By the end of 2011, when the Seattle Mariners finished in last place in the American League West, the way forward was hardly a secret.
They needed offense.
They had problems at leadoff, a shortage of productive heart-of-the-order hitters and had been last in the league in runs scored two years running.
“What we needed was obvious, but how to get the kind of hitter we wanted was a tougher proposition,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said.
Manager Eric Wedge had spent a season auditioning Seattle hitters, including young players such as Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Kyle Seager and Mike Carp.
Pieces around which the Mariners could build an offense.
Then general manager Zduriencik made the boldest deal of his career – packaging All-Star rookie pitcher Michael Piñeda and prospect Jose Campos to the New York Yankees for Jesus Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi.
Wedge then went bold, too – dropping Ichiro Suzuki from first to third in the Seattle batting order this spring, inserting Chone Figgins as the leadoff hitter.
And there it was: The new Mariners offense.
“Our lineup is deeper, we’ve got ways to score runs one through nine,” Wedge said. “We’re a more dangerous offense.”
In theory, anyway.
Leading off with Figgins, who batted .188 in 81 games a year ago, and dropping Ichiro – who hit a career-low .272 – to third is hardly a certain success. Wedge is trying to get the most from two men who, combined, will make $26 million this year.
If Figgins fails, it’s likely he’ll have a short run leading off. Seattle has other options. Similarly, if Ichiro struggles batting third, he could be moved.
The one change the Mariners have complete faith in is Montero, the 22-year-old catcher/designated hitter the Yankees considered their next star.
“We see him in the middle of our order right now, and you can’t put it any clearer than that,” batting coach Chris Chambliss said. “He has power from foul line to foul line and he knows his swing – and works on it every day.”
For now, Montero will bat fifth, behind Smoak and ahead of Carp.
Montero built a .308 career average in 1,852 minor-league at-bats, then hit .328 in 61 big-league at-bats last September, when he hit four home runs.
“If I’d stayed in New York, I might have gotten the chance to start this season, but I might not have,” Montero said. “Here, I’m going to get the opportunity to play.
“I’ll catch when they want me to catch, I’ll be the DH when they want that. If they want me to carry baseballs to the bullpen, I’ll do that, too.”
Wedge makes it clear, however, Montero can’t be the only improvement in the Seattle lineup.
“Because of last year, players like Ackley and Carp and Smoak are that much further along,” Wedge said. “Seager is stronger this year, Brendan Ryan is healthy.
“We have a better team, a better offense.”
Players sense it, too.
“Chone’s best years with the Angels were with him batting leadoff,” Ackley said. “Ichiro seems to like hitting third. The three of us ought to be on base a lot for Smoak, Montero and Carp – and that’s going to mean runs.”
“I think we’re going to be a lot better offensively,” Miguel Olivo said. “With our pitching, a few more runs could mean a lot more wins.”
More runs would certainly make Seattle pitchers happy.
Sixteen times last year, the Mariners were shut out – a club record. In games in which they scored three runs or fewer, they went 21-74. When scoring more than three runs, Seattle was 46-21.
This season will likely continue the transition toward serious contention, though the AL West has two premier teams in the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels.
The Figgins-Ichiro experiment will be a key early, and Montero’s presence should be a factor all season. Asking a rookie to carry an offense, however, isn’t what the Mariners will do.
“Smoak hasn’t had a full season hitting the way we think he can,” Wedge said. “Carp came up and had an impact, but only the last few months of last year. Ackley hasn’t had a full season. These guys aren’t as good as we think they’ll be, yet.
“How well we do will depend on the young hitters developing – just as our bullpen will depend on how well the young pitchers come along.
“The difference this season is we think we have the players who will build the offense and help shape the team.”