10 Questions that the Mariners Need to Answer this Offseason

10. Who is going to play shortstop?

With Josh and Jack Wilson on the team’s roster, they have two similarly named shortstops who don’t hit very well. With the need to improve their offense, but most importantly improve their roster overall, either Wilson may be on the chopping block. The team has signed Josh to a small contract, and while he’d be easier to release, Jack may ultimately be the larger detriment to the team with his recent injury history.

If they choose to go with someone else, the team has Nick Franklin in the farm system, and he’s probably the best combination of ability to stick at shortstop, and proximity to the majors in terms of skill maturation. However, in all likelihood, the breakout prospect is at least another year away.

They may also check out the trade market, as Jason Bartlett and J.J. Hardy could be available for a discount price this offseason.

9. What does the team do with Josh Lueke?

After being included in a trade that sent Cliff Lee to Texas, Lueke has received a lot of ink. Some of that was as a response to his performance, which was excellent, even in his first short run at AAA. The majority of that ink, however, came in response to his off-field issues.

Lueke’s legal troubles have been well documented, and the Mariners upper-management and PR team have made it quite apparent that they aren’t thrilled about having Lueke being associated with the franchise: He’s been omitted from most offseason literature, and a possible trade back to Texas was even speculated.

The team has undermined Lueke’s trade value with their obvious discontent with the reliever. They don’t have a whole ton of elite bullpen arms, and while Lueke may not be a crowd pleaser off the field, the only way they can recoup the value they’ve destroyed this offseason is by playing Lueke at the games highest level.

8. Will Chone Figgins return to his pre-Mariner form, and will he move back to third base?

2010 was a rough year for Figgins, who went from being a player who was the epitome of overachievers, to a player who had his hustle questioned by the media, and had an awful, and frankly unlucky season at the plate.

While Figgins bat has been traditionally volatile (though not to the extent it was in 2010), according to UZR his glove was pretty steady from 2008-09, when he played third base.

In this article I detailed the possibility of Figgins contributing to the 2011 Mariners by simply bouncing back in the luck department. If he does, it’d be a huge boost for the team. If he doesn’t, with three years left on his deal, he’ll be near-impossible to move in a trade.

7. Does Milton Bradley have a role on this team?

When the Mariners traded Carlos Silva for Milton Bradley last offseason the move was almost universally loved in the Seattle blogosphere.  The team had acquired one of the 2009 offseason’s top free agent hitters for a player signed to one of the worst contracts in Seattle history.

The reality is that Bradley is the small part of a platoon at this point in his career—as despite being a pinch hitter he hits poorly from the left side—and while he may platoon well at DH, he’s an awful fielder now.

Bradley’s attitude wasn’t exactly changed last year, and with only a single year remaining on his contract, it wouldn’t be a shock after a couple of unproductive months or ugly incidents in 2011, to see Bradley released.

6. Who will be the Mariners lefty out of the bullpen?

Last year the Mariners spent most of the season without a reliever who could truly shut down left-handed power hitters that didn’t have a role elsewhere in the bullpen. Left-handed pitching is oft-overpaid, but left-handed power relievers are almost always overpaid.

However, the Mariners have very few options on the farm. James Paxton was drafted last year, but he hasn’t signed yet, and may profile as a starter in the minds of the front office. There has been some indication that Jack Zduriencik may turn Mauricio Robles into a reliever, but he spent most of last year starting.

The Mariners have been linked to Mark Hendrickson, but there are a variety of high quality left-handed relievers available this offseason.

5.  Will David Aardsma or Brandon League be traded?

For the second time in three offseasons, Jack Zduriencik is faced with a situation where trading his top reliever may make more sense than holding onto him. If Zduriencik opts to keep Aardsma, then League is equally expendable.

The biggest problem, however, is that this year’s free agent market for relievers is outstanding. We’ve seen Juaquin Benoit and J.J. Putz—who was at the center of Zduriencik’s absolute fleecing of the Mets and Indians, as well as at the beginning of Seattle’s love affair with Zduriencik—sign for large, multi-year contracts. So in all likelihood, the only teams that the Mariners can work for talent-laden trade are small-market potential contenders.

As the offseason progresses it is possible that the market will leave at least one team still seeking a closer, but with abundant options, it’s also possible that the Mariners would be better off waiting until a top closer goes down with an injury, or near the trade deadline.

4. Which of Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, and Michael Pineda will start the year in the Major Leagues?

In recent years we’ve seen budget-conscious teams—especially those that invest a ton of money and time into amateur scouting and development—avoid paying an additional year of arbitration by leaving top prospects in the minors until the middle of June, thus avoiding Super Two status.

Other teams, however, have had a lot of success signing players after their second year of service time. Ryan Braun and Evan Longoria both signed some of the most budget-friendly, bargain contracts in all of baseball after their second year of service time.

Zduriencik hasn’t really had access to MLB-ready top prospects early in his tenure as General Manager, so this season will be a strong indicator of future prospect development. However, if those three reach their potential, combined with Felix Hernandez’s excellence, the Mariners could have one of baseball’s most dynamic young cores in a couple of years, and could have the opportunity to lock them all up long term.

3. How will the Mariners fill out their rotation?

Assuming that Erik Bedard is healthy—an awful assumption—the Mariners may have a full rotation, also assuming that Michael Pineda breaks camp with the big club. If any of that doesn’t happen, they’ll need to fill in the back of their rotation.

The usual standbys in Luke French and Garrett Olson will likely remain when the season begins. However, most fans would like to see Zduriencik get a little more creative. Mauricio Robles would make an enticing option, but the team may view him as a reliever.

The team has been linked to Zack Greinke and Rich Harden, but with guys like Matt Garza, Tom Gorzelanny, Ricky Nolasco, and many others available this offseason, Zduriencik may get greative. James Shields, who is owed $4.25 million in 2011, can remain under team control until 2014 (three team options), and is presently ranked as a Type B free agent. Shields has become something of the 2011 version of Javier Vasquez, a guy whose peripherals are always good, but whose results haven’t caught up yet. A transfer out of the AL East and into Safeco Field may drastically increase Shields’ value.

2. Which Franklin Gutierrez will show up in 2011?

In 2009 Gutierrez became the Mariners biggest coup, posting 6.1 WAR, good for 11th best in baseball. A huge chunk of that came from his play in the field. He gained about a half win just by switching the center field and performing at least at an equal level. His 31.0 RAR in the field was absurd, and tremendously unlikely to be repeated, however, Gutierrez saw nearly a 15 run downswing in his plate value.

Gutierrez plate value has been tremendously volatile throughout his career. In each of his first five seasons he’s seen his plate appearances increase steadily, but in each season since 2006 he’s alternated positive and negative plate values. But his -7.7 run mark in 2010 fell in line with his 2008 season, meaning that in two of the three seasons when Gutierrez had 500 or more plate appearances, he’s posted negative run values in excess of seven.

There is no logical basis to believe that Gutierrez’s 2011 numbers will simply be better because he alternates good years with bad years. However, his line drive rates fell in line with his career numbers excluding 2009, and despite their steadiness, he’s had a pretty significant fluxuation in BABIP during his career, and a downswing in 2010, and his traditional production numbers as well as weighted result analysis stats have trended with the same severity. A lot of people have projected power for Gutierrez, but unless he’s able to realize his perceived power potential, he’s probably going to be the same volatile asset at the plate, and same excellent defender in the field.

1. Who will play catcher?

It’s strange to make a list that builds up, listing the team’s best players and questioning their future prospects, and not mention Felix Hernandez, the 2010 American League Cy Young Award Winner (!). So here goes the Felix tie-in: his battery mate.

The Mariners’ catchers ranked last in the entire big leagues in each of the three slash line categories. Rob Johnson and Adam Moore, both considered candidates for “catcher of the future” at one point during their careers, both struggled mightily in 2010. Josh Bard, probably the best offensive catcher on the roster last season, received only 126 plate appearances. Bard’s a free agent now, and the Mariners have some moves to make.

They’ve been linked to Miguel Olivo and Greg Zaun. In the two they don’t tip their hand, as Olivo and Zaun are near polar opposites. Olivo is solid behind the plate, with an awful approach at the plate. He’s a free swinger with a lot of power, but one that struck out in over 30 percent of his plate appearances the past two seasons. Zaun, by contrast, is not as good behind the plate, but strikes out almost half as often as Olivo, and walks almost three times as often. He’s a switch hitter, and fits Safeco Field masterfully, while Olivo doesn’t, as proven by his first unsuccessful run in the Safe.

While perhaps too much is made of a catcher’s chemistry with a pitcher, there is no doubt that the Mariners catcher position is the easiest place for them to upgrade the offense. It’d be really hard to assemble a worse tandem of Major League catchers on purpose. Look for a huge upgrade at the catcher position, even if the name isn’t as big as the upgrade.