- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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It's been an interesting winter for baseball in Seattle. The Mariners failed to click with Prince Fielder. But they did survive a freak Pacific Northwest snowstorm to finalize a deal for Jesus Montero, the young catcher who Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says "may well be the best player I've ever traded."
On a positive note, the Mariners can take solace in having the third-rosiest outlook in the American League West. They're not as stacked with talent or brimming with TV dollars as their high-flying competition in Texas and Anaheim. But they appear to be in better shape than the Athletics, who dealt away half their pitching staff while "Moneyball" was snagging an Academy Award nomination.
Fresh off the Mariners' third sub-70-win season in four years, GM Jack Zduriencik continues to pursue his vision with the resolute, stay-the-course fervor of a man who's building a home brick by brick. Baseball America ranked the Mariners' farm system as the ninth best in the game before they acquired Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi in a stunning trade that sent Michael Pineda and Jose Campos to the Yankees. That's a big jump from No. 18 in 2011.
For the record, Zduriencik declined to answer questions about Fielder during the height of Prince-mania. And in accordance with club policy, he's still not talking Prince. But from all the background indicators, the Mariners were more a fringe participant than a serious player in the Fielder sweepstakes.
"It really doesn't matter what was said or done three days ago, two weeks ago or a month ago," Zduriencik said. "It's history, and we're moving forward."
The Fielder-Seattle match was always destined to be a reach, for lots of reasons. Scott Boras wasn't going to be able to cultivate Mariners majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi the way he has Mike Ilitch, Tom Hicks or the Lerner family in Washington. And Fielder was bound to have other options that didn't entail drawing 200 walks and playing for a losing team for the foreseeable future.
But if Seattle fans feel let down, that's understandable. You might be short on patience, too, if you had to watch that offense year after year.
The attached chart provides a window into the pain threshold required of Seattle fans. A decade after the M's were perennial contenders with a lineup featuring Edgar Martinez, Bret Boone, John Olerud, Mike Cameron and a young(er) Ichiro Suzuki, their offense is a still-life portrait in spikes.
It's no accident that attendance at Safeco Field has all the downward momentum of a mudslide. During the franchise's glory days in 2001 and 2002, the Mariners drew 3.5 million-plus. Last year, they ranked 23rd in the majors with 1.9 million fans. It was the first time the franchise failed to crack 2 million in a full season since 1992, when the double-play combination consisted of Harold Reynolds and a scrappy kid named Omar Vizquel.
Even without Fielder, Seattle is spending a lot more money than, say, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and San Diego -- developing teams in similar circumstances. The Mariners' payroll is expected to top $90 million again this year, with more than half that total, $47 million, earmarked for Suzuki, Felix Hernandez and Chone Figgins. Seattle management plans to make a big splash at some point, but it will be meticulously timed, and somewhere down the road.
"I would love to have a No. 3 or 4 hole hitter with some experience because it would help everybody around him," Zduriencik said. "But the process is what it is. You have to stay the course and be patient. I know that's very difficult to do. But it's proven. I've been in places where it's worked. We're going to do it here and we're going to make it work here."
If the Mariners plan to improve in 2012 and become watchable offensively, they need their kids to grow up in a hurry and the veterans to get a second wind. The players below all merit watching if the M's are going to upgrade from a major league-worst 556 runs scored last season to something in the 650-700 range.
He's coming off the worst season of his career, with personal lows of 184 hits and a .272 batting average. There were 71 outfielders in baseball with at least 400 plate appearances last season. Of that group, Ichiro ranked 69th in OPS, at .645. The only two players who were worse: Minnesota's Ben Revere (.619) and the White Sox's Alex Rios (.613).
But the Mariners remain hopeful Ichiro hasn't reached the point of no return. His .295 batting average on balls in play was easily the lowest of his career, so some bad luck might have factored into the equation. More important, we're talking about an athlete who's one of the all-time greats at his craft. Remember the classic Ichiro quote of several years ago, when he looked forward to facing Daisuke Matsuzaka with the declaration, "I hope he arouses the fire that's dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul. I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger"? The Mariners are hoping for the re-emergence of that Ichiro.
"I don't think he's going to bounce back to .330 or .340, but he can be a productive player," said an American League front-office man. "You can bank on the fact that he's more motivated this offseason than maybe ever before."
Manager Eric Wedge is making enough noise about dropping Ichiro from the leadoff spot that it seems like a fait accompli. Scouts have always said that Ichiro has the potential to hit with more power. But can he do it at age 38?
At this stage of Figgins' career, it's tempting to write him off as a lost cause. When Figgins hit .259 in 2010, you could give him a pass because he was changing teams, positions and spots in the batting order -- never mind feeling the pressure from a new four-year, $36 million contract. It's tougher to make that case after last season, when he lost all his confidence, hit .188 and looked like a guy with barely a trace of major league ability.
Two weeks ago, the Mariners brought 10 position players to Seattle for three days of workouts at Safeco Field and dinner at the manager's house. The invitees included Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Brendan Ryan, Franklin Gutierrez, Miguel Olivo and Figgins, among others. By all accounts, Figgins is in a more positive frame of mind these days. He got married this winter, and he has recovered from the groin injury that forced him to shut it down in September.
With Kyle Seager atop the depth chart at third base, Wedge plans to move Figgins around the field this season. Maybe a return to his old super-utility role can rouse Figgins from his stupor and help him rediscover the zest for the game that he's seemingly lost.
"There's no magic wand to wave here," Zduriencik said. "He's a veteran guy who's had success. But he hasn't had it here, so it's going to be a challenge for him. He has to come in and prove people wrong. Sometimes that mindset is good for a player to have."
Gutierrez is generally regarded as the best defensive center fielder in baseball when he's healthy. But he was a mess from the outset in 2011. A stomach disorder left him fatigued and underweight, and limited him to only 25 spring training at-bats. During the regular season, Gutierrez hit one homer in 322 at-bats before going down for the count with an oblique injury in September.
Gutierrez logged a .666 OPS in 2010 when healthy, so he has something to prove as a hitter. But it appears that his physical maladies are behind him. He has learned to regulate his diet and his stomach medication, and he no longer looks like a walking ghost. Gutierrez weighed 180 pounds when he left Seattle in October. Upon his return two weeks ago, he checked in at 199.
Zduriencik was Milwaukee's scouting director when the team brought Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart into the system, so he understands the importance of the draft and player development. Seattle's current group doesn't compare to that contingent, but the Mariners have some intriguing pieces.
Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft, wore down as the season progressed and hit .219 in September, but still finished sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting. Ackley rarely chases balls out of the strike zone and has that special ability to get fooled, be out in front and still keep his hands back and hit the ball with authority. The Mariners think he's a potential 20-homer guy at second base.
"He stays on the baseball for such a long period of time," Zduriencik said. "He has that innate ability to put the sweet spot of the bat on the ball. It's a gift."
The same goes for Montero, whose opposite-field approach appears to be well-suited for Safeco Field. It remains to be seen whether he can handle the demands of catching at the big league level.
Smoak, 25, was rushed to the big leagues in Texas before he was ready, and endured a wall-to-wall test of his resolve last season. He played with injuries to both thumbs, suffered a broken nose and a broken bone around his eye, and had to deal with the death of his father in June.
"He went through an awful lot, let alone that we weren't a very good offensive club," Zduriencik said, "and now you're taking this young kid and putting him in the middle of your lineup. That was a pretty big challenge for him."
Seager, a third-round pick in 2009, hit .328 in the minors and is frequently described as a "Bill Mueller type." Mike Carp, a former Mets prospect, put together a 20-game hitting streak in August. And outfielder Casper Wells, acquired from Detroit in the Doug Fister trade, once recorded a 25-homer, 25-steal season in the minors. He has some holes in his swing, but is certainly athletic.
Although Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and Seattle's young pitching prospects have earned rave reviews, the jury is out on the young position player talent in the big leagues. One AL scout regards Seager, Carp and Wells as more "complementary-type players" than front-line starters on a contending club. That means the Mariners will be leaning heavily on Ackley, Montero and Smoak, who have a combined 1,169 major league at-bats.
"You like Montero, and you like Ackley," the scout said. "But Ichiro is on the decline, and there are some questions the rest of the way around the field. I have questions with the bullpen and the back of the rotation, too. I just don't see them having the weapons to get in there and mix it up with the Rangers and the Angels. For me, they're still a few years and several pieces away from being there."
Zduriencik's contract runs through 2013, so he has at least two more years to produce the type of breakthrough season that another hard-core scouting guy, Terry Ryan, achieved after some fallow years in Minnesota. The Mariners don't have a Prince, but they have a plan. Time will tell if they have enough players.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
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