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Montero trade sets Mariners on risky course

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
Montero trade sets Mariners on risky course
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Many experts believe Jesus Montero will ultimately settle into a designated hitter role

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Seattle Mariners.

2011 record: 67-95
Finish: Fourth place, AL West
2011 final payroll: $98.1 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $90 million
Yahoo! Sports' offseason rank: 25th
Hashtags: #blockbuster, #wilymo4derby, #riphalman, #dregs, #hope, #smoaked, #notfitforaprince, #jesussaves, #heilmandoesntsave, #kennedyatcleanup

Offseason action

What began as a lost winter for the Mariners grew interesting and curious and, most of all, risky with the utterance of one word by general manager Jack Zduriencik: "Deal."

Trades like the one he made with New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman on Friday simply don't happen anymore. When it comes to offloading prospects, teams want a sure thing. Kid-for-elite-kid deals drown in a cocktail of dithering and fear. The reason is simple: Teams value players they develop more than other teams'. They know the player better. They understand his strengths and weaknesses. They've invested in him, nurtured him, relished in his success.

So to see Zduriencik give up Michael Pineda – 95-mph-throwing, plus-slider-commanding, ace-in-waiting Michael Pineda – brought to mind three possibilities: The Mariners question Pineda's durability, the Mariners are head-over-heels in love with Jesus Montero or both.

Montero, ostensibly a catcher but likelier a DH, came as the meat of the deal, though right-hander Hector Noesi, who this winter pitched in a game and got married immediately after, should replace Pineda in the rotation. Montero should hit even with Safeco Field's monster dimensions that scared off Prince Fielder. (More on that to come.)

[ Related: Deal with Mariners turns Yankees into instant favorites ]

Still, if he sticks at DH as most expect, the 22-year-old will try to become the fifth player in history to top four wins above replacement at the position. Yes, the only players with 90 percent of their games at DH and four-plus-WAR seasons, according to Baseball-Reference.com, are Edgar Martinez (with seven, including a DH-high 7.7 in 1995), David Ortiz (three), Travis Hafner (three) and Jim Thome (one). Thome is a Hall of Famer. Martinez is borderline. Ortiz will get plenty of votes. And Hafner was one of the game's elite sluggers until injuries derailed him.

Twenty-two pitchers posted WARs of four or better last season alone.

Even though Zduriencik got starter Hisashi Iwakuma at an absolute bargain for $1.5 million, signed George Sherrill and Aaron Heilman to strengthen a mediocre bullpen and made the biggest mistake in the history of the world by letting Wily Mo Pena go to Japan, where they'll appreciate what he does, this will be the offseason of Montero for Pineda. In a season that will be 162 games of staring at the Texas Rangers' and Los Angeles Angels' turbo boosters, the after-the-fact deconstruction of the deal will provide endless fascination.

Reality check

Zduriencik refuses to trade Felix Hernandez because he sees a legitimate team coming together, and it's not through aquamarine-colored glasses, either. King Felix is the linchpin, Dustin Ackley and Montero the long-term solutions as Nos. 3 and 4 hitters – instead of such 2011 combinations as Milton Bradley-Adam Kennedy, Ryan Langerhans-Jack Cust, Langerhans-Miguel Olivo and Kennedy-Olivo – and the rest of the core is developing in the minor leagues. Squint hard enough and you might see hope.

In the meantime, the Mariners may well be dreadful. Their scoring drought is going on its fifth season, and even with a full year of Ackley and Montero, they could struggle to crack the 600-run mark. Brendan Ryan can't hit, Franklin Gutierrez never really could, Kyle Seager is a second-base bat playing third and Justin Smoak made Zduriencik so regret not acquiring Montero in the Cliff Lee trade two years ago that he had to give up Pineda for him.

Whether Mike Carp is a late bloomer or half-season mirage whose mediocre plate discipline dooms him will be of note, as will Ichiro Suzuki trying to will himself back to an elite level at 38 years old. Mix in Miguel Olivo hitting home runs and never, ever walking, and that's the Mariners' offense, for worse, because better is a word not often associated with Seattle's bats.

[ Fantasy: Four Pressing Questions for Seattle Mariners ]

Its arms, on the other hand, will keep it afloat. Hernandez is still just 25, amazing considering he's entering his seventh full season. Jason Vargas has grown into a nice innings eater who isn't just a Safeco mirage; his road ERA was more than three-quarters of a point better than at home last season. Though Iwakuma's stuff lagged last season, he is just four seasons away from beating Yu Darvish for the Sawamura Award, Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young.

All of this would look much better with Fielder in a Mariners uniform, putting to rest the idea that Safeco is too big for any bat. Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre withered there, yes, but Fielder's bat is fast enough and his power prodigious enough to make Safeco feel like a bandbox. Still, lingering doubt weighed on Fielder to the point where even if Seattle wanted to spend the money – and the Mariners never pursued Fielder hard – he wouldn't want to go. The losing, the smaller numbers, the travel: Maybe they're all excuses, but there's some legitimacy to each, and when added up, they make Seattle an awfully hard sell for any offensive free agent – hence Zduriencik snagging Montero when he could.

Savior

Three of 'em, actually: Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker or, as they're known throughout the game, the reason Jack Zduriencik was OK trading a 23-years-old-tomorrow stud. Hultzen, the second overall pick in the draft last year, was ready to pitch in the big leagues the day he signed. The lefty could crack the rotation out of spring training like Pineda did in 2011. At latest, he should arrive by early summer. Paxton is another lefty with a fastball that runs into the high-90s who struck out 131 hitters over 95 innings between Class A and Double-A last year. While Hultzen and Paxton are 22 and 23, respectively, and relatively finished products, Walker didn't turn 19 until August, by which time he had dominated the Midwest League. Hultzen and Paxton are near-certain rotation fixtures as long as their arms hold up. Walker is the potential ace, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound specimen with a right arm that looks custom made.

Mariners in Haiku

Even if Prince was
Scared of Safeco, you prefer
The Kingdome? Thought not

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