Prior to a year in which they are expected to contend, the Seattle Mariners have a few key decisions to make during the offseason.

Seattle finds itself in the rare position of trying to win now rather than building toward the future. The last two times the Mariners were coming off a winning season (2007 and 2009), they made disastrous signings and trades that resulted in poor records the following year.

While the Mariners won’t lose too much from their 2014 roster, they do need a few upgrades to be a playoff team in 2015. Seattle needs a better offense and will have to think carefully about a few free agents or trades over the winter.

Most of the Mariners’ biggest decisions this offseason will revolve around the offense, but Jack Zduriencik and Company will look carefully at the entire roster to try and build a contending team.


What to Do with Michael Saunders

The biggest news coming out of Seattle this offseason has revolved around Saunders.

At the Mariners’ wrap-up press conference, both Zduriencik and manager Lloyd McClendon claimed that Saunders needed to do more to keep himself healthy over the course of the season, via Colin O’Keefe of Lookout Landing. Then, in an interview with 1090 The Fan (via CBS Seattle), Saunders’ agent said that he was “frustrated” with the comments and that the team lacked communication with his client.

The relationship between the Mariners and Saunders is fractured, meaning the team will have a big decision to make regarding him this offseason. Saunders is the most talented outfielder on the team and put up a 1.9 WAR in just 78 games but has been injured far too often during his career.

Seattle could choose to move in a different direction and try to trade Saunders, although that could end up being a huge mistake with little outfield depth behind him. The Mariners also may look for a reliable backup to start in place of Saunders two or three times per week in order to keep him off the disabled list.

Either way, the Mariners must decide what Saunders’ future role on the team will look like.


Which Risky Free-Agent Slugger Is Worth It?

Club president Kevin Mather told 710 ESPN that payroll will increase in 2015. That means the Mariners will look at some free-agent signings likely to upgrade the designated hitter position, which produced all of minus-2.1 WAR in 2014.

While they are far from the only options, the Mariners will be connected with three free agents throughout the offseason: Victor Martinez, Nelson Cruz and Billy Butler—if the Kansas City Royals decline his $12.5 million option.

All three could help the Mariners, but they each carry a significant risk.

Martinez is about to turn 36 (Dec.) and will be expensive after coming off the best offensive season of his career. Any suitor would have to expect Martinez’s numbers to trend downward, but he could still be a huge factor in the middle of Seattle’s lineup by just matching his career 125 wRC+ over the next couple of seasons.

Cruz will turn 35 next year and will also be looking for a multiyear contract. While Cruz won’t hit 40 home runs in Seattle and his skill set may be more prone to decline than Martinez’s, he could help the Mariners for at least the next two years.

Butler is coming off the worst season of any of the three but has not yet turned 29. He will be cheaper than the other two and might be worth a flier to see if he can return to his 2009-2013 form, when he posted no worse than a 117 wRC+.

Any one of those three could be the missing piece to Seattle’s lineup, but they all could backfire down the road.


How Much Outfield Help Do the Mariners Need?

The Mariners currently have the pieces to form a starting outfield, but all three potential members have some questions heading into 2015.

Saunders’ future in Seattle is a complete question mark at this point. Even if he enters the season as the starting right fielder, the Mariners will need a capable backup in case Saunders heads to the disabled list again.

Who knows if the Mariners will have the Dustin Ackley of the first half (76 wRC+) or the second half (123 wRC+)? Even Austin Jackson will be monitored closely into next season after struggling mightily since coming to Seattle at the trade deadline.

Assuming Chris Denorfia and Endy Chavez are gone, the Mariners will need outfield depth, but they must decide what type of player to bring in. Seattle could choose to bring in a fourth outfielder-type who could start if needed or target a bigger name like Melky Cabrera.


Is the Rotation Set?

Much like with the outfield, the Mariners could form a starting rotation with the current roster in 2015 but may decide to add some depth.

Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are locked in at the top of the rotation, while James Paxton looks very good through his first 17 career starts. As it stands now, Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias would occupy the last two rotation spots.

Both have great potential, but that’s asking a lot out of two young pitchers, particularly the 22-year-old Walker. Paxton, Walker and Elias also have some health concerns, so the Mariners will likely decide to add some depth unless they trust Erasmo Ramirez to fill in. 

The easiest decision for the Mariners to make would be to bring back Chris Young on a short incentive-laden deal, which would be beneficial for both parties. If Young ends up elsewhere, Seattle will have to choose between moving forward with what it has or adding a mid-level starter.


Who Are the Trade Chips?

With a relatively weak market, the Mariners may have to make some trades to add offense. They must decide what positions are strong enough to trade assets from while also balancing the present and future.

One position the Mariners will have to make a decision at is shortstop. Both Brad Miller and Chris Taylor received playing time last year, while the 21-year-old Ketel Marte has risen fast through the minors and looks to have some value.

The Mariners may be content to let Miller and Taylor battle for playing time out of spring training. If they do commit to one (likely Miller), the other could end up on the trading block.

Another position Seattle has some depth at is relief pitcher. While having a shutdown bullpen was a big part of the Mariners’ success in 2014, trading someone whose value is currently at a peak like Brandon Maurer for some offense could be worth it.


All stats via FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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