The Seattle Mariners have already been the toast of the 2009-2010 offseason. Perhaps no two trades have been more unanimously lauded than GM Jack Zduriencik's acquisitions of Cliff Lee from Philadelphia (for three minor leaguers, none of which were big-name prospects) and Milton Bradley from the Cubs (for 250 pounds of eminently releasable pitcher, known as Carlos Silva). Zduriencik also made a big splash by signing one of this year's most desirable free agents, Chone Figgins, to a four-year deal.
Those moves, all involving noteworthy players and all accomplished before Christmas, already had many anticipating Seattle making a serious run at the AL West crown. It should be noted, however, that Zduriencik has not been resting on his laurels in the last six weeks, and it may be his recent thrifty additions to the Mariners depth chart which make the eventual difference in what seems sure to be a hard-fought race with both the Angels and Rangers.
In the last month, Zduriencik has made a flurry of interesting speculative signings, many of which seem designed to increase the potential options at the positions which remain somewhat in flux, namely first base, left field, and designated hitter. Granted, the Mariners may have been fine sticking with Bradley, Ken Griffey Jr., and two of their top prospects, Michael Saunders and Mike Carp, but with the injury history of the two veterans and, of course, the general inconsistency of rookies, it seems wise to have a Plan B. Zduriencik has given his manager, Don Wakamatsu, plans C and D as well.
It seems pretty certain now that the Mariners will begin the season with a platoon of Casey Kotchman and Ryan Garko at first. Zduriencik brought Kotchman over from Boston at the beginning of January in exchange for Bill Hall, who the Red Sox coveted for his versatility. Then, early last week, Seattle signed Garko for just over the minimum ($550,000) with some incentives (which he is unlikely to reach). The combo of Kotchman and Garko isn't every going to be confused with the premier sluggers at their position, but for less than $4 Million combined, they should be modestly effective, equaling or surpassing the combo of Russell Branyan and detritus which held down the position in 2009.
Kotchman is a steady defender, who has decent success against righties (760 OPS in '09) and, as a former first-rounder who is only 27-years-old, could still make some strides at the plate. Garko has probably proven himself nothing more than a platoon player and pinch-hitter, but in that capacity he should do quite well. His career OPS against lefties is 887.
Zduriencik operated this January under the assumption that one man's trash is another man's treasure. In addition to Kotchman and Garko, who weren't exactly overwhelmed with suitors, he also picked up a pair of players who had recently been released.
Eric Byrnes had fallen out of favor in Arizona after two straight injury-plagued seasons. He'll get an opportunity to catch on as a fourth (or fifth) outfielder in Seattle and with some luck (or perhaps a couple injuries) could work his way into some starts. Byrnes is a solid and versatile defender, something the Mariners clearly prioritize (he would be a natural to fulfill the Endy Chavez/Ryan Langerhans role). At his best, he is a speedy, high-energy slap-hitter with surprising power (he's hit 20+ HR three times in his career). It's the epitome of a no-risk signing, as the D-Backs are still on the hook for tens of millions, so Byrnes was willing to sign with Seattle for the league minimum.
Tommy Everidge was the victim of a roster crunch in Oakland. The 27-year-old didn't appear in the major leagues until last September, perhaps largely because he is a man without a position, unable to catch on at third, he is limited to DH and an occasional start at first. However, Everidge appears to be developing into a serious power threat. In '09 he split his time pretty evenly between AA and AAA, and accumulated a 20 HR, 94 RBI, and a 958 OPS in 107 games. He also dramatically reduced his strikeout rate and raised his averaged (to a sparkling .335). If he can prove his production to be more of a trend than a fluke, I expect he'll be an early call-up, because Seattle's lineup is thirsting for power.
Finally, this morning Zduriencik finalized what may be his riskiest move, but one which has the potential to move Seattle from being merely a contender for their division to a contender for a championship.
Remember how every year come July there are about a dozen teams looking for a front-line starter? In such circumstances (see C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jake Peavy, Randy Johnson, etc.) it is, most definitely, a seller's market and you must be prepared to eviscerate your farm system to get the essential, final piece of your playoff puzzle.
By adding Erik Bedard, Zduriencik hopes to avoid that temptation. His rotation is already loaded up front, with Lee and King Felix. A healthy Bedard, who pitches like an Ace when he's available (24-12, 3.20 ERA in his last 58 starts), would make the Mariners rotation the most fearsome in all of baseball down the stretch. Unfortunately, while the Mariners doctors are certain the Bedard can be full strength by around the middle of the season, we all know that the rehabilitation process is fraught with danger.
The White Sox were sure Jake Peavy would be ready early in August last season, but he didn't make a start for them until September 19th, by which point they'd been eliminated. If Peavy bounces back and leads Chicago to a division title in 2010, maybe that will be forgiven, but the White Sox unloaded four solid pitching prospects, all of whom could be pitching in San Diego by spring of 2011.
The key difference in the case of Bedard, however, is that the Mariners have given up next to nothing. They'll pay him $1.5 Million this season and have a mutual option for 2011. With Seattle's payroll, $1.5 Million (plus incentives, incentive that they pray he reaches) is a very inexpensive role of the dice. Even with all the moves Zduriencik has made this offseason, Seattle's payroll is still $10 Million under what it was in 2009.
There is still, obviously, a chance that all this activity won't yield a positive result. The Mariners need Milton Bradley to bounce back and at least be productive when he's in the lineup (he will miss, as usual, 30-40 games). They cannot afford any injury to their Aces, Hernandez and Lee, and will need somebody in the back end of the rotation, probably either Ryan Rowland-Smith or Ian Snell, to develop into at least a league-average innings-eater. It's quite possible that they have the least productive catching corps in all of baseball (Rob Johnson, Josh Bard, and Adam Moore) and they don't have a single player (except for 40-year-old Griffey) who has ever hit 30 HR in a season.
Zduriencik has, regardless of the outcome, put together a fairly talented roster that, with a little luck, is capable of making a very deep run this season. Perhaps the best news for Mariners fans is, even if they don't, he has in no way jeopardized the franchise's ability to be just as aggressive at this time next year.