We already went over a massively aggressive, no holds barred off-season plan for the Mariners, but the reality is that a plan like that has very little chance to see the light of day. But roster changes -- plural, meaning multiple upgrades -- are definitely needed if the Mariners plan on being relevant in 2014 and if Jack Zduriencik and his front office have designs on keeping their jobs. What are the most likely and the most needed areas of improvement? We break it down position by position below, grading each position from 1 (greatest) to 10 (weakest) in terms of both positional strength and positional need.
Catcher: Mike Zunino -- for all of the youth and the development that still needs to take place -- should, to me at least, unquestionably enter 2014 as the starter. Zunino was lauded for his solid all-around game at draft time, but his bat looked like it would be his carrying tool. It still may be, but I feel that Zunino showed enough defensively during his time in the big leagues -- in game calling, throwing, pitch framing, blocking balls and staff management -- that I think it is clear we are dealing with a catcher that has the potential to be one of the best overall defenders at catcher in the majors. Jesus Sucre got some MLB time last year and has a good defensive reputation, but the club may be interested in finding a veteran to fill the backup role. Those who hit left-handed on the market appear to be likely to get offers for starting jobs.
POSITIONAL STRENGTH: 5 POSITIONAL NEED: 6
First Base: Justin Smoak has made slight improvements over his last year-plus of work, but he is also now 27 and still has a major platoon split against left-handed pitching. And he's still yet to put a truly sustained stretch of success together. The swing adjustment seemed to benefit his contact issues a little, but the switch-hitter doesn't yet look like the second coming of Mark Teixeira as was forecast. For the last few years of up-and-downs, it really seemed like Eric Wedge was Smoak's biggest supporter. With Wedge gone, perhaps the Mariners are prepared to move on from Smoak now, too. There are upgrades at the position available in both the free agent and trade markets.
POSITIONAL STRENGTH: 7 POSITIONAL NEED: 4
Second Base: The first question that needs to be answered here is who are we counting as the returning second baseman; Nick Franklin or Dustin Ackley? Franklin possesses the more natural actions, the greater athleticism and the ability for more offensive firepower. But Ackley seemingly made some real adjustments in the second half last year and is probably a tick ahead in what he offers overall offensively but as a more limited -- although reliable -- defender. Ackley's tour in the outfield overall, and in center in particular, wasn't very encouraging. To be set up best for success, one of these players likely needs to be the second baseman and the other one traded. Regardless, it looks like they'll fill this spot 100% from within.
POSITIONAL STRENGTH: 3 POSITIONAL NEED: 9
Third Base: Kyle Seager's spot on this team is perhaps more set in stone than anyone not named Felix Hernandez. Even as he scuffled for most of the last month of the season, Seager still turned in quality at bats and continued to play improving defense at third. He is clearly the best hitter under contract for 2014 for Seattle and figures to be a fixture in the middle of the lineup for a while. Seager is solidly in the top third of MLB third basemen the past two seasons and is a great asset to the club as their starter there. The real question that should be in the forefront of minds regarding Seager is 'when is the right time to extend him'?
POSITIONAL STRENGTH: 1 POSITIONAL NEED: 10
Shortstop: While there were existing questions about his defense that didn't exactly go away with his performance in Seattle after his promotion, Brad Miller appears quite stable as the M's starting shortstop. His combination of current offensive abilities isn't equaled by any other middle infielder in the system and he's the type of player that can be a catalyst for a team with his energy and hustle. Miller appeared the most MLB-ready of the rookies to debut last year and expecting him to improve in 2014 seems like a safe bet. He won't make anyone forget Brendan Ryan the shortstop, but he's already made M's fans forget about every shortstop they've had since Alex Rodriguez as an offensive player. A backup could still be added from outside of the organization, but this is Brad's job.
POSITIONAL STRENGTH: 4 POSITIONAL NEED: 6
Outfield: It certainly stands to reason that Michael Saunders is the only outfielder currently on the roster that is anything close to a sure thing for a 2013 25-man roster spot. There are a few prospects -- including Stefen Romero -- on the cusp, but none that jump out as "the answer" for Seattle. Was Abraham Almonte's 2013 an aberration or his he the real deal? Can anyone on the roster truly handle the big center field in Seattle every day? Can the M's add any bats in the corners? Lots of questions, and it looks like there are very few internal answers. When the Mariners and Jack Zduriencik get rolling on their shopping list, this is where they'll start.
POSITIONAL STRENGTH: 10 POSITIONAL NEED: 1
Designated Hitter: It seems like a foregone conclusion that Seattle will be the best fit for Kendrys Morales, and if he does return then this position is taken care of and the rankings don't pertain. But if Morales signs elsewhere, the Mariners will have to figure out how they want to fill the designated hitter position. Although the trend around baseball is moving away from every day DHs and towards rotating regular position players into the spot to maximize playing time while getting some rest and taking advantage of platoons, Seattle doesn't appear to have the depth with big hitting types to be able to go that way just yet.
POSITIONAL STRENGTH: 9 POSITIONAL NEED: 2
Bench: Depending on where they go in free agency and/or trades, the bench could be comprised with players already on the roster. Almonte, Ackley and Saunders could all fill some sort of platoon or as backups, Carlos Triunfel (on the 40) could be the reserve infielder, picking up time at second, third and short when needed and Sucre could be a defensive minded backup catcher. But the Mariners could stand to improve all of those spots. Players who can pinch hit, pinch run, defend all three infield positions and serve as the backup catcher could all still be brought in to strengthen the team and make the bench stronger. But the needs of the starting spots obviously need to be addressed with greater concentration.
POSITIONAL STRENGTH: 6 POSITIONAL NEED: 8
Starting Rotation: The top two in the rotation -- Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma -- are among the best in all of baseball. And the promise at the back end with James Paxton and Taijuan Walker is very encouraging. Seattle plugged Joe Saunders in the middle last year as a veteran, left-handed mix, and they could really use someone similar -- but preferably much, much better -- to do the same in 2014. Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi add some options for depth, and Ramirez has shown great potential in flashes, but the club could still stand to make a significant upgrade to their No. 3 starter slot. POSITIONAL STRENGTH: 2 POSITIONAL NEED: 7
Bullpen: Entering 2013 it looked like this would be an area of strength for Seattle, but things didn't work out that way. The returning group figures to feature at least Charlie Furbush, Stephen Pryor, Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen and Yoervis Medina, and while that group represents some promising talent, they definitely were a weak link in 2013. But Carter Capps may have been the weakest link of all, surrendering home runs and being torched by left-handers and a mind blowing rate. The need here could be filled by some of these players -- Capps in particular -- rebounding, but it could also be addressed through free agency in the form of a veteran arm or two.
POSITIONAL STRENGTH: 8 POSITIONAL NEED: 3
Prioritizing needs is definitely what teams do during free agency and trade talks, and the Mariners' priority list likely looks a lot like the above breakdown. That doesn't necessarily mean that they will fill the needs in this order, or even that they will fill each of them, but they clearly have more glaring areas of weakness at some spots. Stay tuned to SeattleClubhouse for updates on how all of the M's moves this Hot Stove season shape the club for 2014 and beyond.
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