The Seattle Mariners offseason entering the 2013 season will long be judged by one franchise defining move. In early February, GM Jack Zduriencik signed starting pitcher Felix Hernandez to a $175 million seven year contract extension, retaining Seattle’s best player since Ken Griffey Jr.
Hernandez has been the lone bright spot on a team that finished last the past three years. Though he has been a Mariner for eight seasons, he will turn 27 in April. King Felix is one of the top pitchers in baseball, winning the Cy Young in 2010 and averaging almost a strikeout per inning over his career. He has been extremely durable, throwing over 200 innings the past five seasons.
Piggybacked on the Hernandez news was the signing of left handed starting pitcher Joe Saunders. He went 9-13 in 2012 between Arizona and Baltimore with a 4.07 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. Saunders averages just over five strikeouts per nine innings in his career. He will be asked to fill the rotation spot vacated by Jason Vargas.
Vargas was traded for 1B/OF/DH Kendrys Morales. Morales had a stellar 2009 season, slugging .569 with 34 homers and 108 RBI. After a strong start in 2010, a stunning injury during a home run celebration halted his career. He showed signs of a rebound in 2012, making over 500 plate appearances and hitting 22 home runs. An Angel without a position, Morales may occupy a middle of the order lineup spot with the Mariners.
Michael Morse was a loser in the Washington Nationals 1B/OF numbers game, but Seattle was a winner picking him up for John Jaso in a three team deal. In his only full season in 2011, Morse slugged 31 homers and drove in 95 runs. Morse can play either corner outfield spot, first base or DH.
Raul Ibanez makes his return to the Emerald City in 2012 after a four year absence. The 40 year old was a valuable DH and lefty pinch hitter for the Yankees in 2012 with .240 BA/19 HR/62 RBI stat line in 425 plate appearances. He signed a one year, $2.4 million deal.
Zduriencik took a flyer on a Jason Bay lottery ticket. Bay was one of the premier outfielders in the American League when he signed with the Mets prior to the 2010 season. Bay collapsed into Mario Mendoza-hood, appearing anemic as a member of the Mets. A change of scenery could help turn Bay around.
Veteran Kelly Shoppach signed a $1.5 million one year deal to back up Jesus Montero at catcher. With Montero’s name linked to the BioGenesis report, Shoppach may be doing more than backing up for the first 50 games. Shoppach is a strong defensive catcher who can keep the seat warm until top prospect Mike Zunino arrives.
The Mariners upgraded their lineup entering 2013, Morse and Ibanez will help provide some much needed punch. However, after Hernandez, their pitching is thin, and Saunders may be a step down from Vargas. Shoppach is a solid receiver whose presence will allow the defensively challenged Montero to DH more often.
The fortunes of the franchise for the next seven years will be riding squarely on the right arm of Felix Hernandez. Hernandez is solidly built and has been durable. Zduriencik and farm director Chris Gwynn must think prospects like Zunino and 2B Stefen Romero from Seattle’s highly ranked organization will be ready to contribute soon.
If the prospects do not pan out, Hernandez’s talent will continue to be wasted on a losing team. Or even worse, if he should suffer an injury, or the innings begin to take their toll, Seattle will be stuck with an unmovable contract and continue to be relegated to the bottom part of the AL West. Long term contracts for starting pitchers are a risky proposition, hopefully for the Mariners, their ace continues to deliver.