If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
For the second year in a row the Seattle Mariners look to be one of the major noise makers during the offseason.
Determined to contend in the American League West, Seattle’s ownership has worked hard to try and improve the team where it has been weakest these past few seasons – the offense. They were in on discussions with both Prince Fielder and Josh Hamilton the last two seasons, though both decided to go elsewhere.
This past winter, the organization moved the outfield fences at Safeco Field in to shorten the distance needed for home runs. They also acquired middle-of-the-order bats Michael Morse from Washington and Kendrys Morales from the Los Angeles (of Anaheim), which they hoped would result in enough of a scoring boost to allow an already solid pitching staff to carry them.
The moves didn’t really work out. Despite all their offseason efforts, the Mariners still struggled to score runs, ranking 22nd in the league offensively on the way to finishing 71-91 and fourth in the division, ahead of only the lowly Astros.
Ownership remains undeterred, and will reportedly aggressively pursue top free agents Jacoby Ellsbury (CF, Boston Red Sox) and Shin Soo Choo (CF, Cincinnati Reds), along with a starting pitcher.
But before venturing into the open market, step one for Seattle looks to be re-signing DH/1B Kendrys Morales. The Mariners officially extended a qualifying offer to the Cuban-born slugger, who led the team in batting average (.277), RBIs (80) and hits (167) and added in 23 home runs during the 2013 campaign. Despite the fact that the $14.1 million qualifying offer would give Morales a significant pay raise from his $5.25 million salary in 2013, early reports rumor that Morales and agent Scott Boras are leaning toward rejecting the offer and hitting the open market (they have until Monday at 5 p.m. to decide). Even if the qualifying offer is rejected, the Mariners will likely seek to negotiate some short-term, two-to-three year extension to keep Morales’ bat in their lineup.
Their next priority will be to sign one of either Ellsbury or Choo, both of whom have received qualifying offers of their own. There is both a roster spot and a positional vacancy that either could fill now that Seattle has declined to exercise its option on centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez.
Ellsbury, 30, batted .298 with 9 home runs and 53 RBIs for Boston in 2013, led baseball with 52 stolen bases (the third time he’s led the league in steals), and has an above-average glove.
Choo, 31, had the fourth-highest on-base percentage in baseball (.423), stole 20 bases, and boasts power to boot, hitting 21 home runs for Cincinnati last year.
The problem with both of these guys – they too are managed by Scott Boras, and the asking price on both is going to be a multi-year contract in excess of $100 million dollars. But the fact that Seattle is already so publicly interested in pursuing either/or is a sign that they are willing to pony up that kind of cash.
The third order of business will be to add another starting pitcher.
The Mariners rotation already has an incredible one-two punch in former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez and current Cy Young candidate Hisashi Iwakuma. But when looking beyond the number one and number two starters, there is a lot to be desired. Rookie Taijuan Walker was called up in September, and will likely be pressed into Big League service in 2014 out of necessity, despite not being fully Major League ready. Blake Beaven and Brandon Muarer were anything but consistent. And the Mariners declined an option on left-hander Joe Saunders last week.
Seattle is not expected to be in contention for the upper-tier free agent pitchers. However, they will be looking for a mid-level starter who can occupy the third spot and provide stability to the rotation. No specific targets have been reported to date, but guys like Scott Kazmir, Ricky Nolasco, Scott Feldman, Josh Johnson and Bronson Arroyo could meet the team’s needs, depending on asking price.
And with whatever spending money is left over, Seattle would like to add a right-handed bat. Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal has reported that the team will not be targeting Red Sox 1B Mike Napoli, but that’s no surprise considering the dollars the team is going to have to commit to other needs.
If you’ll recall, at the beginning of the year I rewarded the Mariners efforts to improve by picking them to make the playoffs. Last year may have been a disappointment, but it’s refreshing to see an ownership group remaining dedicated to building a winning on-field product for its fan base. Hopefully there is a better payoff in 2014 than there was a season ago.