11/09/12 3:15 PM ET
Mariners proactive in looking for impact bat
Safeco Field's new dimensions drawing interest in early discussions
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
The fences are coming in at Safeco Field, which can't hurt Seattle's chances of finding a free-agent hitter to drop in the heart of the lineup and take some pressure off the likes of Justin Smoak, Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders, Jesus Montero and Casper Wells.
"It's come up already in some discussions with agents," Zduriencik said of the decision to make Safeco -- safe primarily for pitchers over the years -- more hitter-friendly. "They say, `Hey, our player knows you've moved your fences in.'"
The general manager handbook discourages tipping hands by mentioning specific targets, but Zduriencik clearly is being proactive. There have been reports of interest in the biggest name on the market -- Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton -- but the Mariners' GM hints that the splash likely will be less dramatic.
"Everyone would say get a big this or that," Zduriencik said. "Sometimes that's not the thing you can do. No doubt a veteran bat would be great to have. We like what we have, but if we can add another piece who carries a heavy load ... that can be good for you."
They didn't have that one feared bopper, but the Mariners did generate balanced power in improving their home run output in 2012 from 109 to 149 and raising their team slugging percentage from .348 to .369.
Those numbers should rise again with Death Valley in left center reduced by 12 feet and other fences -- 10 feet down the line in left, four feet in center and right center -- moving closer to home plate.
Seager led the club with 20 homers. Smoak and Saunders each hit 19. Seattle finished with eight players with more than 10 home runs, its most in double digits since 1997.
There is payroll flexibility to go get a basher. The club has only about $50 million committed in 2013 salaries, 40 percent of that devoted to Felix Hernandez. The midseason trades of Ichiro Suzuki and Brandon League pared the payroll to roughly $83 million at the close of 2012.
Along with Hamilton, who carries the high-risk, high-reward tag in his pursuit of a mega deal, Torii Hunter, Nick Swisher, B.J. Upton and Melky Cabrera are proven run producers on the open market. Cabrera is coming off a 50-game drug ban.
The other attractive free-agent outfielders, such as Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan and Shane Victorino, are more of the table-setting kind, although Victorino carries enough power to hit fifth or sixth.
His team was last in the American League in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. But Zduriencik feels the Mariners, with so many developing hitters, will benefit psychologically by the home park's new dimensions.
"There are some very interesting statistics" about the 2012 offense, he pointed out, noting how dramatic the team's home-road splits were.
Seattle ranked eighth in the Majors in road runs scored with 362 -- one more than Texas. The Angels led the Majors, and AL West champion Oakland was fourth.
What's more, the Mariners tied for sixth in road home runs with 93 and tied for ninth in slugging at .403 away from Safeco.
In stark contrast, the Mariners were last in the Majors in runs scored at home (257) by a 30-run margin, last in slugging (.331) while ranking 27th in home runs at home.
Zduriencik is encouraged by offseason bone spur surgeries mending second baseman Dustin Ackley's left ankle and shortstop Brendan Ryan's right elbow. Both played hurt in 2012, underperforming offensively while giving manager Eric Wedge superb up-the-middle defense.
The GM also believes Montero, at 22, made solid progress defensively behind the plate and should benefit offensively from the new Safeco design along with the rest of the offense.
Seager (.293 vs. 223), Montero (.295/.227), Smoak (.235/.198) and Saunders (.262/.229) all hit significantly better on the road than at home.
"This should definitely change some things," Smoak said. "Everybody is excited about it. The biggest thing is mentally, confidence-wise, for guys who hit a ball well and it gets caught at the wall or dies at the track. Those kinds of things can change your day around and can change the team's day around."
In King Felix, the Mariners have royalty at the top of a solid rotation -- fourth in the AL in ERA (3.93), first in innings pitched. The bullpen, loaded with powerful young arms, was sixth in ERA (3.37) and third in batting average against (.230). Overall, Seattle's 3.76 ERA was the fourth best in the league.
The defense also was top shelf, tying the White Sox for the AL lead in fielding percentage. It can only get better with Ryan and Ackley healthier and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez back, presumably on a full-time basis.
They play in the unforgiving AL West, competing against three powerhouses that would have won the AL Central in 2012. But the Mariners, like the A's, have youth on their side as they take aim at the big guys.
"We started this year with 13 guys with under a year of Major League experience," Zduriencik said. "When the rosters expanded [in September], we had 19. We're building from the ground up -- very similar to Oakland. We feel good about our club."
A proven presence in the heart of the lineup would make him feel a little better.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.