SEATTLE — The fences moving in at Safeco Field leaves one less debate for the Seattle Mariners’ offseason.
One question that remains: Now what can the Mariners do with their beleaguered offense to take advantage of the new dimensions?
Seattle enters the offseason after a 75-87 campaign with more answers than questions. That’s a big change from a year ago, when everyone was unsure just how the Mariners’ core group of young players would respond to a first full seasons in the majors. Some thrived, like Kyle Seager, while others struggled, like Dustin Ackley.
Along the way, Seattle showed enough resolve, especially after the All-Star break, that playing around .500 and possibly sneaking into the postseason picture for 2013 is not out of the question.
At least that’s how manager Eric Wedge sees it.
“That’s what we’re hoping to do. It may be a little quick when it comes to ‘Rebuilding 101’ but it’s not beyond the realm," Wedge said. “Ultimately what I want us to do is continue to get better because we’re going to do it the right way. If we get better to that point where we’re contending, so be it. But ultimately we’re not going to deviate from the plan because it’s not just about getting there. It’s about getting there and staying there."
The challenge for Seattle will be finding the right moves that will bring additional help to its lackluster offense. Last year it came via trade when the Mariners sent pitcher Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees for catcher Jesus Montero. That was an exchange of youth for youth. What Seattle would like now is a veteran, preferably to anchor the middle of its batting order and allow the Mariners’ young core to develop.
That is far easier said than done, and the Mariners realize it.
“We have to see what is out there, what our options are, and that’s something you really can’t speak of right now," Wedge said. “You have to wait and see how that plays out."
Moving the fences in at Safeco Field for next season was the first step in the Mariners’ efforts to boost their offense. They also fired hitting coach Chris Chambliss on Thursday after another season in which, statistically, the Mariners were the worst offense in baseball. They finished last in the league in batting average (.234), on-base percentage (.296), slugging percentage (.369) and on-base plus slugging (.665).
And they were strikingly bad at home. Seattle’s batting average of .220 at home was the ninth worst in baseball history dating back to 1921, according to STATS LLC. The idea of moving the fences in was to make the ballpark more fair. But its secondary result was a mental boost for a young team tired of seeing balls that would be homers in other parks become long fly-ball outs at home.
“You hit those balls to the warning track and they get caught; it’s a confidence thing," Seattle first baseman Justin Smoak said. “It’s a mental thing, and it’s something that is going to be different next year."
While the offense remains an issue, the Mariners’ pitching was again among the best in baseball, anchored by Felix Hernandez. For much of the summer, it appeared Hernandez was making a bid for a second American League Cy Young Award, capped by the 21st perfect game in baseball history when he beat the Tampa Bay Rays 1-0 in mid-August.
Hernandez finished with a record of 13-9, struggling the final month of the season, while Jason Vargas led the Mariners with a career-high 14 victories. Seattle finished fourth in the AL in team earned-run average (3.76), and its bullpen was also among the best in the league.
And there remain Seattle’s pitching prospects in the minors, including expected stars Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton.
Among position players there are a number of certainties moving forward. Seager has planted himself at third base with a strong glove and an even more impressive bat after hitting .259 with 20 homers and 86 runs batted in.
Ackley improved defensively at second base, but he took a significant dip at the plate. Brendan Ryan, who is expected to be back even though he is eligible for arbitration, might be the best defensive shortstop in baseball.
Montero is likely to continue splitting time at catcher and being the designated hitter. And Franklin Gutierrez, if he can ever stay healthy, will likely get first crack in center field again.
That still leaves huge holes in the corner outfield spots and at first base, where Smoak has yet to show any consistency as a hitter. Michael Saunders had the best season of his career with 19 homers and 57 RBIs, but he hit just .247 and struck out 132 times.
Casper Wells finished the year hitting .228 and needed a late surge to reach that level. Both Saunders and Wells are strong defensively, but their future roles with Seattle will likely be determined by what they do at the plate.
Only five players are potential free agents: pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma, Kevin Millwood, Oliver Perez and George Sherrill, and catcher Miguel Olivo. The Mariners have an option they can exercise on Olivo, while Millwood has hinted that he may consider retiring.
Among Seattle’s arbitration-eligible players, the most interesting case would be Vargas, who has thrived in Seattle because of the vast dimensions in the outfield.
“Ultimately it’s about the wins and losses, but in a great deal of respects it’s more than that," Wedge said. “Obviously we were a better club this year, we’re moving in the right direction. But it goes back to the same thing I talked about when I got hired. It’s about building that foundation.
“That’s not easy to do. It’s the road less traveled. It takes a little bit longer. It’s a little bit harder, but in the end it’s worth it."