The September death of primary owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, the lame-duck status of longtime team president Chuck Armstrong and the decision to bring back general manager Jack Zduriencik for only a one-year extension left the Mariners with plenty of question marks about the future of the organization.
But the biggest one came down to this: Would the Mariners ever be willing to spend the kind of effort and money needed to be serious contenders for a top-of-the-line free agent?
That question was answered with an emphatic "yes" when the team added former New York Yankees star Robinson Cano by way of a 10-year, $240 million contract -- matching the third largest in Major League Baseball history.
The move signals a significant step toward building a contender and came as encouraging news, to say the least, to a fan base that had gotten used to being disappointed by near-misses this time of year.
After spending recent offseasons giving modest dollars to aging former Mariners like Raul Ibanez and Ken Griffey Jr., back-of-the rotation starters like Kevin Millwood and Joe Saunders, one-year hopefuls like Cliff Lee and Kendrys Morales, and roll-of-the-dice gambles like Russell Branyan and Jack Cust, the Mariners finally made a big-time move for both the present and future.
Cano, 31, should give Seattle the cornerstone bat around which this team can put together a batting order. New manager Lloyd McClendon -- yet another change in an organization desperate for them -- can all but put down in ink a .300 hitter with 30-homer, 100-RBI power every game.
Cano probably won't turn the Mariners into an immediate contender, but it's the kind of move that could provide some serious excitement and give Zduriencik a signing to legitimize his tenure.
Overshadowed by the Cano deal were rumors that the Mariners were trying to work a trade for All-Star starter David Price, a former Cy Young Award winner who would give Seattle one of the best three-man starting rotations in baseball but could also cost the organization prized prospect Taijuan Walker.
If nothing else, the Mariners are being big-time players this winter. During an offseason of change, that might be the most welcome change of all.
--LHP Taijuan Walker has been mentioned in multiple trade rumors, the most notable of which involved Tampa Bay LHP David Price, a former Cy Young Award winner. But general manager Jack Zduriencik told reporters at the winter meetings that the Mariners "don't have intentions of trading Taijuan." The 21-year-old Walker is Seattle's top prospect and should have a legitimate shot of making the Mariners' Opening Day roster if he is not dealt.
--1B/OF Corey Hart, who was signed to a one-year contract on Dec. 11, had a breakout year in 2012 (30 home runs, 83 RBIs, .270 batting average) but missed the entire 2013 season with knee problems. The 31-year-old Hart, when healthy, could provide the Mariners with a much-needed, middle-of-the-order player. Just as important, he gives the team a right-handed bat with power. Hart could be a candidate to serve as Seattle's designated hitter.
--IF Willie Bloomquist was brought back as a free agent after spending the first seven years of his career in the Seattle organization. The native of nearby Port Orchard adds a utility player who could give new manager Lloyd McClendon some options off the bench. The big question is whether the Bloomquist signing means a bigger role for former first-round pick Dustin Ackley, a second baseman who was later converted to the outfield and filled the utility role last year.
--1B/OF Logan Morrison was acquired from the Marlins for RHP Carter Capps, a hard-throwing 21-year-old reliever who had a disappointing 2013 season. It was another move to try and help the Mariners bolster their offense, but Morrison does come with some question marks. The 25-year-old first baseman had knee problems last season, when he hit .242 with six home runs and 36 RBIs in 85 games with Miami.
--OF Dustin Ackley should be in the running for the starting center fielder's job, now that Franklin Gutierrez went unsigned. Ackley, Michael Saunders and Abraham Almonte look like the main candidates for that role heading into next season.
--2B Nick Franklin got off to a great start as a rookie midseason call-up last season, but now his role is in question. The signing of Robinson Cano fills the second base position and probably makes Franklin expendable. He's already been linked to at least one rumored deal -- to Kansas City -- and it's a pretty safe assumption that his name will come up again in trade talks. If Franklin stays with the Mariners, he could end up back in Triple-A, or as a utility infielder -- he was drafted as a shortstop and could also probably fill in at third.
--INF Stefen Romero was one of four players added to the 40-man roster, thus keeping him from being exposed for the Rule 5 Draft. Romero emerged as one of the top offensive players in the Mariners' system last season. He was joined by RHP Logan Bawcom, 1B/DH Ji-Man Choi and OF James Jones as new additions to the Mariners' 40-man.
--1B Jesus Montero doesn't appear to be a part of the team's future. General manager Jack Zduriencik recently told reporters that Montero would have to play his way back into consideration for a future role after being a disappointment in what was supposed to be his first full season as an every-day starter. Montero was the Mariners' Opening Day catcher but soon got demoted to Triple-A and subsequently hurt his knee.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Total dysfunction and a lack of leadership." -- Former manager Eric Wedge, describing the state of the Mariners' front office to the The Seattle Times in a December expose on the team.
The Mariners addressed their most obvious need in a big way when they added a legitimate heart-of-the-order bat in the form of 2B Robinson Cano. It cost Seattle $240 million, but the move will be worth every penny if Cano can provide significant improvement to an offense that has been among the AL's worst for far too long.
There are still plenty of questions about the bullpen, but Seattle does have some options among a young group of relievers whose future is still uncertain. It's also possible that the team could look for a closer to compete with RHP Tom Wilhelmsen and/or RHP Danny Farquhar.
The rotation lost its most veteran member when the team didn't pick up the option on LHP Joe Saunders, but he was too inconsistent last season to bring back. The decision leaves Seattle without an established left-handed starter, although 2013 rookies Taijuan Walker and James Paxton both showed enough late last year to warrant long looks in the spring. There has also been talk of the Mariners adding a top-end veteran southpaw like Tampa Bay's David Price -- although it could cost the team Walker to get him.
If nothing else, the Mariners were certainly active this winter. In addition to Cano, the team added a trio of versatile players in IF Willie Bloomquist, 1B/OF Corey Hart and 1B/OF Logan Morrison.
BIGGEST NEEDS: With DH Kendrys Morales still unsigned, the Mariners could probably use another big bat in the middle of the order to hit behind Robinson Cano. 1B/OF Corey Hart could end up filling that role if healthy. A left-handed starter could also be in order unless the Mariners are certain that either Taijuan Walker or James Paxton, neither of whom has much major league experience, is ready to be a dependable part of the rotation over the course of an entire season. The Mariners could also use at least one more outfielder. There's plenty of depth in the outfield, but there are no sure-fire starters and top-of-the-lineup hitters in the mix.
ARRIVALS: 2B Robinson Cano (free agent from Yankees), INF Willie Bloomquist (free agent from Diamondbacks), 1B/OF Corey Hart (free agent from Brewers), 1B/OF Logan Morrison (trade with Marlins), CF Travis Witherspoon (waiver claim from Angels)
DEPARTURE: RHP Carter Capps (traded to Marlins).
FREE AGENTS: C Henry Blanco, OF Endy Chavez, OF Raul Ibanez, DH Kendrys Morales, LHP Oliver Perez, C Humberto Quintero, OF Franklin Gutierrez, LHP Joe Saunders
The addition of Cano makes re-signing Morales less important, but that doesn't mean the Mariners are giving up on him. He was a key factor in Seattle's lineup this season, but the Mariners won't overpay to bring him back. Adding Hart and Morrison gives the Mariners options should 1B Justin Smoak struggle out of the gates again. Age is the big concern with Ibanez and Perez, while the team did not pick up options on either Saunders or Gutierrez.
ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: OF Michael Saunders, 1B Justin Smoak
IN LIMBO: RHP Hector Noesi
Noesi hasn't panned out, whether he's been used as a starter or in the bullpen, and it appears unlikely that the Mariners would give him another chance.
--RHP Stephen Pryor (right triceps surgery in August 2013) hopes to be available by the time spring training opens.
--LHP Danny Hultzen underwent shoulder surgery, the team announced on Oct. 1, but there is no known timetable for his return.
--1B Corey Hart (right knee surgery in January 2013, left knee surgery in July 2013) missed the entire 2013 season.
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