Cactus League countdown: Mariners

The post-Ichiro era in Seattle began when the Mariners traded the veteran outfielder to the Yankees last July, but reality ought to really set in for fans when the team reports to spring training in Peoria without Ichiro Suzuki for the first time since he arrived from Japan in 2001.

That might be an unusual prospect for fans and the team, but it’s exactly what the Mariners needed to move the organization forward. As much as Ichiro did for the Mariners, he had become part of what was holding them back. Even he recognized that and asked to be traded.

Ichiro’s enormous salary — $17 million in 2012 — had become a hindrance to the Mariners improving their roster. With a payroll under $100 million each of the last four seasons, Icihiro typically made up between 18 to 20 percent of it.

There was also the fact that Ichiro was for so long unmovable in a trade and unbenchable when his numbers declined because of team owner Hiroshi Yamauchi’s unwavering loyalty to his star. Only when Ichiro asked to be traded last season could the Mariners move on from one of the franchise’s all-time greats.

The end of the Ichiro era meant general manager Jack Zduriencik could hit the free-agent market with a fistful of cash. The Mariners made a substantial offer to outfielder Josh Hamilton, who ultimately signed with the Angels. They didn’t come away empty-handed, however, as Hamilton’s addition made Kendrys Morales expendable in Los Angeles, and the Mariners swooped in to acquire him in a trade for starting pitcher Jason Vargas.

The Mariners also brought back old standby Raul Ibanez, hoping he can still produce at 40 years old, and Jason Bay, the former Red Sox slugger who is looking to bounce back after three dismal seasons with the Mets.

But Zduriencik wasn’t done acquiring bats for an anemic offense. He tried to add Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton with a generous trade proposal, but Upton used his no-trade clause to nix the deal.

Finally, in mid-January, Zduriencik found his guy, a former Mariner he traded away in June 2009: Nationals outfielder/first baseman Mike Morse.

Morse blossomed during the 2011 season, hitting .303 with 31 home runs and 95 RBIs. His 2012 campaign was less impressive after injuries kept him on the disabled list until June. He became expendable when the Nationals re-signed Adam LaRoche last month.
The Mariners are hoping Morse lives up to his nickname, “The Beast,” to add some punch to an offense that finished last in runs, on-base percentage and OPS in the American League last season.

The pitching staff is a little more stable. Ace Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma provide the front-end starters while the likes of Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez and Hector Noesi offer serviceable depth until highly touted youngsters Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker are ready.

To get back to Ichiro, his departure will also mean a very different clubhouse, where his exclusive demeanor rubbed some teammates the wrong way and created well-documented tension. Now, it will be up to younger players such as Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley to assume leadership roles, but the atmosphere should be a bit more relaxed.
Most important of Ichiro’s exit was that it finally freed the Mariners to fully commit to rebuilding. It’s not likely to be a quick process, but if the young pitching prospects are good as advertised, there’s reason for optimism in Seattle after more than a decade of futility.

Who’s new: IF Robert Andino, trade (Orioles); 1B/DH Kendrys Morales, trade (Angels); OF Mike Morse, trade (Nationals); OF Jason Bay, OF/DH Raul Ibanez, free agents; P Jeremy Bonderman, 1B Mike Jacobs, minor-league free-agents.

Who’s gone: C John Jaso (Athletics), OF Trayvon Robinson (Orioles), P Jason Vargas (Angels), OF Scott Cousins (Angels), P George Sherrill (Royals); IF Chone Figgins, released; P Kevin Millwood, SP, C Miguel Olivo, P David Pauley, free agents.
Battle ground: There look to be as many as three starting rotation spots up for grabs in camp after the trade of Jason Vargas. Blake Beavan and Erasmo Ramirez will lead the group contending for those spots, while Hector Noesi could get another shot after a rough 2012. Youngsters Danny Hultzen and James Paxton could be fast-tracked to challenge for starting jobs. … If the Mariners decide to keep Mike Morse in the outfield rather than first base, that would leave as many as eight veteran outfielders competing for roster spots.
Health watch: Shortstop Brendan Ryan had offseason surgery to clean up a bone spur in his elbow, while second baseman Dustin Ackley had the same surgery on an ankle. Both are expected to be ready for the start of spring training.
Sneak preview:
The Mariners tried unsuccessfully to land Justin Upton in a trade that would have cost them top prospect Taijuan Walker. Instead, the 20-year-old right-hander will be in camp looking to make an impression with a mid-to-high-90s fastball and a wicked curveball. He’s got some work to do, so it doesn’t seem likely he’ll be in the majors this season, but within a couple years he could be at or near the top of Seattle’s rotation.