plus-million attendance figures of a decade ago, the team must win. It also must win to get a rich cable-TV contract which could lie in store for the team a couple years hence.
Will Zduriencik encounter penny-wise constraints going into 2013 or will he be allowed to get back to salary levels of $100 million, or just below, to build a winning, contending team?
Figgins (now consuming about one-tenth of the 25-man-team's total payroll) is the last non-performing talent who will still be around next year — the last year of his contract. Young core players such as Seager, Ackley, and Saunders are still at low-payroll levels. A few astute moves could make the Mariners the 2013 version of this year's Orioles and Athletics, but with a stronger long-term base.
The Hot Stove League — the period of trading gossip between season's end and 2013 spring training — should be lively. Meanwhile, the 2012 Mariners are trying to show a closing kick over the next few days to give fans and themselves a positive departure point for 2013.