Bauman: Mariners are offseason winners
Club's moves have positioned it to contend for AL West title
Nobody wins the World Series in the offseason. But the 2009-10 offseason seems to have been won by, well, the Seattle Mariners.
In the absence of a single team spending $423.5 million on three free agents, such as the New York Yankees did the previous winter, the door was open for 29 other franchises to make some serious moves. Many of them did, but none improved themselves more than the Mariners.
Yes, the Mariners are well outside the New York/Boston axis, where three clubs in two cities set the market prices at an economic level so lofty that many other franchises simply cannot compete. But there have been times when the Seattle franchise was among baseball's elite. That 116-victory regular season in 2001 was historically good. The Mariners are not merely emerging. They are re-emerging.
The Mariners began this revival with the hiring of general manager Jack Zduriencik, who already had a reputation as one of the game's most astute evaluators of talent. He has been given enough flexibility to improve this club and he has wasted neither time nor motion.
Other clubs obviously made significant moves this winter, but none took the leap forward that the Mariners made. The biggest move was doubling their quota of aces -- adding lefty Cliff Lee to Felix Hernandez. You'll search high and low without finding a better one-two top of a rotation, and Hernandez is young enough to still have room for growth.
Hernandez has been signed to a five-year contract. Can the Mariners retain Lee far into the future? That is still an open question, but for now, getting a pitcher of his caliber without giving away core players from the current big league lineup is a bold move.
Chone Figgins was signed to a four-year deal. For the purposes of this discussion Figgins is a third baseman, but saying that understates his versatility. He'll add speed and aggression on the bases to the Seattle lineup and if he has to hit second here because Ichiro Suzuki owns the leadoff spot, there is no loss for the Mariners in that tradeoff.
The Mariners parted with third baseman Adrian Beltre, a fine defensive player with some power. That power, however, was not evident in 2009. Beltre missed time due to injuries, but the arc of his career does not point to improving production. At this point, Figgins is a player of more positive aspects. Plus, the addition of Figgins was subtraction from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Angels have won the American League West five times in the past six seasons, and cannot be automatically dismissed even though the Mariners have made impressive progress. In fact nobody in the division can now be dismissed with progress also being made by Texas and Oakland.
The Angels are, by virtue of their accomplishments, one of baseball's elite franchises. The Mariners are doing everything possible to catch up, as soon as possible.
This winter the Mariners also traded for outfielder Milton Bradley. This was regarded as gambling with team chemistry in some quarters, but this is not a move that has to explode all over the Mariners.
In 2008, Bradley, playing with the Rangers, led the AL in on-base percentage, and he did not suffer from the kind of fussing, fighting, and "I'm being persecuted here" episodes that have characterized portions of his career.
Then he went to the Cubs, where he was advertised as a key additional component, who would change the Cubs from a division-winning team to a pennant-winning team. This was a recipe for unhappiness, and when Bradley started slowly at the plate in 2009, unhappiness is exactly what all parties received.
Bradley does unhappiness in an extremely public way. The Cubs were eventually moved to suspend him for the end of the 2009 season, and were desperate to outsource him in the offseason. But Bradley does not have to bring distraction or destruction with him to the Mariners. Seattle will offer him a more benign setting than the North Side did, in more ways than one. If he produces the way he did in '08, there should be no unmanageable crises with him.
At first base, Russell Branyan and his 31 home runs have departed. Branyan was close to a classic three-outcome hitter -- strikeout, walk, home run, in that order of likelihood. New arrival Casey Kotchman does not have that kind of power, but he represents a large defensive upgrade, he will put many more pitches in play and he is nothing like an easy out.
The Mariners last year had begun solidifying their defense with the additions of shortstop Jack Wilson and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez. A team built around pitching and defense is never a bad idea, but Seattle's ballpark makes that an even more sensible approach.
Add it all up and the total changeover is impressive. This is a Seattle team that has already turned the corner, improving by 24 victories from 2008 to '09. Would half of that improvement be out of the question for 2010? That would take the Mariners to 97 victories, the same number the Angels had last season in once again winning the division.
Again, nothing is proved conclusively in baseball between November and mid-February. But the Seattle Mariners have demonstrated that they have an organizational plan that is both cogent and aggressive. They get no rings for winning the winter, but they do get better.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.