Everyone wants to know which free agents might help the team, but I'm curious as to which returning player you think holds the biggest key to a Mariners' turnaround.
-- Alex O., Tukwila, Wash.
I'll go with two players, as I think Justin Smoak and Franklin Gutierrez are both critical pieces for next season who are capable of much better production. I expect Smoak to use this offseason to really get himself in better physical shape for the 162-game grind. The way Mike Carp improved himself a year ago by getting quicker and stronger over the winter was not lost on Smoak, who should be one of the productive middle-of-the-order bats the Mariners need.
As for Gutierrez, his health obviously has been a huge problem for the past year and a half. He needs to regain strength and weight now that his stomach issue has been diagnosed. The guy is one of the best center fielders in the game, but he didn't hit with any sort of power last season, even when he finally started warming up before his oblique injury in September. The Mariners need offensive help everywhere, and if Gutierrez gets back to the player who hit 18 home runs with a .764 OPS in 2009, it would be a huge lift.
Which prospects currently in the Minor Leagues do you expect to make the roster next Opening Day?
-- John B., Chesterfield, U.K.
That's a tough question, John, because nearly all of the Mariners' top Minor League prospects were already elevated to the big league club last season. There isn't an obvious Dustin Ackley or Michael Pineda waiting in the wings, because they're already up, along with a number of guys like Alex Liddi, Kyle Seager, Trayvon Robinson, Carlos Peguero, Greg Halman and Blake Beavan, who were probably brought up before they were really ready.
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I do think young starting pitchers Danny Hultzen, Erasmo Ramirez and James Paxton will be given a good look in Spring Training, but I'm not about to project any of them making the Opening Day roster at this point. Too much depends on how quickly they develop and whether Seattle adds any free-agent pitching.
Do you think the Mariners will look to upgrade the offense at shortstop? Brendan Ryan has a great glove, but no bat.
-- Todd B., Everett, Wash.
I wouldn't rule out offensive upgrades at any position, but it would surprise me if it came at shortstop, where Ryan is under contract for a reasonable $1.75 million for next year. Ryan was special defensively, and a hustle guy who fit in well his first season with manager Eric Wedge. And though he didn't have a great year at the plate, he was far from the club's biggest issue. His .313 on-base percentage ranked fourth among the club's regulars at year's end, ahead of Ichiro Suzuki (.310), among others.
Though the starting middle-infield tandem of Ryan and Jack Wilson was pretty light offensively at the start of last season, I would think a combo of Ryan and Dustin Ackley is much easier to live with, given the defense Ryan brings at that key position.
What would you think of David Ortiz as the designated hitter for Seattle next year?
-- Frank S., Spokane, Wash.
I think that most of the big-name, big-money free agents are extreme long shots for the Mariners, since such players as Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and Jose Reyes are looking to land with teams that are in immediate contention and not a rebuilding effort. But Ortiz is an interesting case, I'll give you that.
Ortiz talked last week about perhaps wanting out of all the "drama" in Boston. And though he sounded more interested in the Yankees, surely Seattle would be a significant shift in scenery. So if the Mariners go kicking tires on a big bopper, Ortiz is worth a shot.
Ortiz turns 36 next month, but he hit 29 home runs and recorded 96 RBIs last season with a .953 OPS, so he's shown no decline yet. He's played 52 games at Safeco during his career and hit .278 with 11 doubles, 12 home runs, 31 RBIs, .278/.389/.545 with a .934 OPS. That's very similar to his career averages of .283/.378/.544 and .922 OPS, so he's a guy who wouldn't fear the Safeco factor.
So if you're going to toss out a three-year, $30 million type scenario, I think Ortiz could be a great get. Who knows if Big Papi would even ponder coming to Seattle at this point in his career, but it's more realistic to me than thinking the Mariners might outbid the field for Fielder.
Do you think a risk will be taken signing a free-agent DH again, or will that spot be used to rotate and rest players while giving extra players more playing time in the field?
-- Patrick M., Federal Way, Wash.
Wedge noted this year that if a player is going to strictly be a DH for him, the guy better be something special at the plate. If the Mariners sign a free-agent left fielder, then Carp could be a full-time DH candidate. But unless a legitimate bopper is brought in somewhere, I suspect it'll be a rotation scenario that could include Carp and more of Ichiro as well.
What happened to Matt Mangini, who was on the inactive list in the Minors at the end of the season?
-- Ed Q., Kalamazoo, Mich.
Mangini was released by the Mariners on Aug. 23 after leaving the Tacoma Rainiers for personal reasons. The 25-year-old was having another good season with the bat (.336 with 41 RBIs in 58 games) after missing the early part of the year with hamstring problems. The Mariners remain interested, but it's not clear if Mangini wants to keep playing baseball, and at this point he is a free agent.