By Marc Normandin
The Mariners have reportedly signed their general manager, Jack Zduriencik, to a one-year extension that will keep him in Seattle through 2014. Whether that extension was signed in the spring or this week, when it was first reported, is of little consequence for our purposes. Either way, the message is a clear one: Zduriencik has one year left to bring the Mariners some success.
You could argue that this is untrue, but consider, for a moment, the reasoning behind a one-year extension. If the organization had more faith in Jack Z's ability and vision going forward, then they would likely keep him on board longer, no? Chances are good they trust him enough to give him that extra year, but are skeptical enough given his history in town to go no further until given a reason to.
It's hard to criticize the team for this, as the Mariners have finished in last place in the American League West in each of the last three years under Zduriencik, and the only thing that absolutely will keep them out of the cellar in 2013 is the introduction of the Astros. He showed some life this winter, though, making trades to try to improve the present-day, on-field product instead of simply waiting for prospects that continued to falter to actually pan out. While this year's Mariners are below .500, it's possible Zduriencik, in what might be his last chance, finally brings Seattle to where it needs to be.
Finally, some of the young players seem to be developing and producing. There's first baseman Justin Smoak, a player who was acquired back in 2010 from the Rangers in exchange for Cliff Lee. Smoak hit just .223/.306/.377 with an OPS+ of 91 from 2010 through 2012, but things seem to be coming together for him at last this season. Smoak's slash line is .265/.358/.437, which doesn't look all that impressive at first glance, but remember: Safeco hurts offense, even with the walls brought in over the winter. Smoak's line translates to a career-best 129 OPS+, making him a more than viable option for first base going forward.
Besides Smoak, Kyle Seager is the young Mariner to take a significant leap forward. Seager was decent enough in his first big-league exposure in 2011, then produced a 109 OPS+ in 2012, but he's broken out in this campaign with a .280/.350/.466 line that doesn't even require a Safeco caveat to look good. The third baseman has been 20 percent better than your average player at the hot corner, and he's just 25: between the two, the Mariners actually have a decent pair of young hitters in their lineup each night.
There are new faces that have done well, too. Nick Franklin was a shortstop in the minors, as well as Baseball America's 79th-ranked prospect entering the year, but has started at second base in 64 games this year after a mid-season call-up. Franklin's OPS+ is 110, which is certainly enough for a second baseman, and far outstrips what the club managed to get out of their last prospect at the keystone, Dustin Ackley. Part of the reason Franklin isn't at short is because of another prospect, Brad Miller, who is also the owner of a 110 OPS+ in his 46 games. Both have their problems defensively, but if they keep hitting this well at these up-the-middle positions, they'll be worth it. To complete the infield picture, there's Mike Zunino, who hasn't been quite as good, but considering his limited time in the minors, his 91 OPS+ to kick off his big-league career isn't half bad.
There have still been failures in the youth department -- Ackley isn't hitting again, and Jesus Montero was having a bad year even before injuries and Biogenesis became problems. Still, the success of the other four positional prospects (and to a lesser extent, Zunino) isn't something the Mariners have seen much of from the farm, and while they don't make the Mariners a contender on their own, it's something to build around. Even with players like Ackley, Montero, and the awfulness that is Brendan Ryan's bat soaking up plate appearances, the Mariners have managed to produce an above average 103 team OPS+ that's put them at least in a decent position to win. If they can cut out some of the dead weight and add it to some natural development for the kids, there's a chance they can be a legitimate threat on offense in 2014.
The rotation still needs a lot of work, but the base here is strong. Felix Hernandez is in town longer than anyone else after signing a then-record extension for a starting pitcher, and he's joined by Hisashi Iwakuma, owner of a 124 ERA+. After that, it's time to look to the farm for help, but they've got it.
Starting pitching prospect Taijuan Walker was Baseball America's seventh-ranked prospect in their midseason update. The 21-year-old is succeeding in the difficult Pacific Coast League at the moment, and could very well be a significant piece in the 2014 rotation if the Mariners give him a shot. There's Danny Hultzen, the Mariners first-round pick in 2011, who is having a much better time in his second chance with Triple A Tacoma than he did last year -- he was Baseball America's 38th-ranked prospect. James Paxton started the year as the #87 prospect, and while he hasn't handled the PCL quite as well as the other two pitching prospects above, he's kept the ball in the yard, struck out more than twice as many as he's walked, and posted an above-average ERA.
Expecting all three to be big-league ready -- and useful -- out of the gate might be asking a bit much, but they are, if nothing else, options, and like the young hitters, something to build around. And that's where Zduriencik will really be tested this off-season.
Acquiring Mike Morse hasn't worked out as planned. Morse's bat hasn't been what it's supposed to be, and his defense is too poor for that to be okay. Kendrys Morales has been great as the team's primary designated hitter, though, posting a 129 OPS+, and Raul Ibanez has surprised in his return to Seattle by showing tons of power, and is currently second on the club in OPS+. If Zduriencik can hit on a few acquisitions as he did a year ago, whether by keeping Morales around or finding new and equally effective players, then the team should be able to hit.
He'll need to do better with the rotation, as Aaron Harang and Joe Saunders haven't worked out, and scrapheap acquisition Jeremy Bonderman went about as well as could reasonably be expected for a pitcher who hasn't been in the majors since 2010. The bullpen has been even worse, with a 4.61 ERA despite half of their games in a pitcher's park. It won't matter if Jack Z does well with the lineup again next time out if the pitching staff is anything like this year's disaster.
There won't be a ton of help out there on the starter market, but if the Mariners can secure at least one above-average rotation piece to complement what they already have in Felix and Iwakuma, then relying on the top arms in the system becomes easier for the back-end. An A.J. Burnett, a Bartolo Colon -- someone like that, and there are not many, needs to be acquired. If that can't happen, either through a trade or signing, then the 2014 Mariners might look a lot like the 2013 edition.
Zduriencik and the Mariners have taken some steps forward in 2013, despite the team's record. There's a solid lineup core to build around, and more of last winter's successes could go a long way towards replicating, or even improving up, the current formula. The rotation is a problem point, though, and if Zduriencik can't figure out a way to change that, then the Mariners might just be pleased that the extension was only for one year.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.