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Big bats could boost Mariners' chances in 2013

Finding offense via free agency or trade key for pitching-rich Seattle next year
SEATTLE -- There's little question what the No. 1 priority remains for the Mariners heading into 2013. Finding more offense tops the to-do list for general manager Jack Zduriencik after Seattle finished last in the American League in scoring for a fourth straight year.

The Mariners have already announced they'll move the fences in at spacious Safeco Field in an effort both to help their own hitters and attract better bats in free agency.

And with roster and salary space created by the midseason trade of right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, the club has more flexibility going into this offseason to find the kind of impact bats needed to bolster a young nucleus that manager Eric Wedge said had to "fend for themselves" this year without much veteran presence in the lineup.

"We've got the core of a good young offense, but it's always nice to be able to add a veteran to that at some point in time, if not one or two," Wedge said. "That would just be a huge separator for us. These guys have had to rely on each other.

"I'm not complaining, by any stretch of the imagination. I just know that when you have a veteran guy in the middle of your lineup, it just makes everybody better, because he's the guy you look to, he's the guy that takes the heat, he's the guy that can pull somebody aside. So the guys ahead of you and behind you benefit from that.

"The flip side of that is, because of what these guys have had to go through on their own, they're going to be tougher, which they already are. They've had to learn in a little tougher fashion, which will help them be a little wiser. And ultimately it'll be even more real because there wasn't a life raft. They've had to make sure it happens themselves, and for that I'm proud of them."

Though the club made some progress offensively with more run production up-and-down the lineup in 2012, questions linger in a couple critical areas that had hoped to be solidified this season. First base and the corner-outfield spots remain uncertain sources of offense going forward, and those are normally positions of strength for Major League lineups.

But the departure of Ichiro's $18 million annual contract opens up some avenues for the Mariners, who have just three veterans under contract for a combined $34.5 million next year (Felix Hernandez at $19.5 million, Chone Figgins at $8 million and Franklin Gutierrez at $7 million).

Recent first-round Draft picks Dustin Ackley and Danny Hultzen are also on Major League contracts, but those are in the $1.5 million or less range per year.

There will be some significant arbitration negotiations, with Jason Vargas and Brendan Ryan in their final seasons of eligibility, and John Jaso, Shawn Kelley, Josh Kinney also in that process.

But for the most part, the Mariners' nucleus consists of young players still under team control for minimum-type salaries, and that should give Zduriencik needed flexibility to bolster a club that again needs to improve its offense in order to jump into the playoff fray in what has turned into the American League's toughest division.

The Mariners increased their win total for a second straight season and answered some questions that should help in their roster construction this offseason.

"I feel like we have a very good grasp on the players we have here," Wedge said. "One of the most important things for us this year was to find out more about our players and where we see them at and how we see them fitting in, if at all. I feel confident we've got a pretty good feel for our guys."

Now the key will be adding the right players to that group to take the next step, with first base and the corner-outfield spots the most logical place to pursue increased offense -- either by trade or free agency.

Rotation: Hernandez is under contract for two more seasons, and Vargas enters his final year of arbitration, so the top two starters remain under team control. Hisashi Iwakuma is a free agent, but he has indicated interest in staying with Seattle after playing under a one-year deal this past season, while Kevin Millwood is likely headed to retirement. But the Mariners have young options with Blake Beavan and Erasmo Ramirez both gaining valuable experience in 2012, and top prospects Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Mauer waiting in the wings. Hector Noesi might be more suited to the bullpen after a disappointing season.

Bullpen: Another area of youthful depth, with Tom Wilhelmsen leading the way. The first-year closer solidified things with his outstanding work after taking over for Brandon League in June. Veteran lefties Oliver Perez and George Sherrill are the only free agents out of the relief corps going into the offseason. Sherrill underwent Tommy John surgery, but was readily replaced by Rule 5 Draft pick Lucas Luetge, converted starter Charlie Furbush and Perez. Hard-throwing rookie right-handers Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps showed considerable promise, while Kelley and Kinney are both arbitration eligible and could be retained if the price is right.

Catcher: Jesus Montero and John Jaso figure to return as the right-left combo capable of splitting time at catcher and designated hitter, while Miguel Olivo will be looking for a fresh start elsewhere, since he wants more playing time and the Mariners aren't expected to pick up his $3 million club option for 2013. The wild card might be Mike Zunino, this year's first-round Draft pick, who impressed immediately in Class A and Double-A ball and will get an invite to Spring Training.

First base: Justin Smoak put together an impressive September surge, but the club will have to decide whether they're convinced he can sustain that for a full season. Good teams can't survive without an offensive threat at first base, and Smoak is going to need a big offseason and spring to show he deserves to be in that position again. Mike Carp had a rough year with injuries and lost his place a bit both in left field and first base, so this seems a logical place for a proven veteran bat to be added in the offseason, with the idea of competing with Smoak or being used at DH, as well.

Second base: Ackley didn't live up to high expectations offensively, but seems too good a hitter to not take a step forward next year. Ackley remains one of the core elements of the rebuilding process, and he proved to be a strong defender this past year. Unless the club decides to move Kyle Seager to second and try Ackley in the outfield at some point, he'll likely be a stalwart at second base for the foreseeable future.

Shortstop: Brendan Ryan's defense is unquestioned, but his sub-.200 batting average made for a tough 2012. Ryan's two-year contract expires, but he remains under team control in his final season of arbitration eligibility and figures to return unless the team decides to pursue a veteran through trade or free agency. There are a couple of quality shortstops in the farm system, but Carlos Triunfel didn't get much playing time even as a September callup, and Nick Franklin was still adjusting to Triple-A pitching with Tacoma. So it probably makes sense to re-sign Ryan for his final year of arbitration and then see how the kids develop next year.

Third base: Seager was the team's biggest breakthrough player in 2012, emerging as a quality run producer and clutch hitter, as well as a strong glove at the hot corner in his first full year in the Majors. Unless he gets moved to second, as mentioned above, he would seem to be a cornerstone at third base going forward.

Outfield Much like with Smoak at first base, it would be a gamble to go into another year counting on Gutierrez in center field after a second straight injury-plagued season. Gutierrez has one more season at $7 million on his contract and could be a pivotal player, if healthy, but that's the same thing that was said this past year. The Mariners do have a capable replacement with Michael Saunders' emergence, but if Saunders is in center, that opens holes at both corner spots. With the departure of Ichiro and his $18 million contract, the potential -- and salary -- is there to add more of a power hitter in one of the corner spots. The Mariners have numerous in-house candidates -- Casper Wells, Eric Thames, Trayvon Robinson, Carlos Peguero, Carp -- but this seems the most logical place to upgrade offensively with a veteran bat or two.

Designated hitter: Montero played about half the Mariners' games at DH and a third at catcher this year, and he figures to continue in a similar split next year, though his time behind the plate could increase as he gains experience. Jaso is also a capable DH, though this is another place the team could potentially add a veteran to the mix.

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.

Seattle Mariners, Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Michael Saunders, Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak