Things have improved for the Seattle Mariners offensively in the last 12 months, indeed in the last 24 months, but they haven't improved nearly enough to rid general manager Jack Zduriencik of the notion that he's got to rework the lineup options he gives to manager Eric Wedge going forward.
Seattle finished last in the league in batting average, runs, hits and on-base percentage in 2010, again in 2011 and again in 2012. At least this year the Mariners found a little bit of power and finished with 40 more home runs than a year ago (149-109).
The Mariners finished with more than 600 runs scored (619) for the first time since 2009, but they finished at least 48 runs behind everybody else in the league and almost 100 runs under the AL median.
Simply put, they can't hit.
Kyle Seager (.259, 35 doubles, 20 homers, 86 RBI), Michael Saunders (.247, 31 doubles, 19 homers, 57 RBI and 21 steals) and John Jaso (.276, 10 homers, 13 game-winning RBI) exceeded expectations, but no one else did. Certainly Ichiro Suzuki didn't; he was traded July 23 when the Mariners were 42-55, and Seattle went 33-32 after his departure.
The Mariners head into the offseason wondering about Justin Smoak, who tore up the league in September when the rest of the offense was slumbering, but who slept through the first five months, when he batted .190. They wonder about Dustin Ackley, who could be the poster child for sophomore slump (.226 after .273 as a rookie). They wonder about Franklin Gutierrez, who can't seem to stay healthy for more than a few weeks at a time. They wonder about outfield prospects Mike Carp, Casper Wells, Eric Thames and Trayvon Robinson, none of whom seems ready for prime time.
Things are better on the pitching staff, where ace Felix Hernandez (13-9, 3.06 ERA) is supported by July's AL Pitcher of the Month Jason Vargas (14-11, 3.85 ERA) and second-half wunderkind Hisashi Iwakuma (9-5, 3.16 ERA, including a 1.83 ERA from Aug. 17 on, the best ERA in the majors over that stretch). With no changes -- Iwakuma is a free agent, but he wants to stay -- the Mariners would be comfortable with those three at the top of the rotation for 2013.
Both Blake Beavan and Erasmo Ramirez pitched well for the most part in their second-half starts, and if the club wants, Seattle can stick with them while at the same time keeping its top three rotation prospects -- Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton -- in the minor leagues to start 2013 and move them up only when they show they're ready.
The bullpen went through a season-long transition, and by the end, closer Tom Wilhelmsen, a young 28, was surrounded by some equally hard throwers, Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor, both of whom could be closers down the line, and a steady veteran, Shawn Kelley. In Charlie Furbush and Lucas Luetge, Seattle seems to have developed two lefties who can be either situational or late-inning performers.
The big question could be whether to re-up lefty Oliver Perez and right-hander Josh Kinney, veterans who had spells of well-above average pitching during the final three months of the season.
Seattle has gone from 61 to 67 to 75 wins in the last three seasons. That's progress, to be sure, but if it's not substantially improved on in 2013, questions will start to rise about the job security of Zduriencik and Wedge, both of whom are on firm footing for the moment.
"It's tough to put a number of wins on," Wedge said. "We're better than we were in April. We'll be better next year, too. I expect us to be competitive in what is the best division in baseball."