King Felix named AL's top pitcher by Sporting News

Mariners ace also won honor in 2010

King Felix named AL's top pitcher by Sporting News

SEATTLE -- Felix Hernandez has been named the American League's top pitcher in 2014 as part of the Sporting News AL All-Star team selected by a vote of baseball executives, becoming the first Mariners player honored since '10.

Hernandez was also named Sporting News' AL Pitcher of the Year in 2010, which was the year he went on to win his first AL Cy Young Award. This year's Cy Young Award, which is chosen in a vote by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, will be announced Nov. 12.

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The Sporting News All-Star team selects one player at each position, plus one starting pitcher and one reliever in each league. The Mariners haven't had a position player named to the AL All-Star squad since outfielder Ichiro Suzuki in 2009.

Robinson Cano was the AL second baseman on the Sporting News All-Star team the past four years for the Yankees, but he saw that run end this year when the Astros' Jose Altuve was selected at that position.

Hernandez finished the season with a 15-6 record, while leading the AL with a 2.14 ERA in 34 starts. He also posted a league-low 0.92 WHIP while racking up a career-best 248 strikeouts in 236 innings. Hernandez started the AL All-Star Game after being selected to his fifth Midsummer Classic.

The only previous AL Pitcher of the Year for the Mariners -- aside from himself in 2010 -- as selected by Sporting News was Randy Johnson in 1995.

This year's Sporting News AL All-Star team: catcher Salvador Perez (Royals); first baseman Jose Abreu (White Sox); second baseman Altuve (Astros); shortstop Erick Aybar (Angels); third baseman Adrian Beltre (Rangers); outfielders Mike Trout (Angels), Michael Brantley (Indians) and Jose Bautista (Blue Jays); designated hitter Victor Martinez (Tigers); pitcher Hernandez (Mariners); and reliever Dellin Betances (Yankees).

The NL All-Star team: catcher Jonathan Lucroy (Brewers); first baseman Anthony Rizzo (Cubs); second baseman Dee Gordon (Dodgers); shortstop Jhonny Peralta (Cardinals); third baseman Anthony Rendon (Nationals); outfielders Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins), Andrew McCutchen (Pirates) and Justin Upton (Braves); pitcher Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers); and reliever Craig Kimbrel (Braves).

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Inbox: What is the position plan for Peterson?

Inbox: What is the position plan for Peterson?

Lots of fun responses as our Reader Inbox series got underway again for the offseason last week. Keep 'em coming! Click here to submit a question.

What player are the Mariners aiming for in free agency this offseason?
-- Matthew F., Bellevue, Wash.

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It's impossible to just aim for one player since 29 other teams are also zeroing in the same guys, but it's safe to say one position the Mariners must address is designated hitter after the combo of Corey Hart and Kendrys Morales led a group that hit a dismal .191 with 49 RBIs for the season, by far the worst DH numbers of any AL team.

The biggest available designated hitter will be Victor Martinez, who was the best in the game this year -- hitting .335 with 32 homers and 103 RBIs for the Tigers. Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon was formerly Martinez's hitting coach in Detroit, so there is a nice connection there. But it won't be easy for Seattle -- or any other team -- to lure the 35-year-old away from a club that will surely be willing to pay top dollar to keep him in the middle of its lineup.

If the Royals don't exercise a $12.5 million option on Billy Butler, he's another potential free agent target while coming off a down season in which he hit a career low .271/.323/.379 with nine homers and 66 RBIs. Butler isn't a big power guy, but at 28, he's been a solid right-handed hitter with a career .295 average in eight seasons and that's something the Mariners sorely need. Other top-end free agent hitters will include Pablo Sandoval, Nelson Cruz, Melky Cabrera, Nick Markakis, Aramis Ramirez and Cuban outfielder Yasmani Tomas.

Peterson doubles to left

D.J. Peterson could provide some much needed help offensively, but the Mariners already have an awesome third baseman in Kyle Seager. Are there any plans to have Peterson learn another position?
-- Debi J., Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

Peterson, the Mariners' No. 2 prospect according to MLB.com, has continued to play mostly third this past year both in the Minors and now in the Arizona Fall League. But the 2013 first-round Draft pick played some first base in college and started 19 games there this year in the Minors, along with 90 at third base and 15 at DH. He believes he can transition easily to first base if needed and I expect he'll get a good look there next spring. After hitting .297 with 31 homers with 111 RBIs in Class A and Double-A ball, the 22-year-old may well wind up being part of the solution at first base or DH in Seattle before long.

With Logan Morrison on a roll at the end of the season and Peterson waiting in the wings, what is Justin Smoak's future with the Mariners?
-- Julian G., Incline Village, Nev.

Decision time is approaching with Smoak, who hit just .202 in 80 games and lost his first-base spot to Morrison at midseason. After five seasons in Seattle with a .226/.308/.384 line, the 27-year-old could be non-tendered and allowed to become a free agent unless the Mariners feel it's worth one last shot with the former first-round pick. The club has a $3.65 million contract option for 2015, but can buy that out for $150,000 and either let Smoak go into a final year of arbitration, attempt to trade him or just let him become a free agent at the contract tender deadline five days after the World Series ends.

What happened to the Pulaski Mariners? Will the Mariners have a Minor League team at that level in 2015?
-- Anne H., Snohomish, Wash.

The Mariners did not renew their contract with Pulaski (Virginia) in the rookie Appalachian League for next year and Pulaski has since signed a deal with the Yankees. The Mariners felt they were overloaded at that level with Class A short-season Everett and a rookie Arizona League club in Peoria, along with increased focus now on their new academy in the Dominican Republic. The other change next year will be the switch from High Desert to Bakersfield in the Class A Advanced California League.

Do you believe the Mariners will retain reliever Joe Beimel?
-- Charles H., Oakville, Wash.

Beimel's 1-2-3 inning

Beimel is one of six Mariners veterans who'll become free agents at the conclusion of the World Series, but yes, I think there's a good chance he re-signs with Seattle. Beimel has indicated he'd love to return after a very successful season when he made the club on a Minor League deal and then posted a 2.20 ERA in his first healthy year since 2011. And the Mariners are definitely interested in having him back as one of their lefty specialists, if things work out.

I've seen Taijuan Walker dunk on YouTube, and know Chris Young played basketball in college. Who would win in a game of one-on-one?
-- Ryan B., Spokane, Wash.

Young was an All-State basketball player at Highland Park (Texas) and went on to play two years of hoops at Princeton from 1998-2000, averaging 13.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and a school-record 3.0 blocked shots a game his sophomore season. He was good enough to get an NBA tryout with the Kings, but chose to stick with baseball. Walker was a stud basketball player at Yucaipa (Calif.) High and averaged 21 points and 15 rebounds as a senior, but he obviously never played in college as he signed with the Mariners straight out of high school.

So while I'd say the 6-foot-10 Young is far more accomplished as a basketball player and would be my first choice if I was playing five-on-five, it's a different game one-on-one and I'd put my money there on the younger and more-athletic 6-4 Walker at this point in their careers. And, no, I don't believe they squared off in their spare time this past season, not even on the Nerf hoop in the Mariners clubhouse at Safeco Field.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Sanchez, Mariners prospects heating up Winter League

No. 11 prospect posted a 2.00 ERA through two starts in Venezuela

Sanchez, Mariners prospects heating up Winter League

SEATTLE -- Victor Sanchez, one of the Mariners' top young pitching prospects, is off to a hot start in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Sanchez, a 19-year-old right-hander out of Rio Chico, Venezuela, has posted a 2.00 ERA with the Leones del Caracas while allowing two earned runs on five hits with four walks and seven strikeouts in nine innings in a pair of no-decisions.

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The 6-foot, 255-pound teenager is Seattle's No. 11 rated prospect by MLB.com and went 7-6 with a 4.19 ERA in 23 starts for Double-A Jackson this past season. Sanchez is one of a handful of Mariners prospects already in action in the VWL, where teams have played 10 games so far.

Infielder Gabriel Noriega, a 24-year-old who hit .281 in 101 games for Triple-A Tacoma last season, has played all 10 games for Cardenales de Lara and is batting .250 (9-for-36) with six runs, a double, triple and four RBIs.

The other Mariners position prospect seeing significant action so far in Venezuela is Ji-Man Choi, who has hit .259 (7-for-27) with a home run, two RBIs and three runs in seven games for the Tigres de Aragua. Choi, 23, has played first base most of his pro career, but began converting to the outfield this year for Tacoma and has started in left field in all seven of his games in the VWL.

Left-hander Kyle Hunter has pitched well in relief for the Tigres de Aragua, allowing just one hit over three innings in four scoreless appearances with one walk and three strikeouts. Hunter, 25, was 5-3 with a 3.25 ERA in 38 outings for Jackson last season.

Right-hander Mayckol Guaipe, a 24-year-old who had a 2.89 ERA in 40 games for Jackson, has already made six relief appearances for Caribes de Anzoategui with a 3.18 ERA (two runs in 5 2/3 innings).

James Gillheeney, a 26-year-old southpaw who went 3-11 with a 5.62 ERA for Tacoma, has gotten off to a good start with Naranjeros de Hermosillo in the Mexican Winter League, as he's 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA in two starts, with nine strikeouts and no walks in 9 1/3 innings. He's the only Mariners prospect so far playing in Mexico.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Young awarded Sporting News' AL Comeback Player

Young awarded Sporting News' AL Comeback Player

SEATTLE -- Believing he'd finally overcome a series of shoulder issues that had hindered much of his career, Chris Young just wanted a chance to pitch every fifth day and be part of a Major League rotation again after being released by the Nationals at the end of Spring Training.

But the 35-year-old right-hander did far more than that, putting together a strong 2014 season for the Mariners that resulted in Young being named Sporting News' American League Comeback Player of the Year on Monday.

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"This means more than I can say right now," Young said on a conference call with reporters from his home in San Diego. "To be voted by my peers, to have the respect of them, we all understand how hard this game can be and the challenges it presents. To go through and find out what my underlying problem was and then come back and be part of a special season in Seattle, it was truly an honor and a team effort."

Young went 12-9 with a 3.65 ERA in 30 games (29 starts) after not pitching in the Majors in 2013 following his third surgery to deal with a troublesome right shoulder. After doctors diagnosed a nerve blockage called thoracic outlet syndrome and repaired that issue in June of 2013, the 6-foot-10 right-hander said he finally felt right after years of trying to fix his shoulder.

"In Spring Training, when I got into the routine of starting every fifth day, I knew at that point," Young said. "It was just such a different feel than years past. My arm was bouncing back, recovering. I knew at that point the nerve issues were gone and I felt like I did seven or eight years ago before I'd had any type of injury, and I could just focus on doing what I needed to do to be successful."

Young is the fifth Mariners player to earn the award and the first since pitcher Gil Meche in 2003. Previous Seattle winners were Gorman Thomas (1985), Richie Zisk ('81) and Willie Horton ('79). The Sporting News has been selecting AL and NL Comeback Players since '65.

MLB and the Players Choice Awards also name a Comeback Player of the Year, but those honors haven't been announced yet for the 2014 season.

Young provided a classic comeback story, having not pitched in the Majors at all in 2013 and finally solving shoulder issues that prevented him from pitching a full season since '07, when he was an NL All-Star with the Padres.

"Chris was a big part of our success in 2014, really solidifying our rotation," said manager Lloyd McClendon. "To think he won as many games as he did, and made 29 starts, coming off the type of surgery and the injuries that he had, I think it's just tremendous. He is a tireless worker and showed his determination with his performance. This is a very deserving award for him in every way possible."

Young went 1-2 with a 6.81 ERA in nine Minor League starts for the Nationals in 2013, then was released by that club on the final roster cut this spring.

But the Mariners signed him to a one-year, $1.5 million base deal just four days before the start of the regular season, and he wound up earning another $2.975 million in incentive bonuses by staying healthy and performing so well through the year.

Young had the eighth-lowest opponents' batting average in the AL at .234, was 21st in the league in WHIP at 1.23 and his 165 innings pitched were his most since 2007.

When healthy, Young has always been an effective Major League pitcher, owning a 65-52 record and 3.77 ERA over 10 seasons. But his shoulder problems have led to three surgeries and allowed him to make just 28 starts over the previous four seasons combined.

Young exceeded that number for Seattle this year alone with his 29 starts, helping solidify the rotation for a club that finished first in the AL in ERA and improved by 16 wins to 87-75 in McClendon's first season at the helm.

Though the increased workload finally seemed to catch up with Young at the end of the season when he went 0-3 with an 8.35 ERA over his last five outings, the 35-year-old finished third on the Mariners in wins and innings pitched behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma and his 12 victories equaled his career high set in 2005 with the Padres.

Young will become a free agent at the conclusion of the World Series. He said he's talked with general manager Jack Zduriencik, and McClendon and would love to return to Seattle, but doesn't know how things will play out this winter.

"I feel like I put myself in a good situation, but I'm not worried about that right now," Young said. "That will play out in time. Right now, we're not allowed to speak to other teams. I'm technically still under contract with the Mariners. I've had good conversations with Lloyd and Jack.

"I understand this is a business. I would love to be back. This was [the] most fulfilling, gratifying season of my career. I'd love to be part of finishing what we've started here. That being said, I understand it's a business and they've got a lot of great arms and it might not be in the best interest of the Mariners or vice versa."

Wherever he winds up, Young feels he'll be even stronger in 2015 as the result of being able to spend an offseason improving his overall strength and conditioning rather than having to focus on rehabbing his shoulder for the first time in years. He's taking a yoga class with his wife to work on his flexibility and will begin his offseason throwing program at full strength instead of in recovery mode for a change.

"I feel I'm a little ahead of the game instead of behind the eight ball, as in years past," Young said. "I'm super excited about that."

Young earned 49 votes from AL players to easily beat runner-up J.D. Martinez of the Tigers for the honor. Martinez had 22 votes, Scott Kazmir of the A's was third with 14, followed by the Yankees' Derek Jeter (11) and Toronto's Melky Cabrera (6).

Miami third baseman Casey McGehee was voted NL Comeback Player of the Year after hitting .287 with 76 RBIs in 160 games after spending 2013 playing in Japan.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Saunders recognized with 2014 Clausen Award

Mariners outfielder dedicates time to cancer awareness, community efforts

Saunders recognized with 2014 Clausen Award

SEATTLE -- Outfielder Michael Saunders has been selected by the Mariners RBI Club as the winner of its 2014 Al "Moose" Clausen Community Service Award.

The honor will be presented to Saunders on Nov. 15 at the RBI Club's annual Toys for Kids fundraiser at the Bellevue Hyatt Regency Grand Ballroom.

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The RBI Club is a group of Mariners season-ticket holders and the Moose Clausen Award is given to a member of the organization -- active or retired -- for significant contributions to the community.

Saunders' life has been touched by cancer and his community involvement reflects that personal connection. Saunders' mother died in 2011 at the age of 50 after a 13-year fight with cancer. Each season, Saunders is involved with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Major League Baseball's "Going To Bat Against Breast Cancer" initiative.

The Victoria, British Columbia, native also spends time during the offseason on the Mariners Caravan talking with elementary school students about education and staying drug-free, and visiting children at Boys & Girls Clubs.

This past year, Saunders joined Felix Hernandez and manager Lloyd McClendon as spokesmen for the Refuse To Abuse anti-domestic violence public service campaign.

Previous Moose Clausen Award Winners are Jamie Moyer (2001), Dan Wilson ('02), Edgar Martinez ('03), Jay Buhner ('04), Rick Rizzs and Dave Henderson ('05), Raul Ibanez ('06), Dave Valle ('07), John Olerud ('08), Howard Lincoln ('09), Bill Krueger ('10), Julio Cruz ('11), Jack Zduriencik ('12) and Eric and Kate Wedge ('13).

Saunders, 27, was drafted by the Mariners in the 11th round in 2004 and has been with the organization his entire career, including the past six seasons with the Major League club.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Walker decides not to pitch again this offseason

Righty scratched from AFL start, team says he's completely healthy

Walker decides not to pitch again this offseason

SEATTLE -- Taijuan Walker was scratched from his scheduled Arizona Fall League start Saturday night and has decided not to pitch any more this offseason, though he is completely healthy, general manager Jack Zduriencik said Sunday.

The 22-year-old right-hander had been slated to pitch his third AFL game for the Surprise Saguaros on Saturday at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, but fellow Mariners prospect Stephen Landazuri replaced him and allowed five hits and three runs in three innings to take the loss as the Saguaros fell, 9-4, to the Glendale Desert Dogs.

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Walker had posted a 2.00 ERA in his first two AFL starts, allowing two runs and seven hits with two walks and 11 strikeouts in nine innings.

"Taijuan is completely healthy and was very impressive in his two outings, but made a personal decision that he needed to return home at this time," Zduriencik said in a statement released by the club. "He will continue with his offseason program and we look forward to seeing him at Spring Training in February."

Walker is regarded as one of the top young pitchers in baseball and was 2-3 with a 2.61 ERA in eight games for the Mariners this season. But he missed the first two months of the year with shoulder issues and Seattle officials had suggested they wanted him to throw about 25 innings in the AFL to increase his workload before shutting things down until next spring.

Landazuri is one of six other Mariners prospects on the Surprise squad. The 22-year-old right-hander had previously thrown three games in relief in AFL action and is now 1-3 with a 10.29 ERA in seven innings. Landazuri went 6-5 with a 4.33 ERA in 19 starts for Double-A Jackson in the 2014 season.

Two of Seattle's top position prospects, first baseman Patrick Kivlehan and third baseman D.J. Peterson, each had doubles in Saturday's game. Kivlehan went 1-for-4 with a walk, an RBI and two runs, while Peterson was 1-for-3 with a walk and two RBIs.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Staying with Mariners appeals to Young

After comeback campaign, veteran pitcher sure to draw interest this offseason

Staying with Mariners appeals to Young

SEATTLE -- Chris Young's season with the Mariners didn't begin the way he hoped. Nor did it end in quite the fashion he'd have drawn up, if given a choice.

But the six months between that start and finish were as good a time as the 6-foot-10 right-hander remembers having in baseball, and he'd love the chance to paint the complete picture with another go in Seattle if things work out in free agency this winter.

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"I absolutely love it here," Young said before packing his gear and heading home to San Diego to spend the offseason with his wife and two kids. "This has been one of my most favorite baseball experiences. I love the team, love the staff, love the organization, love the city and my favorite Major League ballpark. There's not a negative here. This place is unbelievable."

In a year the Mariners proved to be one of baseball's biggest surprises with a 16-win improvement, Young stood tall at the forefront of that turnaround with a comeback season.

After struggling with arm issues since 2007 and not pitching at all in the Majors in 2013 while recovering from his third shoulder surgery, Young was released by the Nationals at the end of Spring Training and signed with Seattle just a few days before the regular season as general manager Jack Zduriencik looked to bolster a rotation missing Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker due to injuries.

When veteran southpaw Randy Wolf balked at the notion of signing a 45-day advance consent notice that would have allowed the Mariners out of his one-year contract in mid-May if things didn't work out, Young quickly agreed to the same sort of deal and then went about proving to be a steal as he went 12-9 with a 3.65 ERA in 30 games, ranking eighth in the American League with an opponents' .234 batting average and 21st among all starting pitchers in WHIP at 1.23.

The only downside for Young was a tough finish as he went 0-3 with an 8.35 in his final five outings. Manager Lloyd McClendon skipped his last start, believing the 35-year-old had simply run out of gas after pitching his most innings since 2007, when he was a National League All-Star for the Padres.

But even that rough patch was met with a head-up approach from the lanky Princeton graduate, who acknowledged hitting a dead-arm period in late August, but felt he worked through that and could have helped as needed if the Mariners had reached the postseason.

"I think it happens," he said of his late-season rough patch. "You look across baseball and almost every pitcher goes through it. I think Felix [Hernandez] went through it. I think Iwakuma went through it. I think that's normal, especially in my circumstances with having thrown to that point basically 15 straight months from the time I started my rehab last year, continuing through the offseason and Spring Training and into the season. It was a lot of volume, but necessary."

Necessary in Young's situation, because he had to show teams he was worth a look last winter after undergoing surgery to repair a nerve-blocking condition called thoracic outlet syndrome that he believes now was the cause of years of shoulder problems.

But that's exactly why he believes he'll be even better next year, given this will be the first winter in recent memory when he can actually work on getting stronger over the offseason rather than rehabbing and recovering from surgery or lingering shoulder issues.

Zduriencik said Seattle will again be looking for a veteran starter to bolster a rotation that returns Hernandez, Iwakuma, Walker, James Paxton and Roenis Elias. But Young figures to have more suitors and an increased price tag in free agency, given his 2014 showing.

"We'll see what happens," Young said. "I'm excited with what I accomplished and finishing the season healthy. I'll take a little time off now and then get back to being able to actually have an offseason to train and strengthen vs. rehab. I'm excited about that. I feel like next year will be a great season to build on this one in terms of being 100 percent, fully strong and healthy and having a base built up before I come in."

Young started 29 of his 30 games because his long-awaited return to the Majors was delayed because of poor field conditions in Oakland in what was slated to be his first start since 2012. Instead, the Mariners skipped his initial start and he wound up pitching in relief his first appearance before finally getting his shot -- and throwing six scoreless innings -- on April 13 against the A's in Seattle.

Young handled that initial delay the same way he finished up, saying he only worries about things he can control and that he simply gives his best effort any time he's handed the ball. And when the season ended with Seattle one win shy of tying for an AL Wild Card spot and its first postseason berth in 13 years, the veteran pitcher finally took time to step back and appreciate the big picture.

"It was obviously disappointing that we weren't a game better," he said. "You look at the course of a season, 162 games, how many times we gave one away or could have had one. It will certainly serve as motivation for all of us to work hard and realize the importance of just one single game. Whether it's April or September, it doesn't matter. A game is a game. But it was such a fun ride. A great group of guys, a great coaching staff. Just one of the most fun seasons I've ever been a part of.

"The character in the clubhouse, I said it early on, but it reminded me of the successful teams that I was on before. This team was as good as any I've been on and I just felt if we could find a way in, you never know what might have happened. We had the talent to get it done and we played good teams pretty well. But that's baseball. I'm just so thankful for the experience."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Prospect Kivlehan homers, doubles in AFL

Seattle's No. 6 prospect rakes, leads Surprise to victory in AFL action

Prospect Kivlehan homers, doubles in AFL

Patrick Kivlehan hit 20 home runs and posted a .507 slugging percentage in 138 games between Class A Advanced High Desert and Double-A Jackson this season. But he said he doesn't see himself as a power hitter.

"I just want to be one of those guys where they put the barrel on the ball and see where it goes," Kivlehan said.

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In the Arizona Fall League on Thursday, Kivlehan drove the balls he barreled up far. He homered and doubled, helping Surprise defeat Scottsdale, 7-3.

Kivlehan, the Mariners' No. 6 prospect, finished the game 2-for-3 with a walk, two runs and an RBI. He is hitting .292/.414/.750 in six games and is in a four-way tie atop the AFL leaderboard with three home runs.

Kivlehan said he feels comfortable at the plate now, but it took a few games to get to that point after the month-long break between the end of the season at Jackson and the start of the AFL last week.

"After about a month off and not playing every day, it takes a couple at bats to get back in the swing of things," Kivlehan said. "I think me and the rest of the team are starting to lock in."

Second baseman Sean Coyle, the Red Sox No. 13 prospect, went 2-for-4 with a double and a run. Outfielder Nick Williams, the Rangers' No. 5 prospect, added two hits and an RBI.

The Saguaros have the AFL's highest-scoring offense, averaging seven runs a game. Thursday, they also got a solid performance from their pitching staff.

Right-hander Nick Howard, the Reds' No. 5 prospect and the 19th overall pick of the 2014 First-Year Player Draft, started for Surprise and earned his first win of the fall. He struck out one batter and allowed two runs on two hits and two walks in four innings.

After Howard was relieved to start the fifth inning, four relievers combined to hold Scottsdale to one run on four hits and two walks in five innings to close out the victory.

First baseman Greg Bird drove in all of the Scorpions runs with a pair of home runs. He hit a two-run blast in the fourth inning off Howard and added a solo shot in the sixth to join Mesa first baseman Matt Olson as the only players to hit multiple home runs in a game this fall.

Bird, the Yankees' No. 11 prospect, finished the day 2-for-4. In eight games, he is hitting .394/.444/.758 and is one of the players tied with Kivlehan for the AFL's home run lead.

Thursday's victory was Surprise's second straight against Scottsdale. The Saguaros outslugged the Scorpions, 13-11, in a wild game Wednesday night in Scottsdale. Catcher John Hicks, the Mariners' No. 19 prospect and Kivlehan's teammate in Jackson, drove in the winning runs with a two-out single in the eighth inning.

Kivlehan said the Saguaros were able to capitalize on their momentum from Wednesday night.

"Last night was a big win for us, especially in that type of game," he said. "It carried over into today and made today a lot easier."

Kivlehan played first base Thursday and will see most of his time in the AFL at that position after moving around the diamond during the regular season. He was named to the Southern League's postseason All-Star team as a utility player after playing third base, first base and all three outfield positions for Jackson.

Kivlehan exclusively played third base in his first two professional seasons. But he said he has quickly adapted to first base and now feels comfortable at the position.

In addition to his defensive work, Kivlehan said he hopes to use the fall to improve in all facets of the game.

"I'm at a point where I'm getting better at things, but I need to improve everything overall," Kivlehan said. "I just want to improve my game a little bit here and a little bit there."

Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Inbox: Will Wilhelmsen be made into starter?

Inbox: Will Wilhelmsen be made into starter?

The offseason is upon us, which means it's time to dig into the mailbag and resume the weekly Reader Inbox. With the Mariners facing a critical winter as they look to take the next step forward after just missing a playoff berth in 2014, there should be plenty of questions. Click here to submit a question.

There was midseason talk of converting Tom Wilhelmsen to a starter next year. Any chance that happens?
Shelly R., Eugene, Ore.

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Manager Lloyd McClendon was intrigued by Wilhelmsen's potential as a starter, but there seems to be a growing consensus that the big right-hander was so valuable as a versatile reliever that he'll remain in that role. After his 2013 struggles as a closer, Wilhelmsen regained his joy for the game and returned to being one of the club's bright personalities, while establishing himself as a dominant middle reliever (2.27 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and .171 opponents batting average). My expectation is the club will sign an established veteran starter to further supplement the rotation and keep Wilhelmsen in the role that seemed to fit him so well.

How is Danny Hultzen's rehab going? Is he on schedule?
Ed Q., Kalamazoo, Mich.

Hultzen spent the entire 2014 season working out at the Mariners facility in Peoria, Ariz., recovering from surgery to repair his labrum, rotator cuff and anterior capsule in his left shoulder. That's the toughest surgery for any pitcher to deal with, but he was throwing well enough by the end of the season that he competed in three instructional league outings against young prospects and impressed the Mariners brass in his final 25-pitch outing on Sept. 30.

The 2011 first-round Draft pick will now rest up this offseason, with the expectation that he'll be ready to compete at the start of Spring Training in February. They'll be cautious with him and it'd be unwise to build any false hopes around a 24-year-old who has thrown just 35 2/3 innings over the last two years, but clearly Hultzen will be someone to watch when camp opens as he starts building his arm strength back up again.

Top Prospects: Hultzen, SEA

Video: Top prospects: Hultzen, LHP

How did Felix Hernandez get the nickname King Felix? I heard it's from his childhood dog named King, but what does that have to do with baseball?
Craig J., Snohomish, Wash.

Hernandez actually was tagged with the "King Felix" moniker when he was an up-and-coming Mariners prospect by Dave Cameron of the USS Mariner blog and the name wound up sticking when he continued living up to his billing as a rising star upon arrival in Seattle as a 19-year-old phenom. Hernandez clearly enjoys the nickname as he later named one of his own dogs "King," and he relishes the whole "King's Court" atmosphere and its expanding tradition at Safeco Field.

King Felix's 15th win

Video: King Felix's 15th win

Why haven't the Mariners signed Kyle Seager to a long-term deal yet? Is that a priority this offseason?
Chris W., Spokane, Wash.

The Mariners are interested in extending Seager to a long-term deal, which essentially would buy out his three arbitration years and perhaps lock him up for another season or two beyond that. But that is a negotiation that will likely take time to play out, given there's no immediate deadline forcing either side to act yet. Like all players, Seager is under team control for his first six seasons of Major League service time before becoming a free agent, which, in his case, would come in 2018.

Without a long-term agreement, Seager simply would go through the first-year arbitration process beginning next month. The Mariners have a number of other players who are also arbitration eligible -- Dustin Ackley, Charlie Furbush, Austin Jackson, Logan Morrison, Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak and Wilhelmsen -- and most or all will wind up coming to some sort of one-year contract agreement rather than proceeding all the way to an independent arbitration panel. It's certainly possible that Seager could sign more than a one-year deal if the Mariners make an offer that provides longer-term security in exchange for avoiding future arbitrations or even delaying his free agency, but those deals have to make sense for both sides.

Seager's 25th home run

Video: Seager launches 25th home run

What's up with Franklin Gutierrez?
Eric C., Yakima, Wash.

Gutierrez spent all of last season on the unpaid restricted list after signing a one-year, $1 million deal and then deciding just before Spring Training that he wasn't feeling well enough to compete while still dealing with his ongoing health issues, which he said a year ago had been diagnosed as an inflammatory condition called ankylosing spondylitis. The 31-year-old is living in Florida and has told the Mariners he'd be interested in playing next season. General manager Jack Zduriencik indicated that is a possibility, though the club would only bring Gutierrez in as a non-roster invitee on a Minor League deal at this point.

Gutierrez's solo shot

Video: Gutierrez hits solo shot

Was Chris Young just a stop-gap option or is there a chance the Mariners bring him back?
Tom., Seattle, Wash.

Amazing how much things can change in a year. Young was certainly a stopgap when Seattle signed him after he was released by the Nationals at the end of Spring Training. Looking for help with Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker on the disabled list and Randy Wolf opting out rather than agree to a 45-day advance consent form, the Mariners took a flyer on Young. But now he's coming off a very solid season (12-9, 3.65 ERA in 29 starts) and while he loved Seattle and is definitely interested in returning, his market has changed as he's now a free agent who'll surely have interest from other clubs as well. I think he's a great fit in Seattle and should be even stronger next year now that he's had a year to build up after all his shoulder issues, but we'll have to wait and see on that one.

Young's solid start

Video: Young's solid start

Any word yet on when FanFest will be this year?
Frank B., Olympia, Wash.

Yup. You can circle Jan. 24-25 on your calendar.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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In-game scouting report pays off for Hicks in AFL

In-game scouting report pays off for Hicks in AFL

During the fifth inning of Surprise's 13-11 win over Scottsdale on Wednesday, John Hicks replaced starting catcher Luke Maile. At the time, the Saguaros were up by five runs and seemed to be on the way to an easy victory. But the Scorpions didn't go quietly and scored five runs in the seventh to tie the game.

The game was still deadlocked in the ninth, when Hicks stepped into the batter's box to face right-hander Colton Murray with two out and runners on second and third. Nick Williams had nearly broken the tie with a deep drive to right-center field, but the ball hopped over the wall for a ground-rule double, forcing Jesse Winker to return to third base.

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Before Winker walked back up the line, he paused to give Hicks a quick scouring report on Murray. That exchange would come in handy when Murray threw Hicks a 2-2 curveball.

"Winker had told me the guy had a good breaking ball," Hicks said. "He left it up and I was able to find the hole."

Hicks pulled the ball through the left side of the infield to drive in Winker and Williams and give the Saguaros the lead. Right-hander Aaron Kurcz finished the game with a scoreless bottom half of the ninth, sealing Surprise's victory and snapping Scottsdale's four-game winning streak.

Even before erupting for 13 runs Wednesday, the Saguaros had the highest-scoring offense in the Arizona Fall League. In eight games this fall, they have scored 56 runs.

"When you're putting up runs like we did tonight and we have some other times, it's a fun dugout to be in," Hicks said. "It's a lot of fun when the guys you have going up to the plate are some of the best players in Minor League Baseball and some have been in the Major Leagues already."

The Saguaros got on the scoreboard with five runs in the second and three more in both the third and fourth innings to open their big lead. Nine of the 10 Saguaros who played Wednesday collected at least one hit. First baseman Kyle Waldrop led the team, going 3-for-5 with a double, a triple, three runs and two RBIs. Hicks, the Mariners' No. 19 prospect, finished the night 1-for-3 and stole a base.

Despite all the offense, however, Surprise was unable to put Scottsdale away. The Scorpions scored six runs of their own over the first three innings and then tied the game with five runs in the seventh off right-hander Burch Smith, the Padres' No. 17 prospect.

Center fielder Roman Quinn, the Phillies' No. 5 prospect, went 4-for-5 with a triple, a walk and a stolen base. He scored three runs and drove in one more. Right fielder Aaron Judge, the Yankees' No. 5 prospect, finished the night 2-for-4 with a home run and four RBIs.

"We didn't pitch as well as we would like to," Hicks said. "We have great arms and you're not usually going to score 11 runs on the pitching staff we have out here."

Throughout his career, Hicks has been known for his defense and has developed a good reputation for being able to work with pitchers. He has steadily progressed through the Minor Leagues, reaching Triple-A Tacoma this year.

After a successful season that saw him hit .290/.351/.403 with five home runs in 81 games between Double-A Jackson and Tacoma, Hicks said he hopes to continue his development this fall against the elite competition the AFL provides.

"The most important thing for almost all catchers is defense," Hicks said. "Working with the pitchers we have on the team and trying to get them through. Just be the best catcher I can be for them. And everyone wants to hit. It's so fun to face the arms that we're facing."

Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Veteran Beimel hopes to return to Mariners' bullpen

Veteran Beimel hopes to return to Mariners' bullpen

SEATTLE -- As the elder statesman in baseball's best bullpen for 2014, Joe Beimel knows what the Mariners put together last season was something special.

And the 37-year-old southpaw from Pennsylvania would love to be part of it again next year if things fall into place, even though he's the lone free agent in a group that shattered Seattle's club record and posted the second-lowest ERA for an American League bullpen over the past 24 seasons at 2.59.

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After not pitching in the Majors since 2011 due to elbow issues and recovery from Tommy John surgery, Beimel turned into one of baseball's best comeback stories as he went 3-1 with a 2.20 ERA in 45 innings over 56 appearances.

Before heading to his offseason home in Hermosa Beach, Calif., Beimel made it clear he's amenable to another turn in Seattle after making the club this year as a non-roster invitee on a Minor League deal that cost the Mariners just $850,000.

"I've let it be known that I want to come back," Beimel said. "My agent has told [general manager Jack Zduriencik] that I'd love to come back and it's just one of those things. I've been a free agent many times before, so it's definitely a two-way street. We'll see what happens with that."

Manager Lloyd McClendon, who was Beimel's first Major League skipper in Pittsburgh in 2001, makes no secret of his support for the veteran lefty.

"I've relayed my beliefs to the GM and how I feel and I've said I want him back, unequivocally," McClendon said.

Zduriencik always holds player negotiations close to the vest, but even he allowed that Beimel is a logical target among the six remaining free agents on the club.

"We will entertain anybody that is on the club right now," Zduriencik said. "I'm not going to say it's going to happen, but we're certainly going to entertain bringing him back."

Beimel teamed with Charlie Furbush as the lefty specialists in a versatile bullpen filled with young, hard-throwing youngsters. Relying more on veteran savvy and baseball smarts, Beimel held left-handed hitters to a .188 batting average (compared to .282 vs. right-handers) and was strong from start to finish in his first full season in the big leagues since 2010 when he made 71 appearances for the Rockies.

It was a pretty remarkable season for a guy who sat out all of 2012 following elbow surgery and put up a 4.36 ERA in 30 games for Triple-A Gwinnett in the Braves system in 2013, with lefties hitting .290 against him.

"It was great," Beimel said. "After last year, coming back and not feeling that good, to come into this season and early on I knew it was going to be a good year just because I was healthy and everything was feeling great. It was just one of those seasons that was pretty awesome."

Beimel and closer Fernando Rodney, another 37-year-old veteran, were the primary additions to a bullpen that had finished 29th out of 30 MLB teams with a 4.58 ERA the year before. Rookie Dominic Leone added a big boost as well, while Tom Wilhelmsen had a big bounce-back year.

And through it all, Beimel's cool outlook and gravelly voice of experience provided a steadying influence for a group that turned every game into a party in the 'pen, then proceeded to turn the lights out on the opposition once they were called on.

While Beimel -- who is the father of two teenagers -- brought a little more experienced point of view, he fit right into the bullpen antics.

"It's just been fun to come to the field every day and hang out with these guys," Beimel said. "We go out to the bullpen and it's never dull. We're serious in the times we need to be serious, but for the most part everybody is relaxed and joking around. We have our little chants and things we do out there, but when we get into the game it's time to go and everybody focuses.

"Pretty obviously we did such a great job this year a lot of that is a tribute to the relaxed atmosphere before you go into a game. You're not all tense and anxious."

Beimel's only regret was not getting back into the postseason. The ironman in the Dodgers' bullpen from 2006-08, he pitched six playoff games for Los Angeles in 2008 and Colorado in '09. The free-spirited lefty did everything in his power to get the Mariners into a Wild Card bid this year, including shaving his bushy beard after Seattle lost five in a row on its final road trip.

"I just wanted to change things up," Beimel said. "I went with the fu manchu for a couple days and that wasn't really working. So before we came back home, my wife was like, 'Can you at least shave for the last three games?' I said, 'You know what? You put up with that beard for nine months, all right, I'll shave it completely off.'

"I think she forgot how handsome I really am," Beimel said with a laugh. "I had to show the people of Seattle that I am a decent-looking guy."

Indeed, after pitching for seven organizations in the past seven seasons, Beimel would love to finally have a more permanent baseball home in Seattle if things fall into place in the coming days.

"This has been my favorite team that I've played on. The best group of guys," said the 12-year MLB veteran. "There's no reason to not want to come back."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Walker pitches another strong outing in Arizona Fall League

Right-hander fans six and allows two hits in five innings

Walker pitches another strong outing in Arizona Fall League

SEATTLE -- Mariners right-hander Taijuan Walker made his second straight strong start in the Arizona Fall League with five innings of one-run ball as the Surprise Saguaros lost a 7-4 decision to Salt River on Monday in Surprise, Ariz.

Walker, regarded as one of the top young pitchers in baseball, allowed just two hits with two walks, a hit batter and six strikeouts while throwing 77 pitches.

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Walker outpitched Salt River's Archie Bradley, the seventh overall pick in the first round of the 2011 Draft, as the 22-year-old Diamondbacks right-hander gave up five hits and three runs in three innings.

Walker, also 22, was the 43rd overall pick in 2010 as a compensation-round selection by the Mariners. He is expected to start six games and pitch about 25-30 innings in the AFL as the Mariners look to get him some extra work after he missed the first two months of the season with shoulder issues.

Walker has a 2.00 ERA in two AFL starts (two earned runs in nine innings) after going 2-3 with a 2.61 ERA in eight appearances for Seattle this past season and 7-4 with a 4.37 ERA in 16 Minor League outings.

Just as in his first AFL game, Walker wound up with a no-decision after turning a lead over to his bullpen. This time Surprise coughed up a 4-1 advantage as Salt River scored six times in the top of the seventh off Padres prospect Tayron Guerrero.

Surprise is now 3-3 after the first week of the 32-game season. Mariners position prospects D.J. Peterson, Patrick Kivlehan and John Hicks all played in Monday's outing as well. Peterson was 0-for-4 and is now batting .231 as the team's primary third baseman. Kivlehan played first base again and went 1-for-4 with a walk to put his average at .238, while Hicks was 0-for-3 with a walk and run scored as the young catcher is hitting .273.

Matt Brazis, one of three Mariners relievers on the staff, replaced Guerrero with two outs in the seventh and gave up a hit and Guerrero's final run before ending the six-run uprising with a strikeout. Brazis then retired the side in order in the eighth with two more strikeouts.

Center fielder Rusney Castillo, who signed a seven-year, $72 million deal with the Red Sox out of Cuba in August, went 2-for-5 with an RBI double and leads Surprise with a .350 batting average in his first four games.

Each team in the AFL is made up of top prospects from five Major League franchises.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Mariners hope Saunders can stay healthy, play every day

Organization believes oft-injured outfielder has talent to be consistent starter

Mariners hope Saunders can stay healthy, play every day

SEATTLE -- After another season interrupted by various health issues, Michael Saunders isn't a lock to be the Mariners starting right fielder next year. Manager Lloyd McClendon and general manager Jack Zduriencik indicated as much last week at the team's season-ending press conference.

Between stints on the disabled list, Saunders primarily split playing time in 2014 with veteran Endy Chavez, rookie Stefen Romero and non-waiver Trade Deadline acquisition Chris Denorfia. But McClendon and most Mariners fans still believe Saunders can be a productive everyday player.

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Much of it depends on if he can avoid getting injured again, and that might ultimately be up to him, according to Zduriencik.

"Some are freak injuries. Some are things that just happen," Zduriencik said. "But some of these things need to be handled from a maintenance standpoint where he puts himself in a position to be able to compete through the course of a season."

Saunders' latest campaign was especially frustrating because he seemed on the verge of reaching his offensive potential, hitting .273 with eight home runs, 34 RBIs and a .791 OPS. But he only had 231 at-bats in 78 games because of a hyperextended left knee in May, a right shoulder injury in June and a strained left oblique in July. The latter two required stints on the 15-day disabled list.

While making his way back from the strained oblique, Saunders contracted a viral infection from his newborn daughter. He lost 12 pounds and had to continue rehabbing, spending time at the club's Spring Training facility in Arizona before eventually returning to the lineup in early September after missing close to two months of the Major League season.

"It's unfortunate. He was playing good for us, got hurt, came back, got sick," Zduriencik said. "He came back again and did some nice things, but I think what Michael has to do and has to answer to himself is, 'How do I prepare myself to play as many games through the course of 162 that I can possibly play without being set back by injuries?'"

When he played, Saunders, 27, competed well, and as Zduriencik pointed out, he finished on a high note, hitting two home runs and driving in six in his final 13 games. That included a 2-for-3, two-RBI performance in a 4-1 win over the Angels on the final day of the regular season.

"[It's] motivation to work hard this offseason and come back even better next year," Saunders said afterward.

McClendon, though, is the one who ultimately signs the lineup card. He wants Saunders, the club's 11th-round pick in 2004 First-Year Player Draft, to get stronger this offseason so he has a better chance to stay healthy.

"I'd love for him to be out there," McClendon said. "He's got to get in the weight room."

If he can stay on the field, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound native of Victoria, British Columbia, has the physical tools -- a strong arm, good speed and ability hit for power -- to be the team's starting right fielder. During his breakout season in 2012, he played 139 games, hit 19 home runs and stole 21 bases, all career highs.

Can he replicate or improve on that production?

"I think his numbers tell you that he is [a starting right fielder]. But the problem is he's not out there every day," McClendon said. "There's no better joy for a manager than to be able to write a name into the lineup every day. But when a guy is on the DL, it's tough. It throws everything out of whack."

This offseason marks Saunders' second year of arbitration eligibility, which means he should see a significant salary increase from the $2.3 million he earned in 2014. He isn't a free agent until 2017, which means the Mariners have the brunt of the bargaining power.

The front office plans to increase this year's nearly $107 million payroll. There is speculation the Mariners might try to sign a traditional slugging right fielder. Baltimore's Nelson Cruz, who led the Major Leagues with 40 home runs this season, will be a free agent. He almost signed with Seattle last year before negotiations between his camp and Zduriencik reportedly stalled.

The Mariners could also choose to non-tender Saunders a contract and avoid entering arbitration. In that scenario, he enters free agency and can sign with any team, including Seattle.

But as the roster's currently constructed, he still has a fair chance to land the starting right field job next season.

Denorfia is a free agent and hit just .195 in 32 games after coming over from the Padres at the Trade Deadline. Chavez batted .276 and played solid defense in 80 games after being recalled from Triple-A Tacoma, but he will be 37 next year and is also a free agent.

Romero, the organization's 2012 Minor League Player of The Year, was given a chance to lock down a spot in right field after an impressive Spring Training, but he posted a -1.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and a .192 batting average in 72 games as a rookie.

Saunders, meanwhile, finished the year with a career-high 2.4 WAR.

Is he part of the club's future?

"This has been a common question asked throughout the year," Saunders said. "My job is not to write the lineup, my job is to play when I'm in there, and I did to the best of my ability.

"I want to be an everyday guy."

Adam Lewis is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Walker solid, prospects make noise in AFL opener

Walker solid, prospects make noise in AFL opener

SEATTLE -- Taijuan Walker threw four innings of one-run ball and fellow Mariners prospect Patrick Kivlehan homered as the Surprise Saguaros opened the Arizona Fall League with a 5-4 loss to the Peoria Javelinas on Tuesday in Surprise, Ariz.

Walker, one of the top young arms in baseball, allowed five hits with no walks and five strikeouts in a 57-pitch start and left with a 3-1 lead. The Mariners would like the 22-year-old to get 20-25 innings of work in the AFL after missing the first half of this past season with shoulder problems that limited him to 120 1/3 innings overall, including 38 with Seattle.

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Walker was 2-3 with a 2.61 ERA in eight appearances for Seattle and 7-4 with a 4.37 ERA in 16 Minor League starts, with 14 of those coming with Triple-A Tacoma.

Kivlehan, a 24-year-old infielder who played football at Rutgers before getting drafted by the Mariners in the fourth round of the '12 Draft, opened his second AFL season with a 1-for-4 outing that included a solo home run in the third inning off Royals prospect Kyle Zimmer, the fifth overall pick in the '12 Draft.

Kivlehan split the '14 season between Class A Advanced High Desert and Double-A Jackson, hitting .295 with 20 home runs and 103 RBIs, with 104 of his 138 games coming at Jackson. Kivlehan played first base in Tuesday's game, with fellow Seattle prospect D.J. Peterson opening at third base and going 1-for-3 with an RBI double and a walk.

Peterson, Seattle's first-round Draft pick in '13, is the No. 49 rated prospect in baseball by MLB.com and was named Seattle's co-Minor League Hitter of the Year after putting up a .297 average with 31 homers and 111 RBIs in 123 games with High Desert and Jackson.

Catcher John Hicks, the Mariners' other position player on the Saguaros squad, went 1-for-3 with a walk and picked a runner off first base. Hicks, 25, split last season between Jackson and Triple-A Tacoma and hit a combined .290 with five homers and 47 RBIs in 81 games.

Right-hander Stephen Landazuri, one of three other Mariners prospects on the pitching staff, took the loss after giving up four hits and three runs in the eighth inning. The 22-year-old was 6-5 with a 4.33 ERA in 19 starts for Jackson this year.

The AFL consists of six teams, with each squad made up of prospects from five different Major League clubs. Each team plays 32 games through Nov. 13.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Hart opts for free agency ahead of schedule

Veteran battled hamstring, knee injuries on one-year contract with Mariners

Hart opts for free agency ahead of schedule

SEATTLE -- Veteran designated hitter Corey Hart declined an outright assignment to the Minor Leagues and elected to become a free agent on Monday, a week after being designated for assignment by the Mariners.

The move was expected after Hart was DFA'd in order to make room on the 40-man roster for first baseman Jesus Montero, who was activated off the suspended list the day after the regular season ended.

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Hart would have become a free agent at the conclusion of the World Series anyway, so the move merely speeds up the process for the 10-year Major League veteran, who struggled in his lone season with the Mariners on a one-year deal signed as a free agent last winter.

Hart, 32, hit .203 with six home runs and 21 RBIs in 68 games after signing a $6 million deal. The two-time National League All-Star spent a good part of the season on the disabled list with a hamstring strain and then knee issues after missing all of 2013 with the Brewers following microfracture surgeries to both knees.

Seattle's other free agents will be pitchers Joe Beimel and Chris Young, outfielders Endy Chavez and Chris Denorfia, catcher Humberto Quintero and designated hitter Kendrys Morales. Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez also becomes a free agent after spending the year on Seattle's restricted list following his decision to not report to camp last February.

Those players will be free to sign with any MLB team at the conclusion of the World Series.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Stars of tomorrow ready to shine as '14 AFL season begins

Stars of tomorrow ready to shine as '14 AFL season begins

Over its 23-year history, the Arizona Fall League has developed a reputation as a finishing school for baseball's top prospects. This year, once again, many of the game's best young players will gather in the desert, hoping to prove themselves in the same league that helped catapult Derek Jeter, Dustin Pedroia and Mike Trout to stardom.

When the AFL opens play Tuesday, the concentration of talent will again be readily apparent. Two of the three Opening Day games feature premium pitching matchups, and the third game is highlighted by two of the best shortstops in the Minor Leagues.

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The action begins at 3:35 p.m. ET when Peoria and right-hander Kyle Zimmer, the Royals' No. 2 prospect, visits Surprise and right-hander Taijuan Walker, whose last start was a complete game for the Mariners in the midst of their pennant race.

At the same time Tuesday afternoon, Glendale and shortstop Corey Seager, the Dodgers' No. 1 prospect, will host Mesa and shortstop Addison Russell, the Cubs' No. 2 prospect. The day ends with another pitchers' duel, as right-hander Tyler Glasnow, the Pirates' No. 1 prospect, will take the mound for Scottsdale at 9:35 p.m. ET at Salt River, facing right-hander Archie Bradley, the D-backs' No. 1 prospect.

Games with that level of talent are commonplace in the AFL, where 23 players ranked on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list will play this season.

For the second year in a row, Byron Buxton, baseball's top ranked prospect, is among the top prospects playing in the desert this fall. Last year, the Twins' No. 1 prospect hit .212/.288/.404 in 12 games as a 19-year-old for Glendale. This year, he will be playing for Salt River as he tries to make up for lost time after missing most of the regular season due to injuries.

Buxton played in just 31 games during the regular season. A wrist injury he suffered during Spring Training delayed his start to the season and continued to hamper him throughout the first half with Class A Advanced Fort Myers. Then, in his first game after being promoted to Double-A New Britain in August, he suffered a concussion in a harrowing outfield collision and was sidelined for the final three weeks of the season.

Now healthy again, Buxton will be one of the most-watched players in the AFL. But his is far from the only storyline to watch over the next six weeks.

Making up for lost time
Like Buxton, several other players are headed to Arizona to make up for time they lost to injury during the regular season. Others who are taking advantage of the extra developmental time include outfielder Jesse Winker, the Reds' No. 2 prospect, and shortstop Tim Anderson, the White Sox's No. 2 prospect.

Many of the starting pitchers in the AFL are there because injuries prevented them from reaching their innings caps during the regular season. Bradley, Glasnow, Zimmer and Walker all spent part of this season on the disabled list, as did right-handers C.J. Edwards, the Cubs' No. 5 prospect, and Roberto Osuna, the Blue Jays' No. 5 prospect.

Recent Draft picks
Last year, just four months after he was selected second overall in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, the Cubs sent third baseman Kris Bryant to the AFL. He hit .364/.457/.727 with six home runs in 20 games. He was named MVP and helped Mesa to the league championship game. That performance helped serve as a springboard for his historic '14 season, when he hit 43 home runs and reached Triple-A.

It is unlikely any player will be able to repeat Bryant's spectacular performance this season. But three members of the '14 Draft class will play in the AFL, led by shortstop Trea Turner, the Padres' No. 5 prospect. He was selected 13th overall in June and hit .323/.406/.448 with five home runs and 23 stolen bases in 69 games between short-season Eugene and Class A Fort Wayne.

In addition to the small group of '14 draftees, several members of the '13 Draft class will play in the AFL. Right-hander Mark Appel, the first overall pick last year, headlines the group. The Astros' No. 2 prospect had a rocky start to his first full professional season, but pitched much better after his promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi in July. He will try to build on that progress while pitching with Salt River this fall, where he joins Bradley and Buxton to form one of the most star-studded rosters in the league.

Pace of play
Major League Baseball announced last week a set of experimental rules designed to speed up the pace of play would be used in the AFL this year.

• A hitter must keep one foot inside the batter's box throughout his plate appearance, unless one of a few exceptions, such as a foul ball, occurs.

• Intentional walks will be called for by the manager and the batter will automatically take first base.

• There will be a maximum break of two minutes, five seconds between innings, with hitters required to be in the batter's box by the one-minute, 45-second mark. If either team doesn't comply, a ball or strike will be assessed accordingly.

• There will be a maximum of two minutes, 30 seconds allowed for pitching changes, including those that occur during an inning break. A ball will be called if a team takes too long.

• Each team will be permitted three "timeout" conferences covering any meeting involving pitchers and catchers, managers, coaches and batters. Timeouts during pitching changes and those that result from an injury or other emergency will not be counted toward the limit. Additionally, at Salt River home games, a 20-second pitch clock will be used. Those games will also include instant replay, as MLB continues to study potential modifications to the review system.

The experimental pace of play initiatives continue the AFL's tradition of being a testing lab for MLB's potential rule changes. Last year, the instant replay system was debuted in the AFL.

Defensive moves
Position changes often happen in a less-competitive environment than the AFL, but the league gives players who are moving around the diamond another chance to get experience.

This year, Josh Bell, the Pirates' No. 3 prospect, will be the most prominent player learning a new position. He has exclusively played the outfield in the Minor Leagues, but the Pirates already have a star-studded trio of young outfielders in the big leagues. So, this fall, Bell will try out first base, where he began taking ground balls during the regular season.

Although Peter O'Brien, the D-backs' No. 7 prospect, won't be changing positions when he catches for Salt River this fall, his progress defensively will be closely watched by evaluators. The 24-year old was a catcher in college, but has played four positions since the Yankees drafted him in the second round in '12.

The D-backs acquired O'Brien at the non-waiver Trade Deadline in exchange for Martin Prado, but injuries limited him to four games with his new club. The D-backs are sending him to the AFL as a catcher, and how he performs behind the plate over the next six weeks could inform his ultimate defensive home.

No matter where O'Brien ends up defensively, his offensive prowess gives him a chance to reach the Major Leagues. He hit 34 home runs in 106 games this season, ranking fifth among Minor Leaguers.

MLB.com's Top Prospects in AFL
1. Byron Buxton, OF, Twins
4. Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians
5. Addison Russell, SS, Cubs
9. Archie Bradley, RHP, D-backs
13. Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers
16. Tyler Glasnow, RHP, Pirates
29. Josh Bell, 1B, Pirates
38. Raul Mondesi, SS, Royals
40. Jesse Winker, OF, Reds
41. Mark Appel, RHP, Astros
47. Kyle Zimmer, RHP, Royals
49. D.J. Peterson, 3B, Mariners
53. C.J. Edwards, RHP, Cubs
60. Brandon Nimmo, OF, Mets
71. Hunter Renfroe, OF, Padres
82. Tim Anderson, SS, White Sox
84. Nick Williams, OF, Rangers
85. Daniel Robertson, SS, A's
86. Hunter Dozier, 3B, Royals
87. Miguel Almonte, RHP, Royals
88. Dalton Pompey, OF, Blue Jays
96. Trea Turner, SS, Padres
98. Matt Olson, 1B, A's

Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Mariners: A look at the numbers in 2014

Mariners: A look at the numbers in 2014

SEATTLE -- Numbers, numbers, numbers. Baseball loves 'em, and so do we. Here's a look back at some interesting numerals from the Mariners' 2014 season:

87: Manager Lloyd McClendon racked up the second-most wins ever by a Mariners skipper in his first season, with only Bob Melvin's 93-69 debut in 2003 exceeding McClendon's 87-75 mark. As it stands at the moment, McClendon is the only Mariners manager besides Lou Piniella with an overall winning record during his Seattle tenure. McClendon never won more than 75 games in a season in his five years with the Pirates from 2001-05.

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57.1: The percent of challenges that McClendon won in MLB's first year of instant replay. The Mariners challenged 35 calls and had 20 overturned. Those numbers were very close to the MLB average of 34.8 challenges per team, with 18.7 decisions overturned for a 53.6 percent success rate for all 30 teams, based on numbers tallied on BaseballSavant.com.

The Yankees had the highest success rate of any MLB team at 82.1 percent, as they had 23 of 28 plays overturned. The Blue Jays had the lowest success rate at 33.3 (16 out of 48). The Cubs issued the most challenges (getting 25 of 56 overturned), while the A's used the fewest challenges (14 of 25).

2:54:49: The average time for the Mariners' nine-inning games this season was the fastest of any team in MLB. Seattle also had the lowest average time for home games at 2:53:40 and for all games, including extra-inning affairs, at 2:58:33. Perhaps other teams should take notes on the Mariners' pace as the average for a nine-inning MLB game this year was 3:02:21, about three and a half minutes longer than last year's 2:58:51.

This is the first year the average length of an MLB game has exceeded three hours, but the time of games has been gradually increasing over the last 30 years. In 1981, the average was 2:33. By '91, that had hiked up to 2:49, and it grew to 2:54 by 2001. Some adjustments lowered the timing slightly through the next decade, but now the time has trended upward for the last five years, which is why baseball is looking into ways to speed things up with some experimental rules during this offseason's Arizona Fall League.

$106.7 million: The Mariners final 2014 player payroll, with $95.7 million going to 55 players who spent time on the 40-man roster, $5.1 million in performance bonuses, $4 million for pro-rated signing bonuses (Felix Hernandez, Dustin Ackley and Danny Hultzen) and $1.9 million to buyouts for 2014 contract options that were declined (Joe Saunders, Franklin Gutierrez and others).

$2.975 million: Veteran right-hander Chris Young earned that figure in performance and roster bonuses with his outstanding comeback season, as he signed a team-friendly $1.5 million base contract that had lots of incentives built in based on number of starts, innings and time on the Major League roster. Young reached almost all his potential bonuses, leaving only $500,000 on the table if he'd been able to pitch 15 more innings. As it was, his 29 starts and 165 innings were both the most he'd posted since 2007.

16: Seattle's 16-win improvement from 2013 was the third-biggest jump by a Major League team this year, behind only the Angels' 20-game hike from 78 to 98 wins and the Astros' 19-win leap from 51 to 70. The 16-win step forward was the fourth-best in franchise history.

Plus-80: The Mariners had the sixth-best run differential in the Majors and scored more runs than they allowed for the first time since 2003. Of the nine-leading teams in run differential, Seattle was the only one that didn't make the postseason.

.262: Though the Mariners finished 14th in the American League in batting average at .244, they were fifth in the AL with a .262 batting average with runners in scoring position. That was a huge step forward from the .228 mark in 2013, and it was the best for a Seattle club since '07.

Batting averages with RISP for all Mariners with 40 or more at-bats: Robinson Cano, .339; Logan Morrison, .303; Kyle Seager, .301; Endy Chavez, .294; Michael Saunders, .280; Brad Miller, .256; Austin Jackson, .250; Corey Hart, .245; Ackley, .233; Mike Zunino, .214; Justin Smoak, .210; Kendrys Morales, .191; Stefen Romero, .167; and James Jones, .164. Morales led the team in 2013 at .312.

19: The Mariners set a club record for times being shut out, the most by any AL team since the 1981 Blue Jays.

.190: The cumulative batting average for Seattle's designated hitters, which ranked as the worst in the AL by 25 points. Take the DH out of the mix and the Mariners team batting average would have climbed from .244 to .250.

Seattle's DHs combined for 15 home runs and 50 RBIs with a .190/.266/.301 slash line. The league average was .249/.319/.424 with 23 home runs and 83 RBIs. A year earlier, when Morales had a strong season, Seattle's DHs hit .265/.333/.448 with 25 home runs and 79 RBIs.

1,121: Zunino caught the second-most innings of any AL catcher, trailing only Kansas City's Salvador Perez.

3.17: The Mariners shattered their franchise record for team ERA, posting the fifth-lowest number for an AL team for a full season since the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973. The previous club record was 3.54 in 2001. The bullpen went from 29th in the Majors in '13 at 4.58 to first at 2.59, which is the second-lowest AL relief mark since 1990, and it smashed the club record of 3.04 set in '01. The starting pitchers also set a Mariners record at 3.48, breaking the previous mark of 3.67 in '90.

82: While pitching got most of the publicity, the Mariners helped themselves defensively as well, as their 82 errors were the lowest in the AL. Their .986 fielding percentage was the third-best in franchise history, and Seattle improved from minus-97 defensive runs saved in 2013 to minus-2 in '14, the best team improvement in the AL.

2.14 Final AL-leading ERA of Hernandez, the lowest by an AL starting pitcher since Pedro Martinez's 1.74 in 2000. Hernandez's 0.92 WHIP was also the lowest by a qualified AL starting pitcher since Martinez in the same '00 Cy Young Award-winning season.

152: Days until the 2015 regular-season opener, when the Mariners host the Angels on April 6 at Safeco Field.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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McClendon impressed by Miller's strong stretch run

Shortstop overcame rocky first half to become steady bat in Mariners lineup

McClendon impressed by Miller's strong stretch run

SEATTLE -- Here's a trivia question sure to stump even the most hardcore Mariners fans: What two Seattle players had the highest slugging percentages after the All-Star break this year?

If you're going with Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager or Logan Morrison, try again. And while some might correctly come up with Dustin Ackley, whose strong second half put him at a team-leading .476 slugging percentage after the break, most would be hard-pressed to identify shortstop Brad Miller at No. 2 with his .464 mark.

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Miller nearly worked his way off the roster with a rough start to his first full season in the Majors. He was hitting .151 two months in, with an equally woeful .230 on-base percentage and .247 slugging percentage as of May 27. And even after a strong June, he was still batting just .199 on Aug. 7, before things finally started clicking.

After losing his starting job for a time to rookie Chris Taylor, Miller rebounded well enough to earn back the majority of the starts at short in the final six weeks. He hit .314 in September to raise his final average to .221 with 10 home runs and 36 RBIs in 367 at-bats.

While it wasn't the cumulative output Miller and the Mariners hoped for, the recovery and finish left manager Lloyd McClendon intrigued again by the aggressive and potent bat wielded by the 24-year-old when he's squared away.

While McClendon said he would like to have an everyday shortstop coming out of Spring Training next year, he admits there is no clear favorite between Miller and Taylor after watching the two split time, with both playing well down the stretch.

"That's a great question and I don't know if I really have the answer right now," McClendon said. "I thought Taylor played extremely well defensively. I'm still intrigued about what Miller is capable of doing from an offensive standpoint. I guess to answer your question, yeah, it's probably wide open."

McClendon does feel Miller has other options besides shortstop, however. While Willie Bloomquist is expected to be recovered from microfracture knee surgery by spring and has one more year on his contract, Miller might be a younger version of Bloomquist. Miller has the athletic ability to compete in the outfield as well.

"I think in terms of Taylor, he's probably a pure shortstop," McClendon said. "With Miller, he's intriguing because of the bat. He has the ability to play the outfield, to play a little third, first, second. He's a very interesting guy and I think there'll be a lot of discussion over whether he becomes that super utility guy."

Miller has never played in the outfield other than in a handful of games on a regional All-Star team in Florida as a teenager, but he did some pregame work with outfield coach Andy Van Slyke late this season and drew rave reviews.

"[Van Slyke] said he was a natural," said McClendon. "An absolute natural. With the workouts he had, he really impressed. He has the ability to turn and go to the ball without looking at it. Obviously, we know his arm plays. His speed plays. He's made for the outfield because he runs wild as [heck]. He can't hurt anybody out there. So we'll see. It's interesting."

No matter what the Mariners decide, they'll find a willing worker in Miller, who maintained a positive approach even through his first-half struggles in 2014.

"I learned a ton about myself, about how the league works and everything," said the 2011 second-round Draft pick. "I'm continuing to learn."

Miller said his problems were never mental, just some mechanical issues he needed to straighten back out at the plate.

"I think I just got out of whack," he said. "I tried to do some things that weren't me. I wouldn't say I was pressing. We all try. We all really care. People were telling me to keep my head up. I felt like my head was always up, I was going to battle and working hard. I had to realize, 'OK, this is my style. This is me.' Sometimes it's easier said than done to really trust in what you've been doing. But I just had to get back to trusting myself, so that's definitely a big takeaway from the year."

McClendon likes to say that every player fails at some point, and the key is how they get back up off the mat and learn from those struggles. For Miller, the trial by fire was intense in his first full season as a starter, but his recovery speaks volumes.

"I put myself in a pretty big hole," he said. "I look at the end of the year and I'm like, 'Shoot, I saw .150 at one point.' We're in the big leagues and this isn't life or death, we're getting to play a game. But for a baseball player, we love this. This is our life. And when you look on the scoreboard and see .150, that's about as close to the bottom as you can get. So yeah, I think it's a process, definitely.

"Seeing these guys, seeing Cano -- he's been doing this for 10 years. Obviously, he came in and hit the ground running, but it was a process for him, too. Guys don't just show up and be Miguel Cabrera. It's definitely a process and a journey and I just kind of take that in stride and wear it as some armor. Hey, I was at .150 and I battled back and was able to contribute. So that's huge."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Mariners set sights on postseason run in 2015

Returning core gives Seattle reason to hope for October baseball next season

Mariners set sights on postseason run in 2015

SEATTLE -- After achieving just their third winning season in the past 11 years, the Mariners have raised the stakes for 2015. And that's exactly what manager Lloyd McClendon hoped to accomplish when he took over as Seattle's skipper last winter and set about changing the franchise's direction.

Adding Robinson Cano to a young nucleus last year did wonders for a club that chased its first postseason berth since 2001 all the way to the final day of the season. There are now far more pieces in place going forward and a firmer idea of what it'll take to make the postseason a reality.

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The Mariners sent a message this past year by bringing in Cano and should have an easier sales pitch now as they pursue the type of talent that can make that final difference as free agents know the club will be competitive in the tough American League West.

"I think it gave us that instant respectability and it certainly opened up the doors, particularly with the success we've had this year, where other guys will be interested in coming to this organization," McClendon said of Cano's impact. "And a lot of that should be credited to him."

The Mariners appear in very good shape heading into 2015, with almost all of this year's club returning and a budget that should have some flexibility even with the huge contracts of Cano and Felix Hernandez, who will both make $24 million next year.

General manager Jack Zduriencik added not only Cano this past year, but an All-Star closer in Fernando Rodney, a quality center fielder in Austin Jackson and a promising young first baseman in Logan Morrison. Coupled with the continued maturation of third baseman Kyle Seager, catcher Mike Zunino and left fielder Dustin Ackley, the Mariners have far fewer question marks this offseason.

And a club that fielded one of the best pitching staffs in baseball -- both with its rotation and bullpen -- appears to have a wealth of options and potential trade chips, as well as the ability to attract veteran hurlers who have seen pitchers like Chris Young and Joe Beimel resurrect their careers in Seattle.

Cano, who played on seven playoff teams with the Yankees, feels the Mariners are on the verge of turning that corner after improving by 16 wins to 87-75 and will benefit greatly from going through this year's stretch run.

"Guys have never been in this situation, guys have never won here," he said. "Guys are going to get better and better. For next year now they know at the beginning that we can fight. You look around at some lineups like the Angels, you've got all those guys who can hit homers, a lot of RBIs. You look at our lineup, we got young guys that want to be in the big leagues. Sometimes you say you're never going to have a chance. Well, you realize at the end of the season that you have a chance. I know they're going to go home and prepare themselves to get better and just fight from the beginning."

All said, it should be a very interesting offseason for Zduriencik and a Mariners organization that has spent the last few years laying the foundation and can now target a few more critical pieces to fit in with that group, with the obvious need being to improve the offense enough to take full advantage of one of the best group of arms in baseball.

Here's how the Mariners look heading into the offseason:

Arbitration-eligible: OF Dustin Ackley, LHP Charlie Furbush, OF Austin Jackson, 1B Logan Morrison, OF Michael Saunders, 3B Kyle Seager, 1B Justin Smoak (has team option already), RHP Tom Wilhelmsen.

Free agents: LHP Joe Beimel, OF Endy Chavez, OF Chris Denorfia, OF Franklin Gutierrez (restricted list), OF/DH Corey Hart, 1B/DH Kendrys Morales, C Humberto Quintero, RHP Chris Young.

Rotation: The Mariners pitching appears very solid going forward, with Hernandez under contract through 2019, Hisashi Iwakuma under a club option for $7 million next year and youngsters James Paxton, Roenis Elias and Taijuan Walker all under club control for another five seasons. Chris Young pitched well on a one-year deal and likely created some opportunities for himself on the free agent market with his best season since 2007.

Bullpen: Much like the rotation, the relief crew should return largely intact as closer Fernando Rodney has one more year on a deal that pays him $7 million a season and the rest of the crew is primarily young players under team control. Veteran left-hander Joe Beimel is the only reliever who'll be a free agent and he says he'd love to return. There's been some thought to giving Tom Wilhelmsen a shot at a starting role, but that's mostly a testament to the depth of arms and his versatility. Hard-throwing right-handers Danny Farquhar, Yoervis Medina, Dominic Leone, Brandon Maurer and Carson Smith are all pre-arbitration eligible, while Wilhelmsen and lefty Charlie Furbush will again get raises in arbitration, but are also under team control.

Catcher: The Mariners appear set behind the plate for the foreseeable future with Zunino, the third overall pick in the 2012 Draft, who advanced quickly up the ladder and took over full-time starting duties this year. Zunino didn't hit for much of an average, but he supplied significant power while breaking the club record for most home runs by a catcher and, far more importantly, was outstanding defensively and working with a pitching staff that put up some of the best numbers in the league. Jesus Sucre earned a midseason callup to replace veteran John Buck and was strong defensively as well, while the club has another promising young backstop coming up in John Hicks, who finished the year with Triple-A Tacoma.

First base: Logan Morrison took over first-base duties in midseason from Justin Smoak and supplied some pop and clutch hitting in the final two months and looks like he'll figure in next year's plans either at first base or DH. Morrison still has three years of arbitration eligibility, but Smoak may have run out of chances and is a candidate to be non-tendered as he's under a club option for his final year of arbitration. D.J. Peterson, the club's 2013 first-round Draft pick, played mostly third base this season while having a big year at Class A and Double-A, but could be given a shot to compete at first base next spring. The free-agent market appears thin, though Adam LaRoche of the Nationals could be available unless both sides agree on a $15 million mutual option for 2015.

Second base: With Cano under contract another nine years, second base won't be much of a question in Seattle as long as the six-time All-Star remains healthy. Cano was everything the Mariners expected in his first season, both at the plate and with the glove. Veteran utility infielder Willie Bloomquist is under contract another year, though he's coming back now from microfracture knee surgery that will sideline him until next spring.

Shortstop: Brad Miller and Chris Taylor split time this season and both are young and under team control for another four or five years. It's not out of the question that Seattle would pursue a veteran shortstop if the right opportunity arose, but both players have good upside and gained valuable experience in 2014. McClendon said ideally he'd like to come out of Spring Training with one everyday starter at the position, so that figures to be an interesting battle unless one is used as a trade chip over the offseason. J.J.Hardy and Stephen Drew are among the potential shortstops available on the free-agent market.

Third base: Seager not only took the next step and became an All-Star for the first time while leading the club in RBIs and home runs, but he also developed into a Gold Glove-caliber defender who now seems entrenched as the team's third baseman for years to come. The only offseason question here is whether the two sides pursue a long-term contract to cover Seager's three upcoming arbitration years as well as possibly a year or two beyond that to ensure his future in Seattle.

Outfield: Zduriencik acquired a quality center fielder in Jackson at the Trade Deadline and he's under team control for another year in his last season of arbitration. Ackley made good progress in left field as he successfully transitioned from second base, though the Mariners would like to see him get off to a better start after early struggles again this season. Michael Saunders has two more seasons of arbitration and can play any of the outfield spots, while veteran Endy Chavez becomes a free agent after once again filling a nice role after signing a Minor League deal. Rookie James Jones added a big speed element and could force his way into the picture at one of the corner spots if he takes another step next year, while veteran Chris Denorfia is a free agent after being acquired in midseason from the Padres.

Designated hitter: The Mariners again figure to be looking for help at this spot after finishing last in the AL in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage among all DHs. Corey Hart signed a one-year deal last winter, but wasn't healthy enough to provide the hoped-for boost after missing all of 2013 following two knee surgeries. Kendrys Morales was re-acquired by trade in July, but he'll also be a free agent again and didn't produce nearly the same numbers in his shortened season after turning down some pretty significant contract offers from Seattle last offseason. Victor Martinez of the Tigers will be the premier free-agent hitter on the market and has considerable history with McClendon, so that one bears watching, though the 35-year-old will be a popular target in many cities after batting .335 with 32 homers and 103 RBIs, and Detroit won't let him go easily.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Mariners enter offseason with fewer areas of need

McClendon, Zduriencik excited to build on 16-win turnaround from 2014

Mariners enter offseason with fewer areas of need

SEATTLE -- Lloyd McClendon would love to be heading to work at the ballpark on Wednesday instead of flying home to Indiana to begin his offseason, but the Mariners manager knows how far his club came this year and is already brainstorming ways to get better in 2015.

McClendon and general manager Jack Zduriencik met with the media Tuesday for a season wrapup. They expressed frustration over finishing one game shy of Seattle's first playoff berth since 2001, pride in the 16-win improvement that was made this year and a commitment to doing whatever is needed to take that next step.

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"The day the season ended, I was excited about Spring Training and the possibilities because we do have a lot of pieces in place and we have a lot of questions that were already answered," McClendon said. "There are a lot more things we can concentrate on as far as getting this club ready. I've said it time and time again this year, we're a little challenged offensively and Jack is committed to going out and acquiring the pieces we need, and we'll see how that fits in as the spring goes. But I'm really excited about next year."

Zduriencik said he had not had a sit-down meeting with CEO Howard Lincoln to discuss an exact 2015 payroll, but that Lincoln has already indicated the budget will increase. That's critical for a club with two high-ticket players already on board, with Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano each owed $24 million next year, and a number of players figuring to get increases in the arbitration process.

"We'd like to add some offense and a starting pitcher," Zduriencik said. "We'll explore every option."

McClendon acknowledged that designated hitter is an obvious place to upgrade after veterans Corey Hart and Kendrys Morales both struggled in that role. He said the biggest priority is finding a right-handed bat to plug in behind Cano in the cleanup spot.

Does he feel the lineup is one hitter away from turning the corner?

"I'll take three or four," McClendon said with a smile. "If you look at real good lineups, you're taking about three, four, five, six that are very legit, and we've got to get to that point. I'm looking for at least two bats."

The club is set at far more positions going into next season, with Cano at second, Kyle Seager at third, Mike Zunino behind the plate, Dustin Ackley in left and Austin Jackson in center. McClendon feels Jackson is a much better hitter than he showed in his two months in Seattle and needs to get stronger physically as well as work on some swing mechanics that got out of whack.

McClendon also said shortstop is wide open between Chris Taylor and Brad Miller, indicating that Miller could be an option as a super utility player after showing excellent natural instincts working in the outfield late in the season with outfield coach Andy Van Slyke.

Logan Morrison intrigues McClendon as well with his strong second half, though first base, the corner outfield spots and DH were mentioned as the most-logical target areas for an offensive upgrade. But again, those needs are far more refined now.

"Last spring we didn't know who our left fielder, center fielder, right fielder, first baseman or shortstop were going to be," McClendon said. "We have a lot of those answers now. I like where we are. I think we're going to be able to accomplish some more specific things in Spring Training."

Prospect D.J. Peterson, the club's 2012 first-round Draft pick, had a strong year in Class A and Double-A and will be given a chance to compete at first base in the spring. And the addition of Cano and dramatic improvement of the club's win-loss record could change veteran free agents' perceptions of Seattle this winter.

Convincing pitchers to come to Seattle has never been a problem with the advantages of Safeco Field, and the Mariners will pursue at least one veteran starter to slide into a rotation that returns Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Roenis Elias and Taijuan Walker, with Chris Young hitting free agency following his outstanding comeback season.

Zduriencik said he'd wait and see on Young's situation, as well as all the free agents. Reliever Joe Beimel has indicated a strong desire to return, and that interest is mutual as the Mariners' bullpen led the Majors in ERA and has nearly all parts returning.

Both Zduriencik and McClendon indicated Tom Wilhelmsen most likely will remain in the bullpen, though that will be discussed over the offseason. Danny Hultzen threw well in Arizona on Tuesday and is expected to be ready by next spring, though he can't be counted on as a legitimate rotation candidate after missing all of 2014 with shoulder surgeries.

For the most part, it appears a far different offseason from last year, when Zduriencik was hiring a new manager and staff and looking to fill numerous roster holes. The puzzle now is mostly filled in, with just a few specific pieces to target.

"That's what we've been building for, trying to get to a place where your core group is in place and now you're picking and choosing as opposed to trying to put together a whole ballclub or whole bullpen or whole staff," Zduriencik said. "We're in a better position now than we've ever been."

"We improved 16 games in the win column," said McClendon. "Not many teams do that. From that standpoint, it was quite remarkable. But you look and analyze and realize you could have been better in some areas. You have to try to clean it up, because one game hurts. One game here or there and we could be playing tonight. It's bittersweet.

"We're not satisfied with the year we had. We're pleased with the improvements we made. But in the end, we want to win a World Series. And I think everyone would agree this organization is headed in the right direction."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Hultzen throws well in instructional league finale

Lefty misses 2014 to shoulder surgery; shut down until Spring Training

Hultzen throws well in instructional league finale

SEATTLE -- Left-hander Danny Hultzen, who missed the season following rotator cuff surgery on his left shoulder, threw well in his third instructional league outing of the past few weeks on Tuesday and will be shut down until next spring, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said.

Hultzen, the second overall pick in the 2011 Draft, had major shoulder surgery exactly one year ago on Oct. 1 and spent all this season building his arm back up and rehabbing at the Mariners facility in Peoria, Ariz. He capped off that effort with a 25-pitch outing in a game against young prospects in front of many of the Mariners' top baseball people, and reports were positive.

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"They said it was really impressive," Zduriencik said. "He feels really good and is now shut down. He's finished for the fall. He showed an average fastball, really good curve and changeup. He was confident and his delivery is sound. So he'll go home and come back in January and be ready for Spring Training."

Will the 24-year-old be full go at that point?

"He should be," Zduriencik said. "We were real cautious. There was some talk of putting him in the Fall League, but we're going to back off a little. This kid has been through a lot this year. The fact he's been on the mound in instructional league is enough. There'll be a challenge for him next year regardless of how he reports physically, where is he going to be innings-wise after missing a whole year like this."

Manager Lloyd McClendon is maintaining a conservative approach, knowing the youngster threw just 35 2/3 innings in 2013 and then missed all of this season. But he's encouraged by the news as well.

"I'm excited about him," McClendon said. "And we'll see going into spring. Listen, is he going to make this club next year? Probably not. But is he on his way back? Yeah. And that's exciting because this young man is as good as any of them when he's healthy. We just have to get him back to that point where he can go out and compete every five days.

"We're not counting on him, no. But having said that, it's going to be pretty exciting to see him out there on that mound, no question."

In other Mariners postseason news:

• None of the club's Major League players are expected to need any surgeries heading into the offseason, though outfielder Dustin Ackley will be seeing a specialist to determine what might be done to help his troublesome left ankle. McClendon said outfield coach Andy Van Slyke will be having surgery to repair a knee issue that forced him to the bench in the final months as Chris Woodward took over as first-base coach.

• Left-hander Roenis Elias is doing fine after being shut down late in the season with some elbow soreness. He'll spend the offseason at his home in Texas and do the normal throwing program before reporting to camp next spring.

Taijuan Walker will pitch a few games in the Arizona Fall League, but James Paxton won't throw competitively this offseason after returning for the season's final two months, Zduriencik said.

• McClendon said his entire coaching staff will be returning next year. John Stearns, who stepped down as third-base coach just prior to Spring Training after having hiatal hernia surgery, will remain in the organization in a scouting role, according to Zduriencik.

• Butch Baccala, the national cross-checker involved in the Jesus Montero incident in September, has been dismissed by the club. Devitt Moore, who was working as an area scout for the Mariners this season, will be promoted to take Baccala's position.

• Montero returned to the 40-man roster Monday as he was taken off the suspended list. Zduriencik said Montero will spend the offseason in Arizona with his wife and child.

"He's there now going through a program that should help him in many areas, on the field and off," Zduriencik said. "He'll be at the complex every day. He's working out twice a day right now and will be under our supervision most of the winter. Hopefully the negative here turns out to be a positive."

Zduriencik said about 10 young Mariners will likely play winter ball in Venezuela. He doesn't expect Montero to be one of those, "but let's wait and see. There's other issues we need to deal with there first."

• Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, who spent the past year on the club's restricted list, has expressed some interest in returning.

"He's in Florida, working out. He has some interest in coming back next year. We're going to talk to him and we'll see what happens," Zduriencik said. "He left in a good frame of mind. We'll have to see where it's at, but he's spoken to our guys more than once about his desire in coming back next year. It would be as a non-roster player."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Cano, Felix lead impressive Mariners turnaround

Standout year from second baseman brought Seattle to brink of postseason

Cano, Felix lead impressive Mariners turnaround

SEATTLE -- After the Mariners signed Robinson Cano in December, the questions began ringing out. Why would Cano go to Seattle? What difference will one star make for a franchise that hadn't been to the postseason since 2001?

But the first season for Cano in the Pacific Northwest proved to be a resounding success as the game's premier second baseman helped lead a Mariners revival that took a team nobody expected much from in the spring to the brink of a Wild Card berth with an 87-75 record.

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This was a Mariners club that turned a lot of things upside down, proving capable of winning in the toughest of circumstances. Seattle posted its second-best road record in franchise history at 46-35 and finished 45-32 against teams with winning records at the time they played as opposed to 42-43 against sub-.500 clubs.

They pushed for a postseason berth all the way to the final day of the season, a huge step forward for a club that went 71-91 the year before and hadn't won more than 75 games since 2009.

Felix Hernandez had another big season, perhaps his best yet in an outstanding 10-year career, and the Mariners pitching staff posted the best ERA in the American League at 3.17. Without question, those arms carried the club as a strong rotation was bolstered further by a bullpen that went from 29th in ERA among MLB's 30 teams in 2013 to first in 2014 while closer Fernando Rodney set a new club record with an AL-leading 48 saves.

New manager Lloyd McClendon did a superb job handling his pitching staff, pushing all the right buttons with his bullpen and squeezing the most out of a rotation that was without standout right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma for the first month, rising rookie sensation James Paxton for nearly four months and never got the hoped-for contribution from top prospect Taijuan Walker until the final two weeks of the season.

Setting the tone for the turnaround from top to bottom was Cano, who brought his easy confidence into the clubhouse and on the field and became a natural leader for a young group hungry to share his success.

"Great players have the ability to make other players better," McClendon said. "Robbie does that. On and off the field he's been a joy to be associated with. He's been a class act and there's no doubt that he's helped the organization immensely."

McClendon feels Cano had a big impact on young third baseman Kyle Seager, who stepped up with his first All-Star season and led the club in home runs and RBIs, while Cano led the team in batting average and on-base percentage while anchoring the lineup from the No. 3 spot.

There were some spectacular moments in 2014 -- including Austin Jackson's go-ahead hit highlighting a five-run rally with two outs in the bottom of the ninth for a huge win at Fenway Park in late August, Logan Morrison's game-winning home runs in two games during Seattle's final road trip and a walk-off win in the 11th inning against the Angels in Game 161 -- that kept the club in playoff contention to the final day.

There were big contributions from some unexpected rookies, with southpaw Roenis Elias winning 10 games, James Jones leading the club in stolen bases, Paxton providing a huge late boost with his return and relievers Dominic Leone, Brandon Maurer and Carson Smith adding quality depth to the bullpen.

And there were senior moments as well from key veterans like outfielder Endy Chavez, reliever Joe Beimel and right-hander Chris Young, who signed just before the start of the regular season after being released by the Nationals and turned into one of the best comeback stories in baseball by going 12-9 with a 3.65 ERA.

But the biggest surprise, of course, was that this Mariners club put everything together so quickly in McClendon and Cano's first year, raising the bar immediately on both the level of play in 2014 and what the future holds as well.

"We're pretty close," said Cano. "Like I said when I first signed here, there's such great young talent, guys that are going to be superstars. The bullpen did a great job, the starting rotation, I mean sometimes it doesn't end the way you want, but we fought all the way to the end."

Record: 87-75, third in American League West

Defining moment: Seager's three-run walk-off home run on April 23 against the Astros snapped an early eight-game losing streak that had Seattle on the verge of a 7-14 start to the season. McClendon points to surviving that skid while still believing in themselves as the turning point in a season that saw the Mariners go 78-62 the rest of the way. And Seager, who was hitting .156 with no home runs and two RBIs in the first 20 games, wound up batting .281 with 25 homers and 94 RBIs over the rest of the season.

What went right: The huge offseason signing of Cano paid instant dividends as he provided a strong presence in the lineup, in the field and in the clubhouse. … Hernandez had the best season of his outstanding career, leading a pitching staff that put up the best ERA in the American League. … Iwakuma overcame a finger injury that cost him the first month and again was one of the top right-handers in the league. … Young signed a one-year deal just days before the start of the season and put together an excellent campaign and the rookie Paxton came on late after recovering from a shoulder injury to provide a huge boost to the rotation, along with Elias after being promoted from Double-A. … Solidified by the signing of veteran closer Rodney, the bullpen went from 29th in the league in ERA in 2013 to first in 2014. … Seager took another step forward and became an All-Star third baseman. … The offseason acquisition of Morrison paid off as the first baseman put together a strong second half and proved to be one of the team's top clutch hitters. … Catcher Mike Zunino developed into a defensive stalwart in his first full season and led all AL catchers with 22 home runs. … McClendon provided a strong presence and calming influence on a club that took a huge step forward in his first season.

What went wrong: Several youngsters expected to make strong contributions never got going and wound up losing their jobs fairly early in the year. Center fielder Abraham Almonte was sent down to Tacoma and eventually traded away after a tough first month, first baseman Justin Smoak lost his job to Morrison and Nick Franklin was traded after losing out on the shortstop battle to Brad Miller and then not hitting when he was called up briefly on two different occasions. … DH Corey Hart was signed as a free agent to provide a right-handed threat to a lefty-leaning lineup, but he never really got on track or fully healthy after missing all of 2013 with knee problems. … Despite the addition of Cano, the offense didn't make as big a step forward as hoped and still needs to be more productive -- particularly at Safeco Field -- to support the outstanding pitching.

Biggest surprise: Given he hadn't pitched a full season since 2007 and hadn't been in the Major Leagues in more than a year, it was hard to know what to expect when the Mariners signed Young to a one-year deal after he was released by the Nationals at the end of Spring Training. Seattle really was looking mostly for early help while Iwakuma and Walker were sidelined by spring injuries, but the big right-hander stepped into Seattle's rotation and was outstanding for most of the season and figures to earn strong consideration for AL Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Hitter of the Year: Cano. While a very strong case could be made for Seager, given he led the team in home runs and RBIs, Cano had a huge impact on the lineup -- and opposing pitchers -- as he was plugged into the No. 3 spot in the order and gave the Mariners instant impact and credibility. Cano ranked sixth in the AL in batting average (.314) and on-base percentage (.382). And while his power numbers were down from his typical Yankees production, he led Seattle in doubles as well as OPS and was the Mariners' first .300 hitter since Ichiro Suzuki in 2010.

Pitcher of the Year: Hernandez. The 28-year-old is regarded as a strong favorite to win his second AL Cy Young Award after putting up his best season yet at 15-6 with an AL-leading 2.14 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. Hernandez was the AL starter in the All-Star Game for the first time and ripped off a Major League record string of 16 straight starts of seven or more innings while allowing two or less runs. He set a career high with 249 strikeouts and led a pitching staff that kept Seattle in the playoff chase all year.

Rookie of the Year: Paxton. While fellow lefty starter Elias pitched the full season and racked up more innings and wins and played a part in Seattle's success, Paxton proved a huge factor once he returned from a shoulder injury that cost him four months. The 25-year-old posted the fourth-lowest ERA ever for a Major League pitcher in his first 15 starts, dating back to last September, and appears poised to be a major contributor to the club's future.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Felix bolsters Cy credentials with ERA crown

Felix bolsters Cy credentials with ERA crown

SEATTLE -- There was no way Mariners fans were going to hold back when ace right-hander Felix Hernandez exited for a final time this season.

As Hernandez, 28, walked off the Safeco Field mound on Sunday, all those who gathered to see if he could help Seattle force a postseason play-in game stood and frantically waved their yellow rally towels while chants of "FE-LIX! FE-LIX! FE-LIX!" rocked the stadium.

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They kept it going until Hernandez emerged from the dugout for a curtain call.

"That was awesome. That was really good," Hernandez said. "I just got a chance to thank the fans for all their support all year. I love being here. I love the fans."

Hernandez did more than his part on Sunday to extend Seattle's season, holding the visiting Angels to one hit and striking out seven over 5 1/3 shutout innings en route to a 4-1 win.

But manager Lloyd McClendon opted to lift him shortly after the Athletics beat the Rangers, eliminating the Mariners' chance to force a Game 163 tie-breaker.

In what was arguably the most important start of Hernandez' career, he retired 16 of 17 hitters before exiting after just 68 pitches.

"Felix is a heck of a competitor, and you know, truthfully, he wasn't at full strength today. There was no talking him out of starting this game," McClendon said. "He really didn't want to come out in the sixth. I just said, 'To heck with it, I'm going to get him.'

"I was surprised he gave me a hug. I thought he'd probably hit me."

Despite the outcome of the season, Hernandez has reason to celebrate. He entered Sunday with a 2.18 ERA, one-hundredth of a point higher than White Sox left-hander Chris Sale. He ended it at 2.14 to take the AL ERA title and set a club record.

It's the lowest ERA of his career.

He finished 2014 with a 15-6 record and a career-high 248 strikeouts. During an incredible stretch through the summer, he set a Major League record by pitching at least seven innings and allowing two runs or fewer in 16 consecutive starts.

After struggling the past three Septembers, he went 2-1 with 1.66 ERA in six starts over this season's final month, as the Mariners pushed but ultimately fell short of making the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

"We're all disappointed, but you know what? We just have to learn for next year, how close we got," Hernandez said. "We just have to work harder for next year, and we're going to be there."

Perhaps most important, Hernandez rebounded after allowing eight runs (four earned) in a blowout loss to the Blue Jays in his penultimate start of the 2014 season.

So is "The King" deserving of his second AL Cy Young?

"You think I'm crazy?" McClendon said after being posed the question. "Yeah, he should win the Cy Young."

Adam Lewis is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Mariners activate Montero off suspended list

Hart designated for assignment to make room for Montero

Mariners activate Montero off suspended list

SEATTLE -- Veteran designated hitter Corey Hart was designated for assignment by the Mariners on Monday in a move necessitated by the activation of first baseman Jesus Montero off the suspended list.

Montero had to be returned to the 40-man roster the day after the end of the regular season following his suspension by the club on Sept. 1. That put the Mariners at 41 players on their Major League roster, so Hart was designated for assignment.

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Hart would have become a free agent after the end of the World Series, along with Seattle's other pending free agents, so the move just speeds up his process of being able to negotiate with teams.

Seattle's other free agents will be pitchers Joe Beimel and Chris Young, outfielders Endy Chavez and Chris Denorfia, catcher Humberto Quintero and designated hitter Kendrys Morales. Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez also becomes a free agent after spending the year on Seattle's restricted list following his decision to not report to camp last February.

Hart, 32, hit .203 with six home runs and 21 RBIs in 68 games after signing a one-year deal. The two-time National League All-Star spent a good part of the season on the disabled list with a hamstring strain and then knee issues after missing all of 2013 with the Brewers following microfracture surgeries on both knees.

Montero, 24, was on an injury rehab assignment with Class A Everett for a strained oblique muscle when he got into a verbal altercation with Mariners scout Butch Baccala at a Northwest League game. The Mariners then placed him on the suspended list for the remainder of the season.

Baccala was pulled off his scouting duties at that time by general manager Jack Zduriencik and has since been dismissed by the organization.

Montero spent most of the season with Triple-A Tacoma where he batted .286 with 16 home runs and 74 RBIs in 364 at-bats in 97 games. He played six games for the Mariners and had one home run and two RBIs with a .235 average in 17 at-bats.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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McClendon: 'Our future is very bright'

McClendon: 'Our future is very bright'

SEATTLE -- In the big picture, the Mariners surprised a whole lot of folks by taking their push for an American League Wild Card berth to the final day of their first season under new manager Lloyd McClendon.

Admittedly, that big picture might take a little time to come into focus, given the immediate disappointment of a frustrating stretch run that saw the Mariners lose 12 of their last 21 games to let their first playoff shot in 13 years just slip from their grasp. Despite finishing on a four-game winning streak, the Mariners' hopes officially ended on Sunday, when the A's clinched the final berth with a 4-0 victory in Texas, making moot Seattle's 4-0 win over the Angels an hour later.

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But McClendon and his players know that a foundation was laid this season, and there were plenty of smiles and hugs and handshakes as the Mariners gathered for one last time following Sunday's game.

"You can always say 'coulda, woulda, shoulda,'" McClendon said. "It just was not in the cards for us. I think this was a tremendous learning experience for this club. They took a tremendous step forward, and we'll be better. We've got a lot of work to do, and we're going to start rolling up our sleeves and getting it done."

Though the Mariners hung in the race until the last day, mathematics eliminated any miracle. The A's and Royals grabbed the two AL Wild Card berths and will play on Tuesday in Kansas City while the Mariners pack their bags and await next spring's return to Peoria, Ariz.

"It's kind of a tough pill to swallow, coming one game short," said All-Star third baseman Kyle Seager. "It's a long season, for 162 games, and we played meaningful games the whole time, which is a big improvement. But it kind of sends you into the offseason really wanting to work hard and get ready for next season."

Despite the pain of losing some critical games in September, going 87-75 overall was a large leap for a club that went 71-91 in 2013 and hadn't enjoyed a winning season since 2009.

"I think that's a tremendous step forward," McClendon said. "Particularly for where we've come from when I took this job. Are we there yet? Are we where we want to be as far as being that quality championship club year in and year out? No. There's a lot of work that still has to be done. But it sure is a step in the right direction."

Most promising is the fact that the Mariners should bring back almost the entire core group next season. Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez are early into long-term deals, Hisashi Iwakuma and Fernando Rodney have another year on their contracts, and the rest of this season's group consists largely of young players still under team control.

The only free agents are veteran pitchers Chris Young and Joe Beimel, designated hitters Kendrys Morales and Corey Hart, outfielders Endy Chavez and Chris Denorfia, and third-string catcher Humberto Quintero.

With Hernandez and Iwakuma joined by promising rookies Roenis Elias, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, the rotation should be strong and deep again. And that doesn't even take into account 2012 first-round Draft pick Danny Hultzen, who is throwing well in Arizona as he recovers from shoulder surgery that caused him to miss all of 2014, or the possibility of converting Tom Wilhelmsen to a starting role or adding further through free agency.

The AL's best bullpen also figures to be well stocked, with only Beimel no longer under contract from a group that added several hard-throwing rookies in midseason in Brandon Maurer and Carson Smith. And Beimel said on Sunday that he's already told general manager Jack Zduriencik he'd love to return, and Young also indicated that he'd like to rejoin the rotation if things work out.

Clearly, the offseason focus will again be on adding offense, but McClendon said that playing tough games in a playoff chase this season should help everyone be better going forward.

"No question," he said. "And not just the younger players. All of us should be better. Your past should prepare you for your future, and I believe this will prepare us for our future. And our future is very bright."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Mariners victorious but fall shy of Wild Card berth

Mariners victorious but fall shy of Wild Card berth

SEATTLE -- Felix Hernandez did his part on Sunday, but the Mariners didn't get any final-day favors from their Texas friends, and Seattle fell one game short of forcing a tiebreaker for the second American League Wild Card berth.

The Mariners topped the Angels, 4-1, with Hernandez winning both the game and the AL ERA title by throwing 5 1/3 scoreless innings. But the A's, despite losing 16 of their final 25 games, hung on to the final playoff spot by beating the Rangers, 4-0, in Arlington to finish 88-74.

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Seattle wrapped up manager Lloyd McClendon's first season with an 87-75 record, a 16-win improvement over 2013. It's the franchise's first winning mark since 2009, just the third winning season in the past 11 years and the best record since an 88-win effort in 2007.

The finish was bittersweet for the Mariners, who were cheered from start to finish by a crowd of 40,823 even after the A's finished off their game with Seattle still in the fifth.

"Obviously, this was a very emotional day for a lot of reasons," McClendon said. "But when I took the job, I said I thought this was a golden era for the Seattle Mariners, and they haven't let me down. And I think it's only going to get better. I'm excited. My unit out there is excited. They're a little disappointed right now, but they had a heck of a year."

The Safeco crowd groaned in unison when the A's final score was posted, then gave a standing ovation in appreciation for the team's efforts in taking the drama all the way to the final day.

"That was one of my proudest moments," McClendon said. "I thought it said a lot about our fans."

Hernandez, 28, who gave up eight runs (four earned) in 4 2/3 innings in his previous start in Toronto, bounced back with a dominant outing against the Angels, allowing just one hit with no walks and seven strikeouts. He made his case for a second AL Cy Young Award, finishing 15-6 with a 2.14 ERA and a career-high 248 strikeouts in 236 innings.

Chris Sale of the White Sox held the ERA lead, at 2.17, before Hernandez's final outing gave him his second AL ERA title and the lowest ERA of his career.

Michael Saunders laced two run-scoring doubles and catcher Mike Zunino delivered a two-run single to give Hernandez a four-run lead before he was replaced by Brandon Maurer one out into the sixth, after the A's had clinched the berth. McClendon exchanged a big hug with Hernandez, who then tipped his cap to the roaring crowd during a slow exit from the field.

"That was awesome," Hernandez said. "That was really good. I just got a chance to thank the fans for all their support all year. I love being here. I love the fans. That was really great."

Hernandez said that pitching with a potential playoff berth on the line for the first time in his 10-year career took him to a new level.

"All my starts, I'm trying to give 100 percent," he said. "But today was more fun. We're trying for a spot in the playoffs, and I was just trying to go out and do my thing. It was good."

McClendon sent Brad Miller as a defensive replacement for Robinson Cano midway through the sixth inning, allowing the fans to toast their new first-year star as well. Cano called his first season in Seattle "a great experience" despite ending a game shy of the playoffs.

"It was great to see our fans -- not only myself, but with the way they [sent] Felix out of the game -- they really appreciate what we've done and they know we fight, we battle, we want to give that to the city," Cano said. "Things didn't end the way we want. Sometimes, things happen. So maybe next year we'll be a better team and end up in first place. You never know."

The Mariners put some heat on the A's by winning their final four games, but in the end, a tough stretch in mid-September in which they went 4-11 -- a span that ended with a five-game losing streak -- proved too much to overcome.

First baseman Logan Morrison finished his strong September with a 2-for-4 day and two runs scored. Morrison hit .342 with 15 runs, five home runs and 11 RBIs in 24 games in the final month to lift his final average to .262.

Cano went 1-for-3 to finish his first season in Seattle with a .314 average, the first .300 hitter for the Mariners since Ichiro Suzuki in 2010. Kyle Seager went 0-for-4 in the finale but finished with team leads in both home runs (25) and RBIs (96).

The Angels finished with the best record in the AL, but skipper Mike Scioscia gave a tip of the cap to the Mariners even as his team heads to the playoffs.

"They had a great season," said Scioscia. "Once they got their rotation back, with [Hisashi] Iwakuma and [James] Paxton, their bullpen became shut-down. They're going to be tough. It shows how tough our division is, for as well as Seattle played to not get in the playoffs, and they're going to be tough again next year. We have our work cut out for us."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Mariners 11-inning win kept them alive for final day

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Mariners 11-inning win kept them alive for final day

With the Mariners' elimination number down to one, any combination of an Athletics victory or a Mariners loss would end Seattle's postseason hopes. But after the Athletics lost 5-4 to the Rangers earlier in the evening, the M's still had a chance. They would just need to beat the Angels.

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Cano, Hernandez, Young honored

Cano, Hernandez, Young honored

SEATTLE -- With the regular season winding to a close, a few Mariners were honored in a ceremony staged by the Baseball Writers' Association of America minutes before Friday night's series opener against the Angels.

There were no surprises.

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Second baseman Robinson Cano was named the Player of the Year, American League Cy Young candidate Felix Hernandez earned Pitcher of the Year honors and veteran right-hander Chris Young was given the Unsung Hero Award.

The Mariners began Friday two games behind the Athletics in the race for the second American League Wild Card spot.

They likely wouldn't be in position to make the playoffs at all if it weren't for the contributions of all three players.

The Mariners made arguably the game's biggest free-agent acquisition last offseason, when they signed Cano to a 10-year, $240 million contract. He's responded with a productive first year in the Emerald City that included his fifth consecutive All-Star appearance.

Cano entered Friday with a .318/.384/.460 slash line, 14 home runs, 82 RBIs and a career-high 10 stolen bases in 154 games. After finishing 71-91 and struggling to score in 2013, the Mariners needed a true middle-of-the-order presence, and Cano has filled that role admirably as the No. 3 hitter while mentoring some of the younger hitters.

Meanwhile, Hernandez has been the ace of a rotation that began Friday with a 3.54 ERA, third in the AL. Even after allowing eight runs over 4 2/3 innings against the Blue Jays in his most recent start, "The King" is among the favorites to win the AL Cy Young Award.

In 33 starts this season, Hernandez is 14-6 with a 2.34 ERA over 230 2/3 innings, and he set a Major League record by pitching at least seven innings and allowing two runs or fewer in 16 consecutive starts (May 18 to Aug. 11).

He is scheduled to start against the Angels on Sunday on the final day of the regular season.

"Felix is fine. He's a champion. He's very disappointed in his outing," manager Lloyd McClendon said after Hernandez's last outing. "He'll be ready Sunday."

Then there is Young.

Signed late in Spring Training after being released by the Nationals, the six-foot-10 right-hander proved perfect for a Seattle club needing a pitcher to fill the back end of its rotation.

Young is 12-9 with a 3.65 ERA in 29 starts (30 appearances) after battling assorted shoulder injuries for the past five seasons. He did, however, wear down toward the end of the season, and when he gave up seven runs in three innings last week against the Astros, McClendon chose to take him out of the rotation.

"Chris has done a tremendous job for us this year," McClendon said. "To think he's won as many games as he's won and gone out there as many times as he's gone out there, coming off the type of surgery that he had, I think it's just tremendous. I'm not sure we'd be in the position we're in now if not for him."

Worth noting: Third baseman Kyle Seager on Friday was given the Mariners' Heart and Hustle Award, presented by the Major League Baseball Players' Alumni Association.

Adam Lewis is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Mariners announce Minor League Awards

Mariners announce Minor League Awards

SEATTLE -- Double-A Jackson third baseman D.J. Peterson and first baseman/outfielder Jordy Lara are the 2014 Mariners' Minor League Co-Players of the Year, the club announced on Friday.

Peterson, a first-round pick in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, batted .297 with 31 home runs and 111 RBIs in 123 games split between Jackson and Class A High Desert. He was one of five players in the Minors to hit at least 30 home runs and drive in 100 or more runs.

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Lara was no slouch, either, batting .337 with 26 home runs and 104 RBIs in 135 games between High Desert and Jackson.

The Minor League Unsung Hero Award went to outfielder/first baseman Patrick Kivlehan. Like Lara and Peterson, Kivlehan split the year between High Desert and Jackson. He hit .295 with 20 home runs, 103 RBIs and 84 runs in 138 games.

Shortstop Ketel Marte received the Heart and Soul Award after hitting .304 in 128 games between Jackson and Triple-A Tacoma, while the Rainiers' Jordan Pries (10-8, 3.86 ERA) and Class A Clinton's Edwin Diaz (6-8, 3.33 ERA) were named Minor League Co-Starting Pitchers of the Year. Right-hander Matt Brazis (4-1, 2.36 ERA), who pitched for High Desert and Jackson, took home the Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Year Award.

Adam Lewis is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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