Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hernandez extension caps terrific offseason for Mariners

Chris Ruddick

Philadelphia, PA - We are still a little more than three weeks from pitchers and catchers reporting, but I already have a feeling what team is going to be the trendy pick heading into the 2010 season.

While the New York Mets may have had the worst offseason of any team in the league, no team has improved itself more than the Seattle Mariners.

General manager Jack Zduriencik capped off a terrific winter earlier this week by locking down Felix Hernandez, the best young pitcher in the American League, for the next five years.

According to reports, Hernandez - who could have been a free agent after the 2011 campaign - will now remain with Seattle through 2014. The deal was costly, reportedly worth as much as $100 million with incentives, but it was something that had to be done. Thankfully for the sake of both baseball and the Mariners, Zduriencik realized that.

Pitchers like Felix Hernandez don't come around often.
Pitchers like Hernandez don't come around often. If you can't find a way to build around someone like him, then why bother even fielding a team? If he continues to progress like I think he will, it's not inconceivable that another $100 million deal will come down the pike when he is scheduled to hit free agency at the still young age of 28.

The King Felix extension, though, was just the icing on the cake of what Zduriencik has done since taking over for the fired Bill Bavasi in October of 2008. Some lamented his first move in naming relative unknown Don Wakamatsu as the team's new manager, but that is now being hailed as a brilliant move.

Wakamatsu may not have been a big name, but was extremely well respected in baseball circles.

Then, after jettisoning closer J.J. Putz as part of a 12-player, three-team deal that netted the Mariners high-character players in return like Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez, Zduriencik may have pulled off his boldest, but most popular move when he brought home Seattle's favorite son in Ken Griffey Jr.

Of course, Griffey was nowhere near the player he was when he won the AL MVP for the Mariners in 1997, but he and fellow veteran-signee Mike Sweeney were being counted on for something far more important - to be the captains of what had been a rudderless ship.

Bottom line, the ground work was being laid. The moves paid off. Seattle stayed in postseason contention for the better part of the year, as they made a 24- game improvement from the disaster in 2008 that saw them become the first $100 million team to lose more than 100 games.

Last season may have been a step, but with the moves Zduriencik has made this offseason, 2010 will be a giant leap to the top of the American League West.

Shortly after the start of free agency, Zduriencik signed Chone Figgins to replace Adrian Beltre at third base. Figgins may not bring the pop that the Mariners had hoped Beltre would bring, but he is a better clubhouse guy, and he and Ichiro Suzuki will form as dynamic a 1-2 punch atop the lineup as there is in the league.

Not to mention that the Figgins move took away a very vital piece from the Angels, the team that has had a stranglehold atop the division for the better part of the last decade.

Then Zduriencik pulled off the move that could make his team the going-away favorite in the division when he acquired left-handed ace Cliff Lee from the Philadelphia Phillies for nobody off his major league roster.

Is there now a better 1-2 punch atop any rotation in the league than Lee and the great Hernandez? Forget the division, with that duo they could be poised to make their first-ever run to the Fall Classic.

Offensively, the Mariners may be lacking a little pop, as it looks like they will be fielding a lineup with just one player who hit as many as 20 home runs a year ago, second baseman Jose Lopez. The recent addition of slick-fielding first baseman Casey Kotchman all but eliminates any chance of having Russell Branyan, who slugged 31 home runs a year ago, return.

So how are they going to score runs? Well, don't sleep on one of Zduriencik's first acquisitions from last year. Gutierrez belted a career-high 18 home runs a year ago. He will be 27 when the season begins and could provide the power bat Seattle desperately needs.

Even with spring training right around the corner, the offseason is still far from over, and if the past year is any indication, Zduriencik is not done. If he thinks he needs it, he will find himself another bat.

All of which proves that baseball is alive and well in the Emerald City.

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