Jack Zduriencik has not been very candid so far this offseason, but I would say he's been unusually candid relative to himself. I think it's beyond clear that the Nick Swisher, Mike Napoli, Josh Hamilton, Wil Myers, Billy Butler, and hell maybe more. Hitters, all of them. Productive hitters, all of them, probably.are in pursuit of an offensive upgrade or two. Zduriencik has said as much, and that's presumably where the bulk of the budget room is going to go. Think about the players to whom the Mariners have been linked.
It's all been music to the ears of the many, because the many are sick and tired of the Mariners not scoring any runs when part of the whole purpose is to score runs. But I have to admit I'm struck by the lack of anything having to do with the Mariners adding another starting pitcher.
The Mariners did already re-sign Hisashi Iwakuma, of course, and unlike last year, Iwakuma won't spend half of this coming year not being used in the bullpen, unless something deeply weird happens. Iwakuma gives the Mariners four perfectly fine starting pitchers. Teams would prefer to have at least five of those, and so it seems to me there's an opening that maybe ought to be filled externally.
It's not like the front four starters are without their question marks, either. I mean, I don't have any urgent questions about Felix Hernandez, at least not that have to do with his 2013 performance, but who knows if Jason Vargas might have an allergic reaction to Safeco's new dimensions? Who knows how Erasmo Ramirez might hold up over a full season in the majors? Who knows how Iwakuma might hold up over a full season in the majors, given his prior shoulder issues? Behind the four, there are Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi, and various prospects. The Mariners have used Beavan plenty before, but it's not like there isn't room for improvement.
Beavan is exactly what he is. The Mariners have a good idea what they could expect from him over a big sample of games. They probably have less of an idea what they could expect from Noesi, but a convenient thing about both these guys is that they can both open next year in Tacoma. They work better for me as out-of-the-gate sixth and seventh starters than as fifth and sixth starters, and that's what they currently are.
The Mariners can do better than Beavan, and though you might argue that the Mariners shouldn't block their prospects, (1) prospects can get traded, (2) the Mariners wouldn't have to acquire a starter on a long-term deal, and (3) room can always be made. I'm not saying I know exactly who ought to be targeted -- there's a variety of worthwhile candidates -- but the rotation can get a boost. I don't think that any team ever truly "needs" anything, but if "need" in sports means "could be improved", the Mariners might need another starter.
It's here that I should acknowledge that just because the Mariners haven't been publicly linked to any starters doesn't mean the Mariners aren't pursuing any of them. I don't know what the Mariners are doing and I'm sure I haven't heard about even a small fraction of it. The Mariners might get a starter tomorrow out of nowhere, and I don't mean to accuse the M's of selective inactivity. It's more just weird to me that the rotation has been all but ignored. Right now, the Mariners would like to upgrade a corner outfield spot that's barely above replacement level. The Mariners' fifth starter is barely above replacement level. To whatever extent that you think 2013 matters, the fifth starter matters.
This sort of leads into a discussion on the psychology of the ballpark adjustments. And here I'll be referring to fans and media, and not to the Mariners' front office, which knows perfectly well how to deal with park effects. I think people have grown comfortable assuming that the Mariners will prevent runs, and also prevent themselves from scoring any. Since Jack Zduriencik took over, the Mariners have finished last in the AL in runs scored each season. Overall, they've scored 440 fewer runs than the next-worst team. They've also allowed the third-fewest runs in the AL, within whispering distance of the runner-up A's. Psychologically, we've dealt with the Mariners not scoring, and with the Mariners not allowing others to score. We've known all along that Safeco is pitcher-friendly and run-suppressing, but knowing something rationally doesn't mean you always act and think accordingly.
So for a while, people have focused on the M's needing offensive upgrades. To be sure, they absolutely could've used some offensive upgrades, but people paid less attention to pitching weaknesses because they were partially, superficially masked, while the offensive weaknesses were magnified. Run prevention wasn't the Mariners' problem, so run prevention wasn't a priority. The Mariners needed to be able to get their own runners, and bring their own runners home.
Thehave been through a similar and opposite phase, where people thought their offense was great and their run prevention was terrible, even though they were being influenced by the extreme park environment. Extreme parks can be difficult to deal with on a number of levels.
With the park changing, then, this might be the last offseason that people just take the Mariners' run prevention more or less for granted. Safeco should remain pitcher-friendly, but less so, such that weak pitchers will more often look like weak pitchers all of the time, instead of half of the time. And this might be the last offseason that people just assume the Mariners need bats. At least desperately. The offense is going to look better, even if the offense isn't better. Vice versa for the pitching staff. We'll be able to tell ourselves that a lot of it is just the park, but we'll still be there sitting and watching more runs being scored, and that will make a psychological difference.
If the Mariners played in an extremely hitter-friendly ballpark, and if they had the exact same roster, offensive upgrades would feel like less of a priority, and rotation upgrades would feel like more of a priority. Noesi would've just looked like a disaster, and Beavan probably would've been exposed as somewhat inadequate. Just because the Mariners didn't play in that ballpark doesn't mean the message shouldn't apply -- they should look to improve what could stand to be improved, once environment is taken into account. Having Blake Beavan as the fifth starter is a lot like having a Casper Wells/Eric Thames platoon in an outfield corner. In an emergency, it'll do, but that's not really how you'd like to come out of the gate.
Forced to guess, I'd guess the Mariners do get another starter, and that other starter comes pretty cheap. I'd also guess that other starter will nevertheless be an upgrade. Wait, and we'll find out together! Or fast-forward and find out on your own, if you have that capability.