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Mariners flip page on 2013 with Cano deal

Franchise bets on star second baseman growing with youthful core

SEATTLE -- It says a lot about the Mariners' 2013 season that their biggest highlight occurred not when the games were being played, but instead in the closing days of December when the club stunned the baseball world by signing Robinson Cano.

Clearly the Mariners are ready to turn the page and flip the calendar forward, hoping for better fortunes in the future after changing managers and then dishing out one of the biggest contracts in Major League history to bring Cano to the Pacific Northwest.

The regular season wasn't nearly as pretty, with a disappointing 71-91 season and the end of Eric Wedge's three-year run as skipper. But as always, there were some memorable moments and personal achievements certainly worth remembering as we look back at 2013.

The Mariners continued unveiling a core of young players that should make for interesting times ahead, and it was the promise of that youthful group that convinced general manager Jack Zduriencik and the team's ownership group that now was the time to strike big by adding a bona-fide star to the mix in Cano, who inked a 10-year, $240 million contract on Dec. 12.

Despite a four-game drop in the win-loss record, the Mariners' offense took at least a small step forward in '13, particularly on the power side of the ledger. The club moved in the outfield fences at Safeco Field and also brought in several boppers, and the result was a team that finished second in the American League in home runs.

Raul Ibanez belted 29 home runs after returning to Seattle for the third time in his career, while designated hitter Kendrys Morales provided a middle-of-the-order upgrade after being acquired in an offseason trade with the Angels for Jason Vargas.

The Mariners still finished last in the AL in batting average at .237, but did break a string of four straight years as the lowest-scoring club in the league by climbing to 12th out of the 15 teams. They'll need to make bigger strides in the future, but the arrival of Cano and fellow free agent Corey Hart and the continued maturation of youngsters like Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino, Brad Miller and Nick Franklin give new manager Lloyd McClendon something to build on.

A 19-29 record in one-run games and 6-15 mark in extra-inning contests proved too much to overcome this past season, but if the Mariners turn those close games around and continue seeing steps forward from their young prospects and new additions, the future should be brighter.

For now, one last look back at the team's top five storylines of 2013:

5) Youth is served, in increasingly large portions

The Mariners have been adding young pieces for the last several years and 2013 saw the arrival of another group that figures to be an integral part of the future. Premier pitching prospect Taijuan Walker made his debut in September and immediately lived up to his billing with three strong starts. Equally impressive was the work of left-hander James Paxton, who also debuted in the final month and assertively made his case for a 2014 rotation spot.

A trio of rookie position players -- Zunino, Miller and Franklin -- all took over starting roles by midseason and outfielder Abraham Almonte arrived in September as another first-year man on a mission.

By season's end, eight of the regular position starters were 27 or younger, the closer was rookie Danny Farquhar and the rotation at various times included Walker (21) Brandon Maurer (23), Erasmo Ramirez (23), Paxton (25) and "old man" Felix Hernandez (27).

4) And at the other end of the age spectrum …

Not all the Mariners were just out of diapers. In fact, the offensive star for much of the year was Ibanez, a 41-year-old father of five who refused to act his age.

Ibanez was signed as a part-time platoon player who could provide some clubhouse leadership, but injuries to others and his own performance led to a much larger role, and he wound up leading the team with 29 home runs with 65 RBIs in 124 games.

The 29 homers tied Ted Williams for the most ever by a player age 40 or older, with Williams originally setting that mark in 1960 for the Red Sox. Ibanez had a torrid first half when he hit .267 with 24 homers and 56 RBIs prior to the All-Star break, shattering records for the best first-half production ever by a player his age.

3) A pair of aces atop the rotation

What's better than having one of the premier right-handers in the game in your starting rotation? Having two, of course, which the Mariners enjoyed all season long with the emergence of Hisashi Iwakuma as an AL All-Star and Cy Young Award contender alongside Hernandez.

Iwakuma, 32, finished his second season in the Majors with a 14-6 record and 2.66 ERA. He was named the Mariners Pitcher of the Year by the Seattle chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, finished third in the AL Cy Young voting and earned his first All-Star berth.

The former Japanese standout was so efficient that this 1.006 WHIP was the lowest in franchise history, and he racked up a career-best 219 2/3 innings.

While Iwakuma led the Mariners with his 14 wins, that number could have been much higher. He led the Majors and set a club record with 10 starts in which he pitched at least six innings and didn't allow an earned run, yet wound up with no-decisions in five of those games.

Iwakuma had 13 no-decisions among his 33 starts despite a 2.88 ERA in those outings.

2) Change at the top

A tumultuous 2013 for Wedge ended in surprising fashion when the third-year skipper announced he wouldn't be returning for a fourth year just three days before the end of the season.

Wedge missed 27 games from July 22-Aug. 22 after suffering a stroke during batting practice and being hospitalized for several days. He returned for the final five weeks of the season and was at full strength health-wise, but unhappiness with the front office led to his resignation on Sept. 27, though he stayed on board and managed the final three games.

Wedge finished with a 213-273 record in Seattle and was replaced by McClendon.

The turnover at the top continued two months later when team president Chuck Armstrong announced his retirement, effective at the end of January. Armstrong, 71, has been with the Mariners for 28 of their first 37 years.

1) Landing the big prize

After several years of pursuing big-name free agents, Zduriencik closed the deal with Cano that will bring the five-time All-Star second baseman to Seattle for the next decade.

Cano's $240 million contract makes him just the fifth Major Leaguer ever to sign for $200 million or more, joining Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and Prince Fielder. It is more than double the previous high for a second baseman set by Dustin Pedroia at eight years for $110 million from 2014-21.

But the Mariners believe the cost is worth it to acquire an impact middle-of-the-order middle infielder who has the highest WAR in baseball (per Baseball Reference) at 34.2 over the past five seasons, ahead of Miguel Cabrera's 33.7.

Cano and Cabrera are the only two players to hit .300 or better for each of the past five seasons and also the only two to slug .500 or better every year in that same span. And the 31-year-old has been an ironman as well, missing just 14 games over seven seasons.

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

Seattle Mariners, Abraham Almonte, Robinson Cano, Danny Farquhar, Corey Hart, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker