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Optimistic Mariners open to more pre-spring upgrades

Zduriencik, McClendon like squad, but could add No. 3 starter to help youngsters

SEATTLE -- Lloyd McClendon isn't setting any specific goal for wins or leaps forward in the standings in the rugged American League West, but the new Mariners skipper left no doubt Thursday that he expects things to get better for a club coming off four straight losing seasons.

Speaking at the team's pre-Spring Training media luncheon at Safeco Field, McClendon indicated he's pleased with the additions the club has already made this offseason and said, "Stay tuned. We're not done yet."

With less than three weeks until pitchers and catchers report to Peoria, Ariz., McClendon said the team is still searching for a veteran No. 3 starter to slide into the rotation behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. And while that eventual solution might not be a big-impact free agent like second baseman Robinson Cano, the overall picture in the manager's mind is already improving.

"I've always said I'm not fond of expectations, because I don't want players to get caught up in that," McClendon said. "But this franchise has been knocked down. We've been on the mat quite some time and it's time for us to get up.

"One of the messages I'll send to my players is, if you want to cross the ocean, you have to take your eyes off the shore and you can't be afraid to look forward. Can we win? I believe we can, yeah. On any given day, we'll put a pitcher on the mound that's as good as anybody in baseball. We have some quality young players that have a lot of talent. Now we need to understand how to play as a team and make it all work together. During the course of the spring, I think we'll accomplish that. How many wins, I don't know. Where we'll go, I don't know. But I wouldn't have taken job if I didn't believe we could win."

McClendon is the first to acknowledge that a manager is only as good as his players. And the Mariners still need to add more talent.

"We have some discussions going on with some agents as well as with other ballclubs," general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "Where it ends up, I don't know. I don't suspect we're going to make a major move, but hopefully we'll do a couple things that are some tweaks that will help the club."

Zduriencik said the Mariners "weren't big players" in the Masahiro Tanaka pursuit before the Japanese pitcher signed with the Yankees for $155 million over seven seasons, indicating an organizational decision was made early in the process that "it just wasn't something we were going to be able to do."

The GM does believe Tanaka's signing will now open the doors for some free agents and clubs that were stalemated the last few weeks.

"I think there was probably a hold for most of the clubs in baseball," Zduriencik said. "This was an enormous contract. So I suspect some agents will try to play off that contract, being that their players have been in this country and proven themselves. I think we're going to see a domino effect from that signing in the next few days or week."

Zduriencik admitted he's "not tremendously" comfortable with his starting rotation as it currently stands. He came into the offseason looking for another veteran starter to take some pressure off the young guns fighting for the last few slots, but he has yet to add that piece.

While McClendon said he'll be "disappointed" if 21-year-old right-hander Taijuan Walker doesn't grab a rotation berth this spring, he and Zduriencik both know they can't put too much weight on Walker, James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi. Having two of those youngsters win jobs would be one thing, but three would be tough.

"When you're basing a lot of trust in a lot of kids with a short window of success, that is risky," Zduriencik said. "They're talented, but how quickly they become legitimate Major Leaguers is yet to be seen. There may be an opportunity for us in next few days where we can add something to it."

McClendon isn't ready to get specific on position battles or lineup possibilities for a club he's yet to set eyes on in camp, but Zduriencik indicated he expects some tough competition in many areas, including the outfield, as things sort themselves out.

The Mariners re-signed veteran Endy Chavez to a Minor League deal on Thursday, and he'll compete with Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, Franklin Gutierrez, Abraham Almonte and newcomers Corey Hart, Logan Morrison and Willie Bloomquist for outfield time.

Zduriencik said Hart and Morrison's situations will depend on how they look physically as both come off knee injuries and can also play at first base or designated hitter.

"I'm not penciling anybody in anywhere," Zduriencik said. "Let them go out there and compete. It's all up to them. I can't tell you who the center fielder is or the left fielder, but I can tell you who the candidates are. Other than Corey Hart, none of these guys have established themselves. If we're going to be a really good ballclub, let's see what happens in Spring Training. It's up to them."

Similarly, with Cano taking over at second base, the club now will let Nick Franklin compete with Brad Miller at shortstop. Justin Smoak will have to earn playing time at first base against the mix of Hart and Morrison. Mike Zunino is the starting catcher, but veteran John Buck provides a viable option.

Only Cano and third baseman Kyle Seager seem set in stone at this point.

"I think we got the best player on the market [in Cano], and that's good," Zduriencik said. "We got a couple other additions, and that's good. But the best thing for us is if these young players we've been counting on take the next step, and that's an unknown.

"Is Ackley the player he was after the All-Star break? Will Michael Saunders be able to put the pieces together? Will Smoak be able to do it? If those guys do that, the additions we made will be really good. But the best additions would be our guys getting better."

McClendon says the team needs to learn to play together, to play solid fundamental baseball, to do the little things right. He's brought in a new coaching staff with some strong credentials and will get to work in a few weeks beginning the process of turning around a 71-91 team.

How much can change this year?

"We need to grow, have this team gel, have Lloyd and his staff wrap their arms around them and have these guys be the best players they can be, play as a team and let the pieces fall where they may," said Zduriencik. "Lloyd keeps saying, 'I don't fear anybody.' We have good teams in the division. So what? If we play well, we can play with anybody."

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