How far are the Mariners from relevancy?

Amid a massive free-agent signing and allegations of front-office dysfunction, the Seattle Mariners find themselves a few cards short of a winning hand. What are some of the organizational weaknesses, and how might they best address them?

With Robinson Cano in the fold for the foreseeable future, the Mariners have proven themselves to be financially committed to winning, which should help the club sign free-agent talent. But they have a long way to go before they can start selling postseason tickets.

The team won 71 games in 2013, and there’s reason to believe that total includes some luck. Cano may help the club to an additional five or so wins next season, but that only gives Seattle a shot at a .500 record.

The Mariners also have to compete in a fairly strong division. The Athletics and Rangers both have deep, talented rosters, while the Angels have Mike Trout and several players who used to be very good (ahem, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton). Even the Astros won’t be a free win.

Seattle’s strength is pitching. TheM’s can call on a variety of pitchers at varying stages of their careers, with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma leading the charge. The rotation could benefit from veteran depth. The final three spots currently will go to some combination of Taijuan Walker, Erasmo Ramirez, James Paxton, Hector Noesi, and Brandon Maurer. Due to inexperience and middling performance, the Mariners are likely to bring in at least one veteran to complement the rotation.

The Mariners are rumored to be interested in Rays starter David Price, which would give the club a formidable top of the rotation. Price won’t come cheaply, though. It’s speculated that a package would have to start with Walker, who may be the club’s third-best starter and is under club control for at least six more seasons. Price is probably a three- to four-win upgrade over Walker in 2014, which certainly would help the team’s bid for the playoffs. Still, Price alone would not be enough.

Seattle also is rumored to be interested in Masahiro Tanaka (should he be posted), Ubaldo Jimenez, or Matt Garza. Bronson Arroyo might be a more budget-conscious fit for the club, especially if the Mariners trade for Price. Rumors related to Jimenez and Garza came from back in November, before they signed Cano.

It’s unclear if the Mariners are still interested in either pitcher, and they have not been specifically linked to Arroyo. Bringing in one or two veteran pitchers could help the club win anywhere from two to eight more games, depending on which player(s) Seattle acquires.

The bullpen was a problem area in 2013, but that appears to be somewhat fluky. The team posted the second-worst bullpen ERA in baseball at 4.58, but if you prefer FIP, they ranked 12th-worst in baseball. In either case, there is room for improvement. Danny Farquhar emerged as an elite reliever last season, but the club can dangle a closer job to the plethora of experienced relievers on the market in order to entice somebody to sign.

Since the supply of closers is greater than the number of open jobs, teams can afford to be patient and wait to see who will sign at a reasonable rate. The club hasn’t been specifically linked to any free-agent closers, but in light of the Cano investment, it stands to reason that the M’s will want to shore up this problem area from last season.

Of course, the Mariners’ greatest weakness is their lineup. They had the 20th-ranked offense per wOBA with a .237/.306/.390 triple slash. Kyle Seager, Kendrys Morales, and Raul Ibanez were the most notable hitters, and Morales and Ibanez are currently free agents. Shortstop Brad Miller is a decent hitter and 27-year-old Justin Smoak probably will be given one last opportunity to stop teasing the Mariners with mere flashes of talent.

That leaves the outfield and designated hitter as the easiest areas to upgrade and, unsurprisingly, the Mariners are targeting outfielders. Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz top the wish list. At this point, the club needs players with high on-base percentages so that Cano has base runners to drive in.

As such, Choo would be an excellent addition given his penchant for reaching base. Choo’s on-base percentage, which was a career high .423 last season, combined with Cano’s batting average and power, is a recipe for runs. Cruz is a traditional middle-of-the-order bat, so there’s much less potential for lineup synergy.

The biggest issue with the Mariners offense is that they have a lot of seemingly interesting players who have upside but currently aren’t much better than replacement level. If they want to fully leverage Hernandez’s and Cano’s best seasons, they will need to act decisively to replace some of these players. Included on this list are Smoak, Nick Franklin, Jesus Montero, and Carlos Peguero, among others.

Cano is not enough by himself. It’s hard to imagine the the Mariners would sign Cano without hoping to reach the postseason in 2014, so they have a lot of work ahead of them. It’s unclear how much budget is available to the club, but they should be looking to acquire two starting pitchers, one closer, and at least one outfielder, preferably Choo.

All of that together, combined with improvement from several of their young players, could result in a 90-win season. Even then, they aren’t a lock for the postseason. It appears the Mariners are many millions of dollars and a couple of metric tons of luck away from reaching their goal.

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  1. Gyre said...

    The deal is already paying off, articles like these will continue to pop up thru the off season.  Least Coast writers will follow Cano thru the season, reporting his falls most often, but always drawing attention towards the Mariners.  Putting an extra million people in the seats by 2015 will pay about a third the contract.

  2. Gil Tex said...

    I can’t think of a more disastrous move for the Mariners than Cano’s contract.  This is the equivalent of the Rangers contract with A-Rod.  Rodriguez arguably had the three best seasons of his career as a Ranger.  In 2001, his first year in Texas, he hit 52 home runs, had 201 hits, and drove in 135.  Did that help the Rangers?  They improved by two games in 2001, going from 71 to 73 wins, their best year with A-Rod.  Hasn’t history proven the folly of a small to mid market team going all-in on a free agent position player, regardless of the caliber of that player?

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    Gil Tex,

    I’m not sure it’s quite so bad as that. The A-Rod contract was something like 30% of the Rangers budget while Cano is probably closer to 15% of the Mariners potential payroll. The Mariners also have more/better reserve clause and early arb players.

  4. Johnny P said...

    People said the same thing about the Blue Jays this year and the Marlins last year. Those turned out disastrously. Don’t hold your breath on Seattle.

  5. Duane S said...

    Interesting that Cano will bring only 5 additional wins. This team really needs a solid catcher, a first baseman and some outfielders. A step in the right direction.

  6. Bookbook said...

    This analysis might be of more value if it noted current and expected future Mariners, instead of gentlemen like Montero and Peguero who will be lucky to find themselves in Tacoma to start 2014. (e.g. Saunders, Ackley, Zunino, etc.)

    Gil Tex,
    Seattle is a filthy rich city, thanks to Microsoft and it’s spawn, as well as a thriving biotech community and many pacific Rim connections.. It’s the closest Major League team to all residents of Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and British Columbia (TV market is large).  There’s no excuse for Seattle to be a small to mid market team, other than mismanagement.

  7. Roy in Omaha said...

    If you live in Kansas City, Billy Butler is at the top of the Mariner’s wish list at DH, at least, that’s what we hear from the press here, and they have supposedly made prior overtures about him as well.

  8. Yehuda said...

    The Mariners have good minor league teams. I am not when they are fully ready for the majors. If and when they are; they will probably not be with the Mariners for too long.

  9. Brad Johnson said...

    At this point in time, Saunders, Zunino, and Ackley are part of that group I referenced. They have better scouting reports and deserve greater patience, but they’re still just young players who haven’t shown much in the way of MLB success. Saunders and Ackley look like 1-2 WAR outfielders while it’s too soon to comment on Zunino until we have a better idea of how much power will translate to the majors.

    I didn’t mention that trio because I’m hesitant to dismiss them outright, but by the same token none of them have proven to be more than role players. The Mariners have more pressing issues than replacing those three, so they’ll all get another shot. They all have potential to be one of the guys I was referencing when I said “combined with improvement from several of their young players”

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