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Updated Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 12:16 AM

Mariners will have a new look, but a winning season is far from guaranteed

By Geoff Baker
Seattle Times staff reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. — Michael Saunders took a pause from swatting baseballs deep into the outfield in order to offer up his assessment of how productive this Mariners winter has been.

"Things are going to be different this year," he said. "There's no way you can look at this lineup and think things are going to stay the same."

Saunders was taking batting practice here last week with about a dozen other players, getting in some workouts before the start of spring training. Camp opens for pitchers and catchers with physicals on Tuesday, then on-field workouts Wednesday before the rest of the position players join in a few days later.

What Saunders was most encouraged about were the additions to the middle of the batting order, with Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse hoping to provide the type of punch from the Nos. 3 and 4 spots in the order not seen in Seattle in several years. That will enable others like Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero and Saunders to stay further back down in the order where they can find more of a comfort zone to maximize their potential.

Indeed, the combination of Morales and Morse, the fences at Safeco Field coming in and the hoped-for natural progression of young players like Seager, Dustin Ackley, Montero, Saunders and maybe Justin Smoak could jumpstart an offense that's been the league's worst for three years running. Throw in 19 games against the Houston Astros, and the Mariners could plausibly win as many as 85 games like they did in 2009.

That's no sure thing, however, largely because of the question marks that surround the squad. The Mariners are about to make an investment in Felix Hernandez that will keep him in Seattle for seven more seasons and make him the marketing focal point for a lucrative new local television deal that will happen by 2015.

That television deal — if market trends hold — should be worth billions and will provide the Mariners additional revenues to compete with the $120 million-plus payrolls of division rivals in Anaheim and Texas for years to come. But the past three seasons have served as a holding pattern of sorts, with Mariners ownership unwilling to even match payroll levels from 2007.

During this time, the team allowed most longterm contracts to run out without replacing them while continuing to put a last-place product on the field. The result sees Hernandez as the only player under contract beyond the 2014 season while Hisashi Iwakuma is the only other Mariner committed to after 2013.

And it means that, despite the flurry of offseason moves made by general manager Jack Zduriencik, none of it has any sense of permanence. The Mariners say they made a very competitive longterm offer to Josh Hamilton, who disagreed with their assessment. They also attempted to deal for outfielder Justin Upton, knowing he had Seattle on his no-trade list, then could not convince him to waive it in order to join their team.

In the interim, free-agent outfielder Nick Swisher signed with Cleveland for a deal worth far less than many initially thought it would be. As of now, free-agent center fielder and leadoff man Michael Bourn — who the Mariners have looked into signing all winter — remains on the open market with a lack of big-money teams pursuing him.

But the Mariners, for now, are sticking with a payroll of about $85 million — before incentive bonuses are factored in — and maintaining a plan that will require significant improvement by younger players if the offense is to sustain any growth beyond 2013.

The pitching staff

One big question that could throw any talk of a winning 2013 season into jeopardy remains the pitching staff. Both the bullpen and rotation are still largely untested, even with the pending addition of veteran left-handed starter Joe Saunders once he takes his physical here this week.

Saunders fills an innings void created when the Mariners traded Jason Vargas to the Angels to acquire Morales. But if the Mariners were nervous about how the realigned fences at Safeco Field might impact Vargas, they are unlikely to gain any sleep by swapping him out for a pitcher in Saunders who is very much his clone.

Both Vargas and Saunders yield a bunch of fly balls and don't strike hitters out all that much. Vargas was largely protected by the deeper fences and thick marine air layer at Safeco Field, where many of the fly balls he allowed — particularly those hit by right-handed batters — wound up dying before they reached the warning track.

Saunders saw right-handed batters hit .307 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .849 off him last season. That could be problematic if the trend continues and Safeco Field no longer protects fly-ball pitchers like it once did.

The Mariners are bringing in reclamation projects Jeremy Bonderman and Jon Garland on minor-league deals to compete for back-end rotation jobs with the likes of Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi. Seattle also has minor-leaguers Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer looking to break camp as possibly a surprise addition, though all three will likely be in Class AAA barring any significant improvement this spring.

In the bullpen, the team hopes the second-half struggles of closer Tom Wilhelmsen prove a mirage and that youngsters Charlie Furbush, Carter Capps, Lucas Luetge and Stephen Pryor can build on some of the success they enjoyed last season.

But any offensive improvement could easily be offset if the pitching staff disappoints and has to deal with inflated numbers because of the fence realignment.

Moving the fences

The fences coming in allowed the Mariners to stop fretting about outfield defense as much as they had. Additions like Morse, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay likely would not have been made before the fences came in and enabled the team to contemplate using those players in the outfield at times.

Where they all fit remains something of a mystery and competition between them and players like Casper Wells, Mike Carp and Eric Thames should be fierce. Again, if none of the moves pan out, the Mariners can simply dump all those veteran additions after this year and start over.

As Michael Saunders said, the flurry of moves should give the Mariners a very different offensive look.

But this rebuilding plan, heading into its fifth year, is still mostly in the hands of young players when it comes to commitments beyond 2013. The only difference this year is that the Mariners have rented out multiple veteran bats to help guide their largely unproven core.

"Hey, we're still at four right now," Zduriencik told reporters at FanFest two weeks ago. "I'm not going to talk about the Astros; we haven't seen them play yet in this division. But we haven't leapfrogged anybody. That won't happen until we got out on the field to see exactly how these things fall into place. I don't have the answer to that right now. I feel strongly we're in pretty good shape. We have a great group of young kids. We have a very good minor-league system right now, which we said we were going to do."

Where it will all fit come 2014 and 2015 is still anyone's guess. But the winter additions should at least make 2013 more palatable for fans as they wait for the Mariners to take a more serious shot at lifting payroll and their contention hopes in years to come.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @gbakermariners

Projecting Mariners' 2013 lineups

Batting order

2B Dustin Ackley

CF Franklin Gutierrez

LF Mike Morse

DH Kendrys Morales

C Jesus Montero

1B Justin Smoak

3B Kyle Seager

RF Michael Saunders

SS Brendan Ryan

Starting rotation

RHP Felix Hernandez

RHP Hisashi Iwakuma

LHP Joe Saunders

RHP Erasmo Ramirez

RHP Blake Beavan

Closer

Tom Wilhelmsen


JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Clouds greeted the start of last year in Arizona, and although there are reasons for optimism, not all is sunny with the Mariners as they get set for spring training.




JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Chris Keith, left, and his nephew, Logan Alexander, 3, liked what they saw from the Mariners in Arizona in 2011.









Prospective new Mariner Joe Saunders is a fly-ball pitcher and that might not be a good thing with the fences moved in.




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