Strong core simplifies offseason agenda

Strong core simplifies offseason agenda

SEATTLE -- Jerry Dipoto has built a deserved reputation as a general manager who likes to wheel and deal, but even he admits this offseason shouldn't be quite as busy as last year, when the Mariners made more moves than any team in baseball in restructuring their roster.

The Mariners' core certainly will remain intact around the quartet of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and Felix Hernandez, but Dipoto and manager Scott Servais now have a much better grasp of their players and what they've got going forward.

"I feel great about our team," Servais said. "I like the makeup of our club, I like how we play -- certainly the competitive fire we played with at the end was great to see, and that will carry into next year."

Seattle's resurgent '16 ends just short of playoffs

Dipoto certainly won't be idle this winter, but will look primarily to upgrade where possible and continue building the roster depth that proved so necessary this past season. He noted that this year's pitching staff had one of the lowest ERAs in the American League despite using a record number of hurlers.

"We didn't do it with performances from one star, we did it with contributions from 31 guys," he said. "We've built depth, and along the way we came up with a younger foundation of players to start building with for the next generation of Mariners teams.

"Guys like Ben Gamel and Dan Vogelbach and the progress made by Taijuan Walker in the last month really can't be undersold. James Paxton on the year in general, Mike Zunino overall. There are so many positive things that happened over the course of the year that to focus only on the fact we fell a game short of the playoffs wouldn't be fair to the season we had in total."

Arbitration-eligible: CF Leonys Martin, RP Vidal Nuno, SP Paxton, RP Evan Scribner, C Jesus Sucre, RP Nick Vincent, SP Walker, RP Tom Wilhelmsen.

Free agents: OF Franklin Gutierrez, 1B Adam Lind, RP Drew Storen, OF Norichika Aoki, OF Seth Smith (club holds $7 million option), C Chris Iannetta (club holds $4.25 million option).

Rotation: The five starters who finished the year for Seattle will all return next season, barring trades, as Hernandez is under contract through 2019, Hisashi Iwakuma pitched enough innings this year to have his option for 2017 automatically renewed and Paxton, Walker and Ariel Miranda still have at least four years of team control before they come free agents.

Nathan Karns, who started the year in the rotation, will also return after closing out the season on the DL with a back injury. That gives Dipoto a strong foundation and while he'll likely add organizational depth to that mix, he won't need to expend big resources toward starting pitching.

Hernandez no longer was a dominant ace at age 30, but he and Iwakuma give the Mariners a pair of experienced veterans atop the rotation. Paxton and Walker both have the potential to be No. 2-type starters if they can perform more consistently at their top level.

Bullpen: Edwin Diaz's emergence as a flame-throwing closer certainly bolsters the bullpen situation going forward. The late-season promotion of Dan Altavilla, another power right-hander, offers another young arm to the mix.

Most of the relief crew remains under contract, with Steve Cishek back on the second year of a two-year deal and the rest of this year's primary contributors -- Wilhelmsen, Nuno, Vincent, Scribner and late-season additions Arquimedes Caminero and Pat Venditte -- all under team control.

Storen will be a free agent and decisions will also need to be made on whether to tender contracts to Wilhelmsen and Scribner, who are each entering their final seasons of arbitration eligibility. And Tony Zych could face surgery on his shoulder this offseason after closing the year on the DL, which clouds his availability for next spring.

Bullpens are usually the most volatile part of any roster, and Dipoto certainly spun the dial frequently in resetting that group this year, but like the rotation, it doesn't appear to be an area of nearly as much turnover as we saw last winter.

Catcher: Zunino appears to be the man going forward after his midseason promotion. The 25-year-old hit very well upon arrival from Triple-A Tacoma, but then tailed off offensively in the final month. But the 2012 first-round Draft pick is strong defensively, works well with the pitching staff and offers good power at the plate. He wound up hitting only .209 despite his promising start, but his power potential and upside give the Mariners reason for optimism.

It seems unlikely that Iannetta will be brought back on his $4.25 million option, but Dipoto could well pursue another similar veteran type to team with Zunino and offer some competition at that spot. Sucre had a nice September in a limited role and provides some needed depth.

First base: Dipoto traded lefty Mike Montgomery to the Cubs for Daniel Vogelbach in late July because he felt Vogelbach could be part of a long-term solution at first base, with Lind likely departing in free agency. Vogelbach didn't hit much in his very limited exposure in September and needs work defensively, but he'll get a much better opportunity to show what he can do next spring.

Dipoto likely will bring in a veteran of some sort to provide some depth and insurance, but the question is whether he looks for a proven starter and lets Vogelbach continue to develop or rolls the dice on the youngster and just supplements him with a right-handed platoon option like Lee was this season with Lind.

Second base: Cano has seven years and $168 million remaining on his contract and isn't going anywhere. Cano could eventually be moved to first base when he gets toward the end of his deal, but he played well defensively this season now that he was back to full health, and he figures to be a fixture again next year at age 33.

Shortstop: This almost surely will be an area Dipoto looks to bring in a veteran after 22-year-old Ketel Marte couldn't repeat the considerable promise he flashed in his rookie season in 2015. Dipoto tried to trade for Reds veteran Zack Cozart at the Trade Deadline and Cozart -- who has one year remaining on his deal -- could still be on his radar.

But Dipoto has all winter to look for creative solutions -- and he's shown a willingness to wheel and deal -- so we'll have to wait and see where this one goes. Marte certainly remains a solid option for the future, so don't write him off. Shawn O'Malley surprised the new brass with his ability to play shortstop, but his value clearly is viewed as a utility player who can fill any role in the infield or outfield.

Third base: This one also is locked down for the next five years, with Seager taking another step forward offensively and providing a key piece in the middle of the lineup. Seager's contract will start growing considerably now that he's hitting what would have been his final arbitration year, and he'll make $10.5 million next year before kicking up to $18.5 million in 2018. Though overshadowed by Cano and Cruz, Seager had an outstanding year at the plate and was a big run producer in the No. 5 spot in the lineup.

Outfield: Along with shortstop and first base, outfield figures to be the other area of focus for Dipoto. While Martin has a lock on the center-field duties and appears to be one of the cornerstones going forward, the corner spots could change dramatically. Smith seems a good bet to be brought back at his reasonable $7 million option figure in right field, but he'll need a platoon partner again, and it remains to be seen if there's interest in bringing Gutierrez back one more time in that role.

Aoki also becomes a free agent, so left field could undergo a change, though he impressed with his late-season run. Dipoto acquired Gamel in August and he was used primarily for defensive purposes along with Guillermo Heredia. Neither produced much offensively, but Gamel is the type of athletic, high on-base type outfielder that Dipoto is pursuing, and the club is also high on Heredia's potential.

The one intriguing Minor League prospect to ponder is Tyler O'Neill, who is ranked No. 2 in the Mariners' system and had a big season for Double-A Jackson, making large strides toward raising his on-base skills to supplement a strong power game. He might still be a year away, but the Mariners will give him a better look next spring to see how he might fit in.

Designated hitter: Cruz shifted almost entirely to the DH role in the second half, and at 36 years of age, this figures to be his primary duty in the final two years of his contract. And after exceeding 40 homers for a third straight year and putting up 105 RBIs, he certainly fills that bill quite well.

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.