The goal of any team, at any time, is to put the best player possible at each position. If a team could find a way to put the 25 best players in baseball on the same roster, they would do it. Obviously, given salary, availability and personality constraints, such a roster is impossible. Sacrifices are sometimes made, different strategies for building a roster are employed. Still, at its core, roster construction is simply finding the best player available given that roster’s specific constraints.
This concept is even clearer with a rebuilding team. When starting nearly from scratch, it’s incredibly difficult to find nine serviceable players, even more so when the pitching staff and bench are added. Aside from Felix, the Mariners have had so few long-term answers over the last few years, it has made visualizing a future roster all but impossible.
The biggest challenge rebuilding teams face is the sheer number of good players they must obtain. On most perennially good teams, there are no more than five of 25 roster spots changing from year to year. Most of the roster is set, leaving the team to focus on replacing a free agent, or upgrading a weak position. Resources can be focused. With a team like the Mariners, which has turned over more like 20 of it’s roster spots in some years, they are not only faced with a lack of available quality players, but also with the challenge of where to focus their resources. Each year brings questions of: which prospects to look at, which mediocre veterans can be lived with for another year, which struggling youngster should get more time, which long-term free agent fits best. There are too many questions, and not enough innings or roster spots to find answers.
Compounding matters is the fact that it takes most prospects so long to become quality major league contributors. In a situation like Zduriencik inherited, devoid of much talent at any level, most young players come through the draft. While they’ve had a few players rocket to the majors within a year or two of being drafted, most draftees take anywhere from three to six years to develop, if they ever make the majors at all. Once in the bigs, most players will struggle, sometimes for several years, as evidenced by Ackley and Smoak and so many others.
With good teams, this isn’t a huge deal. At most, they are trying to add a couple of prospects to the roster per year. It might be to fill a need, or they might have a minor leaguer who is good enough to be given priority. Either way, since it’s just one spot, the team can either live with poor performance or send the player down for more seasoning. They can mix and match players until they find one who works. If a player takes four years to develop, they have the option to wait on him, because they’re not also waiting on twelve other players.
The Mariners don’t have the same luxury. If they have six young players in the line up who are struggling, it’s bad news. They could wait on all six. They might become stars, which makes it all worth it. But if even half of that six fails, much less four or five of them, the team has suddenly wasted several years and now finds itself back in the same situation of needing to fill a bunch of holes. By that point, the general manager is probably out of a job, the new GM will go in a different direction, and the whole process starts over.
Having guaranteed contributors has value, then. Besides the production they bring, it allows the team to focus their player acquisition on fewer spots. Even looking for four starters instead of eight is a massively easier project, and having those guaranteed performances from the established starters stabilizes the team’s performance while completing the rest of the roster.
When Zduriencik took over, the Mariners mostly had Ichiro as an established starter with a future. (In the line-up. Pitching is a somewhat different matter I’ll talk about later.) He declined quicker than most expected, leaving the Mariners with a completely different line-up than they had five years ago. Are they in better shape, both now and for the future? It’s hard to answer that question. They certainly have more talent throughout their system, but Seattle’s line-up is still filled with questions. Here’s a quick breakdown on how much of an answer each position currently has:
Good to Go
Kyle Seager has proven himself reliable and productive. He rarely slumps for long, and he’s improved each year. He’s a solid defensive third baseman, and he’s made himself into at least a slightly above-average offensive threat. He might not be a guy a good team bats third, but he’s a perfect option to bat fifth or sixth, and there’s no reason to think he can’t get better. Any boost in home run power could make him a franchise player.
Declaring Mike Zunino a definite answer might seem a stretch, but his command of the position in his short time in Seattle has been absolute. He’s a an excellent defender who should improve, automatically making him the best M’s catcher since Dan Wilson. Pitch-framing numbers (a new and inexact science, but interesting) argue Zunino’s presence has hugely influenced the Mariners’ pitchers as well. His bat was just heating up when he was injured, but even if he’s a .230 hitter with occasional power, that’s a decent player at catcher. There’s no reason he can’t be significantly better. He should see multiple all star games in his career.
Signs Are Positive, But Questions Remain
Nick Franklin and Brad Miller have already made their presence felt, both on the field and off. They’re slumping a bit now, but both are supremely talented and seem to have the attitude to work out of any struggles. Only lack of experience and typical rookie questions keep them from being definite answers. They don’t hold Zunino’s defensive abilities at a prime position, meaning they’ll have to continue to hit. They both should, but it’s never a guarantee. Franklin seems more likely to be a star, given his uncanny power.
At this point, Justin Smoak doesn’t need more written about him. He’s risen this year to become a solid bat, and he’s a good defender. Signs are good that he’ll maintain this level of performance. The question is whether a decent contact, high walks, mediocre power guy is enough at first base. If Smoak can show more power, he’ll be a true weapon. If not, he’s more of a guy who can fill the hole until the Mariners find a better option.
The whole outfield is a mess. Michael Saunders is the best bet at a potential star, but he has a long way to go to even be a reliable starter. Dustin Ackley has the makings of a good centerfielder, but he needs a lot more experience before he’ll be a good defender, and it’s anyone’s guess whether his bat develops. Michael Morse is a free agent and a guy who can’t play every day in the outfield, for injury and defensive reasons. The same goes for Raul Ibanez. Franklin Gutierrez is a near lock to be elsewhere next year. It’s also the most barren position in the Mariners’ minor leagues, with only a handful of good, close options, none of whom are anything close to guarantees to produce. It would be a shock if Seattle doesn’t add a veteran outfielder before 2014.
After not being traded, Kendrys Morales seems like a better than even bet to resign with the Mariners this offseason. He’ll receive a one year qualifying offer, which is similar to the NFL’s franchise tag. He won’t take that offer, but it will hurt his leverage with other teams, who will have to give up a first round pick to sign him. It’s no guarantee, but he could definitely be back. If not, designated hitter has no clear answer. It will likely be manned by Morales, Morse or another veteran free agent.
That’s a mixed bag. Each position has a potential answer, but few have established themselves as reliable. The Mariners need, and should have the money, to add an outfielder who can play every day and be a force in the middle of the line-up. There are a few decent options in free agency this offseason (Ellsbury, Choo, Beltran) and a few potential options in the trade market. If Morales isn’t resigned, they should be in the market for one more bat, as well, likely primarily as a DH, maybe able to split some time in the outfield or an infield corner. After that, it’s just hoping that more of the youngsters take a step forward.
The pitching is in better shape, despite struggling too often this season. Felix is an incredible starting point, and Iwakuma is under contract for a couple of seasons. Erasmo Ramirez just needs to stay healthy to be an effective starter, and the long-awaited trio of Walker, Hultzen and Paxton should be here in 2014, although Walker’s the only one without questions at this point. It’s always easier to find an average to decent starter in free agency than a comparable bat. There’s nothing wrong with adding a Joe Saunders every offseason. The Mariners just need to find better options ahead of him than they’ve had in 2013. While the current bullpen is a mess, the Mariners have big arms on the way, and bullpens often become good out of nowhere. It’s by far the most volatile and unpredictable part of any team.
The Mariners are not far away. They have good young talent in the majors, with more on the way. If they could develop it a bit quicker, and spend some money to land a true difference maker, they could be good in a hurry. Should that happen, the Mariners can take the next step of using the upcoming talent to improve a position at a time. It’s often a lot easier to trade four prospects for one established player, rather than hoping all four prospects pan out with the Mariners. So far, the Zduriencik Mariners have not been in a position to make those moves, but that time is coming.
There’s hope for the future, but it’s going to take a bit more patience.