Commentary

Mariners' new GM has some tough decisions to make

Originally Published: November 4, 2008
By Larry Stone | Special to ESPN.com

The 2008 season qualified as an unmitigated disaster for the Mariners. Expected to contend for the American League West title after mortgaging the farm system to trade for Baltimore's Erik Bedard, they instead battled the Washington Nationals for the worst record in baseball. And they didn't even get that, which at least would have given them the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2009 and a chance at San Diego State phenom Stephen Strasburg.

SEATTLE MARINERS
GM: Jack Zduriencik
Manager: None
'08 record: 61-101, 4th AL West
Athletics '08 payroll: $118M, 9th MLB
Runs scored: 671, 13th AL
Runs allowed: 811, 11th AL
OPS: .707, 13th AL
ERA: 4.73, 11th AL
Fielding percentage: .984, 7th AL

By the time the season ended, the Mariners had lost 101 games (one fewer than Washington) and were 39 games behind the Angels. Manager John McLaren, hitting coach Jeff Pentland and general manager Bill Bavasi were all fired, and veteran busts Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro were cut loose. Bedard won six games and didn't pitch after July 4.

Primary needs

Not surprisingly for a team that underachieved so much, the needs are many. More surprisingly, they are not necessarily in the pitching department. They have the makings of a decent rotation, topped by Felix Hernandez and converted reliever Brandon Morrow, especially if Bedard recovers from September shoulder surgery. Closer J.J. Putz showed late signs of bouncing back from an injury-riddled season.

But the Mariners have major issues on offense after finishing 13th in the American League in runs with 671. Those issues will worsen if they don't re-sign their most productive hitter, Raul Ibanez, who is eligible for free agency. Ibanez's departure would leave them looking for a left fielder, center fielder, first baseman and designated hitter this winter.

Raul Ibanez

Ibanez

Free agents

OF Raul Ibanez, utilityman Willie Bloomquist, IF Miguel Cairo.

The 36-year-old Ibanez, who hit .293 with 23 homers and 110 RBIs, is the prime target, but he has indicated a desire to play for a contender. If he stays, he could wind up as the designated hitter. Bloomquist, a fan favorite, could sign with a National League team in an attempt for more playing time.

Trade bait

New GM Jack Zduriencik has many options, particularly if he determines the Mariners need to go into rebuilding mode. Third baseman Adrian Beltre, a free agent after the season, is likely to be dangled, as is Putz. The Mariners would no doubt love to dump one or more of three veteran pitchers -- Jarrod Washburn, Carlos Silva and Miguel Batista -- but might not find takers after turning down an opportunity to trade Washburn to Minnesota in August.

If the Mariners really wanted to get daring, they could deal Ichiro, who turned 35 on Oct. 22. But Japanese owner Hiroshi Yamauchi is not likely to allow that. Bedard, a potential free agent after the season, figures to be on the block once he proves he's healthy.

Jeff Clement

Clement

Farm aid

The Mariners gave extensive playing time to three minor leaguers last year -- catcher Jeff Clement, first baseman Bryan LaHair and outfielder Wladimir Balentien -- but all struggled at the plate. Clement figures to battle slumping veteran Kenji Johjima for the starting catching job and could also see time at first base or DH. Second baseman Luis Valbuena opened eyes in a September showcase, which could pave the way for Jose Lopez to move to a corner position.

Outlook

The Mariners decided to go with an ace talent evaluator in Zduriencik as their new GM, a direct reflection on the rash of poor decisions made by his predecessor, Bavasi.

Zduriencik is credited with hastening Milwaukee's turnaround by masterminding a series of strong drafts. But Zduriencik has a tough road ahead in Seattle: The Mariners, with an $118 million payroll last year, are saddled with bad contracts and don't appear to have much top-end talent in the minor leagues ready to make an impact -- especially after giving up so much in their ill-fated Bedard trade. One of Zduriencik's first decisions is to find a new manager. He could re-unite with former Milwaukee skipper Ned Yost.

Larry Stone is the national baseball writer for The Seattle Times. Click here to visit the Times' Web site.