Buster Olney: Seattle Mariners

Sandoval/RamirezUSA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoThe Red Sox signed two big hitters this offseason. Now, they need to make a splash on the mound.
SAN DIEGO -- As the winter meetings kick off, here are the most significant needs for 12 teams that view themselves as top contenders in 2015:

1. Boston Red Sox: A starting pitcher

Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval are unique in this winter’s market in that they each have the ability to hit good pitching, and so it’s possible that Boston’s offense will rebound in a big way next season. But it really won’t matter unless Boston finds a way to make up for the departures of Jon Lester and John Lackey -- maybe even by re-signing Lester.

As of this morning, the Red Sox rotation looks like this, according to their website:

1. Clay Buchholz
2. Joe Kelly
3. Rubby De La Rosa
4. Allen Webster
5. Anthony Ranaudo

As a reminder, Boston’s ranking in ERA after the All-Star break, when it mostly competed without Lester and Lackey:

30. Minnesota Twins, 4.99
29. Colorado Rockies, 4.51
28. Chicago White Sox, 4.47
27. Boston Red Sox, 4.27

If not Lester, then the Red Sox need James Shields; if not Shields, they need Jeff Samardzija, Doug Fister or one of the other high-end starters on the market.

As the Lester bidding nears a conclusion, John Henry flew to meet with Lester one-on-one, writes Rob Bradford and Alex Speier. The Red Sox should bolster their rotation by using trade chips rather than signing pitchers to long-term deals, writes Brian MacPherson.

Max Scherzer would also be available, writes Michael Silverman.

Here’s the problem with that for Boston:
Josh DonaldsonBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsIf a teardown of the A's happens, Josh Donaldson is likely to go.
PITTSBURGH -- When you hear Ralph Branca tell the story of Bobby Thomson’s historic home run, he offers a full appreciation of that moment, but the hurt is still there. Dennis Eckersley bears the same tone when speaking of Kirk Gibson’s home run, that small ache about a swing that changed lives.

This is what lies before the Oakland Athletics, whose wild-card game loss to the Kansas City Royals Tuesday night was a microcosm of their season -- the great start, the enormous lead right in the middle, the collapse, the late revival, and then a finish that will forever haunt them.

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Final-day decisions for playoff contenders 

September, 28, 2014
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Pittsburgh PiratesJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDespite a loss Saturday, the Pittsburgh Pirates remain alive for the NL Central crown.
This final day of the scheduled regular season should be something that Major League Baseball dreamed about, because even after seven weeks of spring training and 182 days of play, six teams -- 20 percent of the clubs -- don’t know where they will be Monday:

• With a St. Louis Cardinals loss and Pittsburgh Pirates win today, there would be a playoff game to decide the NL Central in St. Louis.

• With a Detroit Tigers loss and a Kansas City Royals win today, there would be a playoff in Detroit.

• With an Oakland Athletics loss and a Seattle Mariners win today, there would be a playoff game in Seattle.

The value of the second wild-card spot and the one-game wild-card game has fully manifested. The Tigers and Cardinals are desperately trying to avoid that one game play-in, and if they win today, they’ll get a few days off. The Pirates and Royals -- both long shots to win their respective divisions a week ago -- now have a real chance to avoid the one-game play-in game and are pushing to the finish line.

And the Mariners are somehow still alive, even after losing every game Sept. 20 through Sept. 24 and experiencing a near total collapse of their pitching. Somehow, Oakland still hasn’t clinched, despite needing just one more victory to avoid the greatest collapse in baseball history. The Athletics have a lot at stake, anyway, and are facing historical infamy.

But having to put everything on the line today will cost each of these teams, so even for those that succeed, the burden moving forward will be even greater

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10 days, 10 burning questions 

September, 19, 2014
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Jon Lester, Matt Shoemaker, and Norichika AokiAP ImagesA trio of key cast members for the production of the season's 10 final days.
KANSAS CITY -- Ten days left in the regular season. Ten burning questions.

1. Will Oakland pull out of its flat spin?

The Athletics have surrendered 15.5 games in the standings to the Angels in 39 days, which might otherwise seem impossible if you weren’t watching the Athletics play. Oakland faced a possible sweep Thursday, with Nick Martinez on the mound for the Rangers -- this is a pitcher who allowed 52 walks in 122 1/3 innings going in. After Texas scored four runs in the top of the first against Sonny Gray, the Athletics saw a total of 19 pitches in the first two innings against Martinez.

When stuff like this is happening

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Robinson Cano and Lloyd McClendonBrian Blanco/Getty ImagesRobinson Cano, Lloyd McClendon & Co. enter Monday having won 14 of their past 18 games.
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Garrett Richards rushed to cover first base and blew out his knee. Sean Doolittle, the best reliever in the AL West, is out indefinitely with a strained intercostal muscle. John Jaso struggled with concussion symptoms in the trainer's room before Sunday's game, needing assistance, and he's headed to the disabled list. Josh Donaldson has instability but not structural damage in his knee, and the Athletics are interpreting this as good news. As in, he's only a little broken.

What all this means is that Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton should be waking up today thinking: Anything is possible in the American League West. Anything.

On July 27, the Mariners trailed AL West front-runner Oakland by 11½ games. Less than a month later, the M's are just five games behind the A's, who lost to the Angels on Sunday, and they trail the first-place Angels by six games.

The Mariners have the second-best ERA since the All-Star break with a 2.39 mark, more than a half a run better than the Angels and almost a run and a half better than the A's. Hernandez is the front-runner to win the American League Cy Young Award, Chris Young is the probably the leader for AL Comeback Player of the Year, Iwakuma continues to be the best pitcher that casual baseball fans need to know, and Paxton has rounded out the rotation this month with his work.

As for the offense, the Mariners are the highest-scoring team in the division in August, averaging almost five runs per game. Cano has a .953 OPS this month, Logan Morrison is hitting .328, and Dustin Ackley has 10 extra-base hits.

And the bullpen? The Mariners have six relievers with at least 45 appearances and ERAs below 3.00. The Angels beat Fernando Rodney and his imaginary arrow-shooting on July 20, but for Rodney, his work has been mostly bull's-eyes lately.

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Stephen Drew and Kendrys MoralesGetty ImagesStephen Drew and Kendrys Morales will need a few weeks to get ready after they sign.
Vin Mazzaro could be a useful reliever for a lot of teams, but he cleared waivers Tuesday and a couple of executives speculated that part of the reason for that is Mazzaro makes more than minimum wage -- $950,000.

"Once you go to spring training, you’ve spent almost all the money you’re going to spend," said one GM. "There aren’t many teams with a lot of extra money lying around."

Maybe the Dodgers have a big budget, or the Yankees. But most teams have little wiggle room in their budget. Which brings us to Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales, two veteran free agents who remain unemployed.

To review: Both players -- represented by agent Scott Boras -- rejected $14.1 million qualifying offers from the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners, respectively, and continue to wait. And wait. And wait.

There might be one small upside to waiting this long. Now that the season has started, neither can be given another qualifying offer by the next team he signs with, which means each could be a free agent without restriction after the 2014 season.

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The plight of 'The Draft Pick Five' 

February, 14, 2014
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Ervin Santana, Nelson Cruz, Ubaldo JimenezGetty ImagesErvin Santana, Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez -- members of "The Draft Pick Five" -- still wait.
TAMPA, Fla. -- An AL executive drew an analogy the other day between the situation facing "The Draft Pick Five" free agents -- Nelson Cruz, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales -- and the sale of a house.

“If the price on the house is set and it just sits there and nobody's buying at that price,” the executive said, “isn’t there a time when the reality of the market sets in and the price comes down?”

Players are reporting to spring training all over the baseball landscape, and those five players -- five veterans tied to draft-pick compensation -- remain unsigned, fueling the most-asked question in the industry these days: Where will those players land

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Astros should be all in on Tanaka 

January, 4, 2014
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TanakaAFP/Getty ImagesIf Masahiro Tanaka signs with the Astros, he could lead one of baseball's top young rotations.
We knew that CC Sabathia's preference, when he became a free agent in the fall of 2008, was to return to his home state of California, if all things were equal. He might have loved to sign with the Dodgers, if all things were equal. But that was before the Yankees, well aware of Sabathia’s interest in playing in the Golden State, made the bidding unequal, with their offer of $161 million.

When Robinson Cano became a free agent two months ago, we knew the gap between what his side asked for and what the Yankees offered was enormous, and we knew that the tension between the two sides was building -- a clue that Cano was ready to leave for the right offer.

When Albert Pujols filed for free agency, there was clearly a breach developing between him and the Cardinals, and a year later the same was true in the talks between Josh Hamilton and the Rangers. The player’s perception of his own value was far different, in those cases, than the team he was leaving, and this is how Pujols wound up completing his deal in about 48 hours, and how Hamilton left the Rangers for a division rival.

But in the case of Masahiro Tanaka, we really don’t have clues about what he wants from his free agency.

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Major financial shift in American League 

December, 23, 2013
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Robinson CanoAP Photo/Ted S. WarrenThe Mariners' deal with Robinson Cano was another sign of the AL's money shift.
It's hard to say when the first real sign of escalation in the American League West appeared. Maybe it was the Mariners' trade for Cliff Lee in December 2009, a swift and aggressive deal made before any of the AL East powers knew that Lee was actually available. Or maybe it was the Rangers' deal for Lee the next summer, when Texas outmaneuvered the Yankees to get a left-hander who propelled them to the World Series for the first time.

Or perhaps it was the Angels' signing of Albert Pujols at the winter meetings in 2011, the first ripple felt in baseball from the new wave of lucrative local television deals that were being signed by some clubs.

Regardless of how it started, what we have continued to see is something of a shift in the American League, like weight being moved from one side of the scale to the other.

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Many teams capable of a big move 

December, 15, 2013
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Shin-Soo ChooJamie Sabau/Getty ImagesShin-Soo Choo is one of the big names still available in free agency, and he has a number of potential suitors.
The Mariners have spent about $250 million this offseason, and the Yankees more than $300 million. Most of the best free agents have come off the board, and as general managers rushed out of the building with the dolphin on the top to catch flights out of Florida on Thursday, a lot of the winter work was done.

But some teams still have room for a big move before the offseason is over:

1. Texas Rangers: GM Jon Daniels says he does not expect any more major moves for the Rangers this winter. But Texas remains in an excellent position in its negotiations with Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz, because it appears the Rangers are one of the last teams -- maybe the last team -- prepared to spend big money on an outfielder.

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Mariners a free agency sleeping giant 

November, 23, 2013
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Felix HernandezOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesStarter Felix Hernandez, signed through 2019, has Seattle's only long-term contract.
There are more than a few rising young executives -- and older executives, for that matter -- who are outside of the Seattle Mariners' organization and looking in, and they are wistful, wishing they could grab the Mariners’ steering wheel.

First and foremost, they love the city, curled around Puget Sound, surrounded by fir trees and hemlocks; they see it as a great place to live. They love the ballpark, underrated and underappreciated. They see potential in the passion of a fan base that is dormant after more than a decade of struggles.

They see the Mariners as the great sleeping giant in baseball.

They see a possible financial powerhouse, given that the Mariners own their own television network.

They see a team saturated with prospects taken near the top of the draft.

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Mets' struggles creating value 

September, 28, 2013
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Sandy AldersonRich Schultz/Getty ImagesThe Mets' disappointing season has likely earned Sandy Alderson's club a protected draft pick.
The New York Mets’ loss Friday was the 87th of their season. And it was a really important loss.

With that defeat, the Mets moved back into position to have the No. 10 pick in the 2014 draft -- and if this holds over the last two days of the regular season against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Mets’ first-round pick would be among those 10 that are protected against draft-pick compensation.

This past winter, the Mets’ pick was not protected, which affected their aggressiveness in trying to sign Michael Bourn and others. If they finish the year lined up for the No. 10 pick (or better), it could nudge them into pursuit of one of the better free-agent position players who will be available this winter. If they signed a Shin-Soo Choo or a Jacoby Ellsbury, the Mets would have to surrender only a second-round pick in compensation.

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Why MLB must ban plate collisions 

September, 7, 2013
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Prince FielderAP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezA hard collision at home plate caused Giants catcher Buster Posey to miss much of 2011.
A talent evaluator who works in baseball imagined the future testimony aimed at a team -- or all of Major League Baseball -- in a lawsuit filed by a catcher seriously injured while blocking home plate.

"'I was told in spring training by my catching instructor that this is something I need to do,'" the evaluator said, imitating the words that any catcher could say. "'I didn't block home one day and he called me a -----, and he said that blocking home plate is something that every catcher is expected to do.'"

The evaluator jumped into another role, imagining himself as the catcher's lawyer: "'What happened next?'"

Evaluator as catcher: "'I blocked home plate, as I was instructed to do, and now I can't walk.'"

This testimony could be especially effective, the evaluator noted, if it comes from someone sitting in a wheelchair, and if you think that can't happen, maybe you should watch this video of the hit that Harrisburg catcher Brian Jeroloman took in a Double-A playoff game the other night, when he was run over by Erie's Brandon Douglas.

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Where Robinson Cano could go 

August, 25, 2013
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CanoAP Photo/Gail BurtonYankees second baseman Robinson Cano's 4.8 WAR is among the best in baseball.
LOS ANGELES -- If the Yankees don't make the playoffs, then as of this morning, there are 33 games left in the career of Mariano Rivera.

But everybody saw that coming. There may also be only 33 games remaining in Robinson Cano's tenure with the Yankees if he leaves as a free agent when the season is over. He is their best player and they need him, and yet in recent years, teams have held the line with their own superstars -- for instance, the Cardinals with Albert Pujols and the Rangers with Josh Hamilton -- and those choices have been quickly vindicated.

The Yankees have their own experience in deciding whether to invest in a long-term star (Alex Rodriguez), and that hasn't turned out so well.

Cano is represented by Jay-Z and CAA, and the expectation among executives is that they will be looking to plant a flag with their contract -- something in the A-Rod/Pujols neighborhood.

But a big question that has come up among some rival officials is this: What teams will compete against the Yankees to sign him to create that leverage?

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A tireless devotion to the hit 

August, 22, 2013
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Ichiro SuzukiJeff Gross /Allsport Since his arrival in the majors in 2001, Ichiro's style has never wavered.
It has always been Pat Gillick’s way to know about each player’s family and the relevant challenges of home life, and so when Ichiro Suzuki and his wife arrived in Seattle for the first time before the 2001 season, there was a conversation about apartment rental.

Yumiko Fukushima, who married Ichiro in 1999, told the Mariners that she and her husband wanted to find a three-bedroom apartment -- one bedroom for the couple, another for visitors, plus a third bedroom. Gillick was the general manager of the Mariners and the advice from the team was that a two-bedroom place would suffice, Gillick recalled, but Ichiro’s spouse said no, they needed a third bedroom -- because Ichiro would use that room to practice his swing.

“I don’t know that I’ve run into an athlete or a player who is so committed and passionate about the game as Ichiro,” Gillick said over the phone Wednesday, just a few hours before Ichiro collected the 4,000th hit of his time in Japan and in Major League Baseball.

Baseball history is littered with the what-could-have-been stories such as Dwight Gooden, whose greatness was curtailed by his personal demons. Ichiro is at an extreme opposite end of that scale, because for year after year, his days have been built around preparation for each at-bat and each game, from his eating habits to his perpetual work of stretching his body to the painstaking treatment of his bats.

By way of comparison, Gillick mentioned Wayne Gretzky, who wasn’t the biggest player or the fastest skater, and never had the hardest shot. “Gretzky, to me, didn’t shoot the puck -- he kind of guided the puck,” said Gillick, who now works for the Phillies. “Ichiro is the same way. He guides the ball. He serves the ball, like a tennis player -- in the same way that a tennis player uses the boundaries of the court, he uses the boundaries of the infield.”

The hit that Ichiro got Wednesday was typical for him. A turn of his right hip, the hands and the bat following; a slashing swing; a shot past Toronto third baseman Brett Lawrie. It was the 2,722 hit in Major League Baseball for Ichiro, after 1,278 hits while playing in the shorter seasons of Japan.

There is no way to know how many more home runs that Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio would’ve hit had they not missed seasons in the middle of their careers to military service, and in the same way, it’s impossible to know what Ichiro would have done had he played his entire career in Major League Baseball.

But Gillick is among many talent evaluators who believe that Ichiro would have excelled had he started playing in the majors and would have accumulated about the same number of hits, because his unique set of skills would have translated at any level: The exceptional hand-eye coordination; the superlative speed; the complete devotion to his craft.
Ichiro Suzuki
Ron Antonelli/Getty ImagesIchiro acknowledges fans after 4,000.

“The guy is a pure hitter,” said Gillick, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011 for his executive work with the Blue Jays, Orioles, Mariners and Phillies. “Everybody was concerned he wouldn’t adapt to the American style of baseball. I’m very confident that from the get-go, he would’ve hit just as well in the U.S. [as in Japan].”

That seems apparent based on what Ichiro did upon his arrival. He dominated in his first year in MLB, hitting .350 with a league-leading 242 hits and 56 stolen bases. He won the MVP. He'd put up similar numbers in Japan. He also won the first of 10 Gold Gloves.

Jim Colborn was the Mariners scout who pushed the team to sign Ichiro, while serving as the pitching coach for Orix in Japan, and he raved about Ichiro’s makeup and his work ethic. That first time that Ichiro arrived in Seattle, Gillick recalled, Dave Myers -- a coach for the Mariners at the time -- threw batting practice to Ichiro. “He took 150 swings and he never stepped out of the batter’s box,” Gillick said. “He never came out to catch his breath or rest. I had never seen that before.”

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