(SportsNetwork.com) - Nobody really knew just how dysfunctional the Seattle Mariners were until an article in December detailed just how badly the relationship between manager Eric Wedge and general manager Jack Zduriencik had deteriorated.
Regardless of the acrimony in the front office it was time for a change at the top, as the Mariners lost over 90 games for the third time in four seasons and Wedge was fired.
It's been no secret what has ailed the Mariners in recent years and that has been their offense. So, Zduriencik hired former Detroit Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon in an effort to help jumpstart an offense that ranked near the bottom of the AL in almost every important category in 2013.
But, that was just small potatoes in Zduriencik's plan to overhaul the lineup, as the Mariners made the biggest move in free agency this offseason, signing second baseman Robinson Cano away from the New York Yankees to the richest contract in team history at 10 years and $240 million.
The Mariners were, in fact, linked to virtually every major free agent on the market along with several intriguing trade targets. They may not have added that other part to compliment Cano, but did land deals with outfielders Corey Hart and Logan Morrison.
Two players who were certainly on board with an improved lineup would be righties Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Hernandez was actually overshadowed by his teammate last season, as the two of them formed perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the American League.
Still, this was a team that finished 71-91 a year ago. They are certainly improved, but the Mariners still play in a very competitive American League West.
2013 FINISH (71-91) - Fourth Place (AL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Willie Bloomquist (INF/OF); Robinson Cano (2B); Corey Hart (OF); Logan Morrison (OF); Fernando Rodney (RHP); John Buck (C); Cole Gillespie (OF)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Carter Capps (RHP); Raul Ibanez (OF); Kendrys Morales (DH); Joe Saunders (LHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Dustin Ackley (LF); Kyle Seager (3B); Robinson Cano (2B); Corey Hart (RF); Justin Smoak (1B); Logan Morrison (DH); Michael Saunders (CF); Mike Zunino (C) Brad Miller (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Felix Hernandez (RHP); Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP); Erasmo Ramirez (RHP); Scott Baker (RHP); Blake Beavan (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Fernando Rodney (RHP)
MANAGER: Lloyd McClendon
IS ROBINSON CANO READY TO BE THE "MAN"?
It was real easy to blend into the crowd as a member of the New York Yankees. Thanks to a 10-year, $240 million deal, Robinson Cano is no longer just one of the guys. He is in fact THE guy now in Seattle.
The 31-year-old Cano had spent his entire nine-year career with the Yankees and finished fifth in American League MVP voting this past season after hitting .314 with 27 homers and 107 RBI -- all team highs.
Cano, a two-time Gold Glove winner and a five-time All-Star, is a lifetime .309 hitter with 204 home runs and 822 RBI in 1,374 games.
Now he becomes the focal point in a lineup that last year hit .237 as a team.
HOW WILL THE ROTATION SHAKE OUT?
We all know who is at the top of the rotation. There are few pitchers in baseball better than righty Felix Hernandez, who put forth another terrific season for the woeful Mariners, going 12-10 with a 3.04. For the second straight year, though, Hernandez struggled down the stretch and was 1-6 over his final eight starts with a 5.77 ERA. He had been 0-4 over his final six appearances in 2012.
Hernandez actually had some help last season, as righty Hisashi Iwakuma emerged as a dependable No. 2 and finished third in AL Cy Young voting, posting a 14-6 mark to go along with a 2.66 ERA. He finished the season by tossing 23 scoreless innings, and had the lowest WHIP in Mariner history at 1.006.
However, Iwakuma has a sprained tendon on the middle finger of his throwing hand and will start the season on the disabled list. Prized prospect Taijuan Walker has also been limited with a sore shoulder and will not start the year with the Mariners.
So what was thought to be a strength could very well be a negative for Seattle, at least at the onset of the season.
With Iwakuma and Walker out another top prospect James Paxton could find his way onto the roster, but more likely the team will turn to righties Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan. Also, Scott Baker and Randy Wolf are two veteran rotation options, but both are trying to return from 2012 Tommy John surgeries.
One very important decision was made for McClendon right after the start of spring training when the team signed closer Fernando Rodney to a 1-year deal.
Rodney spent the last two seasons in Tampa Bay as the Rays' primary closer, racking up 85 saves with a minuscule 1.91 earned run average over 144 relief appearances.
The 36-year-old right-hander was named an All-Star in 2012, when he recorded 48 saves with a remarkable 0.60 ERA, setting a single-season record for the lowest ERA by a reliever in MLB history.
Rodney will assume the ninth inning duties for the Mariners, who last year used both Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilmensen in that role. It wasn't successful, as the bullpen coughed up 13 walk-off losses and 14 more defeats in which the winning run scored in the opponent's final at-bat.
The M's also set a franchise record a year ago with 15 extra-inning losses.
X-FACTOR: COREY HART
If you look up and down the Seattle lineup you will notice one thing. It is definitely heavy from the left side. Oft-injured Corey Hart can make life a whole lot easier for not only McClendon, but Cano if he can stay on the field and find that form that has seen him swat 30 home runs on two different occasions. Injuries, though, have plagued Hart, who missed all of the 2013 campaign for the Milwaukee Brewers with a right knee injury. Still, he did hit 30 home runs and knocked in 83 runs over 149 games in 2012. You have to think he'd duplicate those numbers if he can stay on the field and also provide a bit of protection for Cano.
Well, the good news is that the Seattle Mariners probably shouldn't finish last in the AL West standings. Thankfully for them and everyone else in the league the Houston Astros still call that division home. The bad news is, though, that aside from the Astros, and probably the Mariners, you can make a case for the other three teams to win the division. Having Cano will help an offense that has been as anemic as there's been in baseball the past five years. But, he can't do it alone. Hart can't be trusted to stay on the field and we are all still waiting for Justin Smoak to have that breakout season. If it hasn't happened by now it probably isn't going to. The pitching should be solid once everyone gets back. Baby steps. The Mariners are on the right track and if everything breaks their way it's not crazy to think this team could be .500 or better for the first time since 2009.