Pitchers and catchers report in less than three weeks. We're several months deep into a crucial offseason, and we still don't know for sure what type of team the Mariners will be. More importantly, we don't know what type of team the Mariners want to be.
At Safeco Field on Thursday, General Manager Jack Zduriencik spoke about the Mariners' immediate plans and whether or not the team would continue to add players at areas of need—with the starting rotation and outfield the most glaring concerns. Zduriencik rarely tips his hand, and it's hard to wonder how much was negotiating doublespeak, but his comments lent credence to reports that the Mariners may not add any more significant pieces.
"I don't suspect we're going to make a major move, but I do think we'll be able to do some tweaks that help the club, certainly for this year," he said.
Zduriencik continued on to note that he was "not tremendously" comfortable with the starting rotation, and that the team would like to add to it, but in speaking broadly about the roster and how it could be improved, he returned to a sentiment to which Mariners fans have become familiar.
"The biggest thing for us would be for this young group of guys we've been counting on to take the next step," he said. "If those guys do that, with the additions we've made we'll be really, really good. But the best addition would be our guys getting better."
That's always been the truth, and it's a legitimate reason for optimism. This roster has upside, and though that's been the case each of past few seasons, the baseline is considerably higher now—with some of the better young guys replacing subpar players who saw significant playing time before being overrun by the wave of prospects.
When it comes to those young players improving, Lloyd McClendon shared with the media a bit of the advice he'd be passing on to them. And it's advice that applies to the organization as a whole.
"If you want to cross the ocean, you gotta' take your eye off the shore."
Do the Mariners have a roster capable of being good, of winning the 90 games it'll take to make it into the the playoffs? Yes, they do. It's possible. But there's a difference between possible and likely, and the Mariners stand in position to move closer to the latter than the former if they decide to take some risks.
And that's what makes where the team stands—currently walking up to and looking tentatively at the line signifying an all-in play for contention—such a source of anxiety. When asked if there were still moves to make, Zduriencik gave the affirmative "absolutely" before his aforementioned "major move" remark. And there are, with free agent pitchers to be acquired and trades to be made.
On that point, it was interesting to hear McClendon clearly lay out what this team needs, and it didn't sound like a "tweak."
"We’ve made no bones about it, we’d like to have that veteran number-three starter to close the gap a little bit," he said.
So that leaves the question of what's a tweak and what's a "major move."
And, of course, that's assuming Zduriencik wasn't speaking for negotiating leverage, as opposed to tempering expectations. On the former point here, he did stick hard to his previous commentss on Nick Franklin's role as we head into spring training, while quickly quashing Franklin's statement that he hadn't heard from the team at all.
"I had spoken to Nick, and told Nick what he needs to do is come in and compete," he said. "What Nick ought to do is say 'I'm going to play, I'm going to be the shortstop on this club and compete with Brad Miller and others,' and let's see what happens."
But getting back to where club adds talent, and to what level it's capable of doing that, questions remain. In discussing Nintendo's rough winter, I cited Ken Rosenthal's tweet that the Mariners were bumping up against their payroll limit and even at the media luncheon yesterday there were whispers that might be the case—and that's curious.
When it comes to committing long-term, there's no question that the Mariners have spent and spent big in recent years, handing out two of the largest contracts in the history of baseball. But if you look at year-to-year payroll, their 2014 roster as it stands now would cost almost exactly the same as the 2013 version—even with the addition of the market's top free agent. And this comes after reports and confirmation that the Mariners intended to raise payroll above what they planned to spend last year—which some have pegged around to $91 million and others up at $95 million.
The difference between those numbers is not significant, but the difference between where the Mariners are now and where they said they'd be certainly is—and it's enough to add at lease one more significant piece to this team.
But at this point it isn't about where the team's payroll capacity is, or how the team can maximize it. It's time for the Mariners to decide what type of team they want to be, and I'm not talking only about Lloyd and Jack—but the people above them too. Do they want to bank on hope and possibility, or do they want to do more to control the likely outcome?
When we look at the options remaining, both in the free agent market and in trades, you have to note that there are risks. There are no guarantees with Ubaldo Jiminez, Matt Garza, or Ervin Santana—and Nick Franklin is talented enough to make you look bad for trading him, regardless of the return.
But we've reached the point where it's time for the Mariners to decide if they're willing to venture into the unknown, to take their eyes off the safety of the shore and look ahead to the rewards that might come with the risks.
Right now, there's a lot of unknown. Neither Jack Zduriencik nor Lloyd McClendon were willing to set firm expectations or goals, but the latter here seemed confident. As the man man sailing this ship on a day-to-day basis, he thinks they can get it done.
"How many wins will we have? I don’t know. Where will we go? I don’t know. But if you asking me if I believe we can win—I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think we could win."