SEATTLE -- After achieving just their third winning season in the past 11 years, the Mariners have raised the stakes for 2015. And that's exactly what manager Lloyd McClendon hoped to accomplish when he took over as Seattle's skipper last winter and set about changing the franchise's direction.
Adding Robinson Cano to a young nucleus last year did wonders for a club that chased its first postseason berth since 2001 all the way to the final day of the season. There are now far more pieces in place going forward and a firmer idea of what it'll take to make the postseason a reality.
The Mariners sent a message this past year by bringing in Cano and should have an easier sales pitch now as they pursue the type of talent that can make that final difference as free agents know the club will be competitive in the tough American League West.
"I think it gave us that instant respectability and it certainly opened up the doors, particularly with the success we've had this year, where other guys will be interested in coming to this organization," McClendon said of Cano's impact. "And a lot of that should be credited to him."
The Mariners appear in very good shape heading into 2015, with almost all of this year's club returning and a budget that team president Kevin Mather said will increase from the final 2014 figure of $106.7 million, even with the huge contracts of Cano and Felix Hernandez, who will both make $24 million next year.
General manager Jack Zduriencik added not only Cano this past year, but an All-Star closer in Fernando Rodney, a quality center fielder in Austin Jackson and a promising young first baseman in Logan Morrison. Coupled with the continued maturation of third baseman Kyle Seager, catcher Mike Zunino and left fielder Dustin Ackley, the Mariners have far fewer question marks this offseason.
And a club that fielded one of the best pitching staffs in baseball -- both with its rotation and bullpen -- appears to have a wealth of options and potential trade chips, as well as the ability to attract veteran hurlers who have seen pitchers like Chris Young and Joe Beimel resurrect their careers in Seattle.
Cano, who played on seven playoff teams with the Yankees, feels the Mariners are on the verge of turning that corner after improving by 16 wins to 87-75 and will benefit greatly from going through this year's stretch run.
"Guys have never been in this situation, guys have never won here," he said. "Guys are going to get better and better. For next year now they know at the beginning that we can fight. You look around at some lineups like the Angels, you've got all those guys who can hit homers, a lot of RBIs. You look at our lineup, we got young guys that want to be in the big leagues. Sometimes you say you're never going to have a chance. Well, you realize at the end of the season that you have a chance. I know they're going to go home and prepare themselves to get better and just fight from the beginning."
All said, it should be a very interesting offseason for Zduriencik and a Mariners organization that has spent the last few years laying the foundation and can now target a few more critical pieces to fit in with that group, with the obvious need being to improve the offense enough to take full advantage of one of the best group of arms in baseball.
Here's how the Mariners look heading into the offseason:
Arbitration-eligible: OF Dustin Ackley, LHP Charlie Furbush, OF Austin Jackson, 1B Logan Morrison, OF Michael Saunders, 3B Kyle Seager, RHP Tom Wilhelmsen.
Free agents: LHP Joe Beimel, OF Endy Chavez, OF Chris Denorfia, OF Franklin Gutierrez (restricted list), 1B/DH Kendrys Morales, C Humberto Quintero, RHP Chris Young.
Rotation: The Mariners pitching appears very solid going forward, with Hernandez under contract through 2019, Hisashi Iwakuma under a club option for $7 million next year and youngsters James Paxton, Roenis Elias and Taijuan Walker all under club control for another five seasons. Chris Young pitched well on a one-year deal and likely created some opportunities for himself on the free agent market with his best season since 2007.
Bullpen: Much like the rotation, the relief crew should return largely intact as closer Fernando Rodney has one more year on a deal that pays him $7 million a season and the rest of the crew is primarily young players under team control. Veteran left-hander Joe Beimel is the only reliever who'll be a free agent and he says he'd love to return. There's been some thought to giving Tom Wilhelmsen a shot at a starting role, but that's mostly a testament to the depth of arms and his versatility. Hard-throwing right-handers Danny Farquhar, Yoervis Medina, Dominic Leone, Brandon Maurer and Carson Smith are all pre-arbitration eligible, while Wilhelmsen and lefty Charlie Furbush will again get raises in arbitration, but are also under team control.
Catcher: The Mariners appear set behind the plate for the foreseeable future with Zunino, the third overall pick in the 2012 Draft, who advanced quickly up the ladder and took over full-time starting duties this year. Zunino didn't hit for much of an average, but he supplied significant power while breaking the club record for most home runs by a catcher and, far more importantly, was outstanding defensively and working with a pitching staff that put up some of the best numbers in the league. Jesus Sucre earned a midseason callup to replace veteran John Buck and was strong defensively as well, while the club has another promising young backstop coming up in John Hicks, who finished the year with Triple-A Tacoma.
First base: Logan Morrison took over first-base duties in midseason from Justin Smoak and supplied some pop and clutch hitting in the final two months and looks like he'll figure in next year's plans either at first base or DH. Morrison still has three years of arbitration eligibility, and Smoak has been claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays, ending his Seattle tenure. D.J. Peterson, the club's 2013 first-round Draft pick, played mostly third base this season while having a big year at Class A and Double-A, but could be given a shot to compete at first base next spring. The free-agent market appears thin, though Adam LaRoche of the Nationals could be available unless both sides agree on a $15 million mutual option for 2015.
Second base: With Cano under contract another nine years, second base won't be much of a question in Seattle as long as the six-time All-Star remains healthy. Cano was everything the Mariners expected in his first season, both at the plate and with the glove. Veteran utility infielder Willie Bloomquist is under contract another year, though he's coming back now from microfracture knee surgery that will sideline him until next spring.
Shortstop: Brad Miller and Chris Taylor split time this season and both are young and under team control for another four or five years. It's not out of the question that Seattle would pursue a veteran shortstop if the right opportunity arose, but both players have good upside and gained valuable experience in 2014. McClendon said ideally he'd like to come out of Spring Training with one everyday starter at the position, so that figures to be an interesting battle unless one is used as a trade chip over the offseason. J.J.Hardy and Stephen Drew are among the potential shortstops available on the free-agent market.
Third base: Seager not only took the next step and became an All-Star for the first time while leading the club in RBIs and home runs, but he also developed into a Gold Glove-caliber defender who now seems entrenched as the team's third baseman for years to come. The only offseason question here is whether the two sides pursue a long-term contract to cover Seager's three upcoming arbitration years as well as possibly a year or two beyond that to ensure his future in Seattle.
Outfield: Zduriencik acquired a quality center fielder in Jackson at the Trade Deadline and he's under team control for another year in his last season of arbitration. Ackley made good progress in left field as he successfully transitioned from second base, though the Mariners would like to see him get off to a better start after early struggles again this season. Michael Saunders has two more seasons of arbitration and can play any of the outfield spots, while veteran Endy Chavez becomes a free agent after once again filling a nice role after signing a Minor League deal. Rookie James Jones added a big speed element and could force his way into the picture at one of the corner spots if he takes another step next year, while veteran Chris Denorfia is a free agent after being acquired in midseason from the Padres.
Designated hitter: The Mariners again figure to be looking for help at this spot after finishing last in the AL in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage among all DHs. Corey Hart signed a one-year deal last winter, but wasn't healthy enough to provide the hoped-for boost after missing all of 2013 following two knee surgeries and was released after the season. Morales was re-acquired by trade in July, but he'll also be a free agent again and didn't produce nearly the same numbers in his shortened season after turning down some pretty significant contract offers from Seattle last offseason. Victor Martinez of the Tigers will be the premier free-agent hitter on the market and has considerable history with McClendon, so that one bears watching, though the 35-year-old will be a popular target in many cities after batting .335 with 32 homers and 103 RBIs, and Detroit won't let him go easily.
Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.