No. 23 Mariners: Road to relevance begins with altering Safeco, trading for Kendrys Morales

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

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.

Other MLB Springboards: No. 30 Astros | No. 29 Marlins | Mets | No. 27 Rockies | No. 26 Twins | No. 25 Pirates | No. 24 Indians

2012 record: 75-87
Finish: Fourth, AL West
2012 final payroll: $84.5 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $71 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 23
Hashtags: #619runs #ibanez3 #solongfiggy #lagginballZ #wheresichiro #thekingandi(wakuma) #sendalimoforastros #kendryspop #blamethefences #baywatch

OFFSEASON ACTION

After four seasons spent dead last in the American League in runs, the Mariners experienced an epiphany: it was the ballpark's fault. (And Chone Figgins'.)

Actually, for the first time in that period of offensive listlessness, the 2012 splits clearly supported such a notion. So, by 4 to 17 feet and from foul pole to foul pole, Safeco Field's fences were dragged toward home plate. (Also, Chone Figgins was released.)

The rest was left to GM Jack Zduriencik's architectural skills, which, after four years in the AL West, have had far more issues with offensive ceilings than stadium walls. Now he's facing the end of his contract, a run of fourth-place finishes, a young team and a load of quality prospects that may or may not arrive in time.

To that end, Zduriencik sought hitters – power hitters, veteran hitters, proven hitters, professional hitters. Just, you know, hitters. Because his first baseman (Justin Smoak) batted .217, his second baseman (Dustin Ackley) batted .226 and his shortstop (Brendan Ryan) batted .194. His leadoff hitters had the lowest on-base percentage in the league, his right fielders hit 12 home runs and his DH's slugged .310.

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Kendrys Morales hopes to give Seattle a much needed offensive boost. (Getty Images)

Recognizing that a 48-inch adjustment in right-center field might not correct all that, Zduriencik made his biggest play. He traded Jason Vargas – 14-game winner, 217 1/3-inning pitcher, and his second-best starter – for Kendrys Morales, who before he shattered much of his left leg was becoming one of the better hitters in the game. That was nearly two years ago. Morales hit .292 with seven home runs in 34 games in his career as a visitor at Safeco and, presumably, he's getting healthier. Barring a trade – Justin Upton? Andre Ethier? Giancarlo Stanton? – Morales is the cleanup hitter. A year ago, Zduriencik's cleanup hitters OPSed .675. Yeah, worst in baseball.

[Related: Ex-Mariner Milton Bradley facing serious charges, prison time]

Zduriencik also signed Raul Ibanez for a third act in Seattle, Jason Bay for perhaps a quick act in Seattle, and traded for utility infielder Robert Andino, who takes the Figgins role. Though, Zduriencik certainly hopes, not so literally.

REALITY CHECK

As constructed, the Mariners will leave last place in the AL West on the merits of realignment alone. That is to say, they can't be done.

Here's the situation: The Mariners reside in an excellent division in a very competitive league. They haven't been very good. As a result, they've drafted early, and they've chosen well. By many accounts, the Mariners have the deepest and most talented farm system in the game. The names and games on the horizon – pitchers Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Carter Capps, Stephen Pryor, catcher Mike Zunino, infielders Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Stefen Romero and Vinnie Catricala – suggest the Mariners didn't simply choose well, but developed well.

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Could Justin Upton have a change of heart after rejecting a trade to Seattle? (AP)

So, now what? They're creeping up on .500. They're pitching with some aptitude. They were 30-23 over July and August. But they're not relevant, reflected broadly in zero postseason games since 2001, and locally in the fact they've suffered a decrease in attendance in each of the past five seasons by an average of about 200,000 fans. The Mariners drew 1.7 million in 2012, a 17-year low.

The acquisitions of Morales and Ibanez are a start. Morales is 29 and appeared to rediscover his power stroke as last season went on. Ibanez is 40 and, as long as manager Eric Wedge keeps him away from left-handed pitchers, can still be productive. Center fielder Michael Saunders and third baseman Kyle Seager were revelations in '12. Presumably, Ackley and Montero will benefit from their first full seasons in the big leagues. And while Ryan won't ever be confused with Cal Ripken Jr., neither is he a .194 hitter.

[Related: Pete Rose dives into world of reality TV]

The point is, there's hope for a better offense as it stands. The bigger point is, how much better? And is it time to swallow hard and sell off some of those prospects at a time when Giancarlo Stanton, Andre Ethier and old friend Mike Morse could be had in a trade? It appears the Mariners were poised to make such a move in a deal for Justin Upton, only Upton wasn't as cooperative. After being outbid for Josh Hamilton and Nick Swisher, might Michael Bourn be the leadoff hitter the Mariners seek?

It is a time of haziness in left field (Bay? Casper Wells? Ibanez? Mike Carp?), in center (Saunders? Franklin Gutierrez?) and in right (Saunders? Ibanez? Eric Thames?). It also is a time of organizational riches. Maybe, then, it's time to solve one with the other.

SAVIOR

It can only be Z.

Having wisely held on to Felix Hernandez, having constructed a bullpen of power arms and having drafted well, Zduriencik's next move will be the most critical one. The big-league roster has shed some contracts and now begs for a reliable bat or two. In a division of juggernauts in Texas and Anaheim, and with the Oakland A's on an upswing, Zduriencik must fight fire with OPS.

HAIKU

Escape from last place
The solution is so clear
Invite the Astros

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