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Mariners hopeful young arms can break out in 2014

With a dominant 1-2 punch, Seattle's rotation could thrive if youngsters perform

SEATTLE -- After several years of talking about the eventual arrival of some premier pitching prospects, the Mariners finally got a taste of that future in 2013. And the late-season showing of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton and the development of youngsters Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer should make 2014 a very interesting season, indeed, for Seattle.

With All-Star right-handers Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma both under contract and their young pitching continuing to mature, the Mariners are in position to focus on solidifying their offense this offseason, while finally making the most of the highly touted young arms.

The Mariners will be led by a new manager and coaching staff as skipper Eric Wedge announced in the closing days of 2013 that he wouldn't be back for another go. Wedge had some differing opinions with Mariners management, but he had no issues with the upcoming pitching talent.

"If you look at the starters we broke camp with here in the first three years versus what they could potentially break camp with next year, it's considerably different," Wedge said. "And that's those young kids. As a baseball guy you've got to think that's going to bode well. There are three-to-four guys with a chance to impact up here. That's the difference."

The Mariners bullpen wore thin in the second half this past season, so adding depth there figures to be another offseason goal, though that's another area where young guns have been gathering. Seattle became just the seventh team in American League history with more than 500 strikeouts from its relievers in 2013, setting a club record in the process. But the Mariners also had the second-worst bullpen ERA in the Majors at the same time.

Pitching and defense go hand-in-hand and the Mariners took a step back with the gloves in 2013 as well. But that's an area that should be vastly improved going forward with the middle of the defense -- shortstop Brad Miller and second baseman Nick Franklin -- having learned on the job.

Those youngsters also need to step up offensively, of course, and that has been an ongoing issue for the Mariners. Moving the fences in at Safeco and adding some power bats brought Seattle's home run total to its highest mark since 2000.

Now the club needs to become a more-complete team, blending more speed and consistent production. Some of that will come from continued development from the young core of Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, Mike Zunino, Miller and Franklin.

For the Mariners, it seems a matter of putting all those pieces together at the same time. The young pitching will need to be complemented by continued growth of the youthful position players -- all of whom struggled at times, but also showed stretches of intriguing potential.

"There's definitely young talent and ability here," said veteran outfielder Raul Ibanez. "I think this team could be contending for years to come."

Reliever Charlie Furbush said the club is on the cusp of good things and the trials and tribulations of the past few years will pay off as the group matures together.

"You can be skeptical," Furbush said. "But for me, it's just going to come with experience. The more you do something and the more familiar you are and really understand situations and what you're trying to do and what somebody else is trying to do, then you can just go out there and keep everything simple and just play and not try to get too big and too excited.

"We're all in this together. Everyone has gotten better by the day, whether they know it or not. Anytime you're getting big-league experience and moving forward as a team, you're getting better. Obviously we've had some struggles, but the future is bright."

The Mariners also figure to have some payroll to spend to supplement those youngsters, with Hernandez and Iwakuma the only veteran contracts on the books. Bringing back designated hitter Kendrys Morales will be one target and it will be interesting to see if Seattle gets in the running for one of the premier outfield free agents, a group led by Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz.

Arbitration-eligible: OF Saunders, 1B Smoak.

Free agents: DH Morales, OF Ibanez, OF Franklin Gutierrez (2014 option), OF Endy Chavez, C Henry Blanco, C Humberto Quintero, LHP Oliver Perez, LHP Joe Saunders (2014 option).

Rotation: Hernandez and Iwakuma are the only veterans under contract for 2014 and that's a good place to start, given the two All-Star right-handers presented one of the best one-two punches in baseball. The Mariners struggled for consistency in the back-end of that rotation this year, but do have some extremely promising prospects now knocking on the door.

Right-hander Walker made his MLB debut at 21 late in the season and showed why he's regarded as one of baseball's premier prospects in three starts before being shut down. He'll compete for a rotation berth from the get-go in Spring Training, along with Paxton and young right-handers Maurer and Ramirez.

Paxton was very impressive in a handful of September starts and Danny Hultzen likely would have been the first of the young group called up until shoulder issues derailed his season. Maurer and Ramirez now have some Major League experience under their belts as a pair of 23-year-olds, while Beavan, 24, provides added depth.

The Mariners will need to decide whether to pursue a veteran to plug in behind Hernandez and Iwakuma or go with the full youth movement on the mound next year. Either way, they seem far more prepared to fill out a quality rotation in the upcoming season after trying to piece things together this past year.

Bullpen: Perhaps the biggest disappointment in 2013, there will be jobs for the taking next season in a bullpen with the second-worst ERA in the American League. Danny Farquhar emerged as an interesting closing candidate after Tom Wilhelmsen lost that role in midseason. The lefty Furbush and right-hander Yoervis Medina were solid set-up men.

But hard-throwers Stephen Pryor (shoulder surgery) and Carter Capps (inconsistency) didn't develop as hoped and Oliver Perez wore down in the second half as a lefty specialist and now hits free agency for a second straight offseason.

There are several new hard-throwing candidates coming up in the system, led by right-handers Carson Smith and Dominic Leone, who threw well in Double-A Jackson and will gain more experience in the Arizona Fall League.

But this should be an area the Mariners look to bolster considerably in free agency, starting with a decision on whether to bring back Perez for a third year.

Catcher: Zunino's midseason arrival signaled a turning point in the backstop position, which has been a revolving door in recent years. The 2012 first-round Draft pick should solidify that situation as he immediately impressed Wedge with his ability to handle the pitching staff and call a game, even at age 22. The youngster was a solid hitter in college at Florida and that part of his game figures to improve, but he's already eliminated concerns defensively, which has been a problem in the past.

Jesus Montero won and lost the job in short order last spring and now is being transitioned to a first base/DH role. The club went through a number of backups this past season, but only Jesus Sucre and Brandon Bantz are still under team control. John Hicks, a fourth-round Draft pick out of Virginia in 2011 regarded as the best of the upcoming prospects, hit .236 in 80 games for Double-A Jackson.

Expect the club to bring in a veteran or two to contend for backup duties and work with Zunino, much like Blanco and Quintero did in the final months this year.

First base: Smoak took a strong step forward this year in terms of batting average and on-base percentage and again wielded an excellent glove at first. Though his power numbers and RBIs can improve, he did hit a career-high 20 home runs, and it seems likely the club will stick with the young first baseman as he's just now entering his prime and is under club control for three more years as he begins the arbitration process.

Second base: This should be an interesting position for the Mariners, as the rookie Franklin took over starting duties from Dustin Ackley midway through the season and got off to a hot start before struggling the last few months. Ackley could easily transition back to the position if needed and young hitting prospect Stefen Romero played a lot of second base before moving to the outfield last year. But Franklin showed signs of being a real impact player at the position and is just 22 years old, so the Mariners will need to decide if they want to ride through the roller coaster while he develops at the big-league level.

Shortstop: Miller replaced veteran Brendan Ryan midseason and provided a dramatic increase in offense and was solid defensively. He could be the shortstop of the future, though this is an area the Mariners could make a move to add a veteran if the right deal comes up. Carlos Triunfel filled in capably defensively when Miller was hurt for a week late in the season and provides strong-armed depth, while the club is very high on Chris Taylor, a fifth-round Draft pick out of Virginia last year who played well at Double-A Jackson and might be the most-natural defender of the bunch.

Third base: Seager has been the most-consistent young position player on the club the last two years and has capably solidified the hot corner. Third baseman DJ Peterson was the team's first-round Draft pick last June, but was just getting his feet wet at Class-A Clinton when his jaw was broken by a pitch. He'll be ready to return next spring, but will need time to rise through the Minor League ranks.

Outfield: For a second straight offseason, this seems the most-likely position for additions through free agency or trades, given that Ibanez, Gutierrez and Chavez all become free agents and Michael Morse was traded late in the year. Gutierrez has a club option to return, but that seems unlikely given his health history. Michael Saunders, Ackley and late-season callup Abraham Almonte are the only returners under contract and Ackley just began playing the outfield at midseason.

There is some intrigue with Jabari Blash, a big 23-year-old with speed and power. But he just moved up to Double-A Jackson at the end of the season. Carlos Peguero is out of options and could be running out of time as a prospect, with Romero now regarded as the up-and-comer if he can handle things defensively.

There are some interesting potential free agents, Ellsbury and Choo topping the list. But as the Mariners have learned, it's not easy wooing top free agents and the required long-term deals to land the biggest names don't always work out. That said, outside of Hernandez, Seattle doesn't have much salary tied up in long-term deals at the moment and could indeed be a player in free agency or the trade front.

Designated hitter: Morales provided the Mariners an established DH and middle-of-the-order threat after being obtained in a trade for Jason Vargas, but now enters free agency. The club would love to bring him back, but the question is whether he is worthy of a $14 million qualifying offer. Such an offer would need to be extended within five days after the end of the World Series and Morales could accept that one-year deal, negotiate a longer-term deal or decline the offer and try free agency.

If he declined a qualifying offer, the Mariners would receive a first-round compensatory Draft pick if he signed elsewhere. Given the club doesn't have a lot of salary tied up elsewhere and clearly needs offensive help, it might well make sense to risk a qualifying offer to Morales. If he departs, the Mariners would likely fill this spot through free agency or trade.

Ibanez has said he'd like to play again next year and would seem better suited to a DH role than outfield position at age 41 if Seattle brought him back. Or it's possible Montero could eventually push his way back into the picture if he can prove he is still the promising young hitting prospect everyone thought he was just a year ago.

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.
Read More: Seattle Mariners, Brad Miller, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kendrys Morales, Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker, Mike Zunino