John McGrath

John McGrath: Acquiring Cano not the only move that helped turn the Mariners around

A year ago Friday, the baseball career of center fielder James Jones appeared to be stalling in the minor leagues. He was 24, young for an adult but pushing the expiration limit for a Double-A prospect.

A year ago Friday, starting pitcher Roenis Elias was midway through a solid if not sensational season with Jones’ team in western Tennessee, the Jackson Generals. A Southern League All-Star, he’d finish 2013 with a 6-11 record and the suspicion his trek to the majors would be incremental.

A year ago Friday, Logan Morrison was hoping his right knee would hold up after surgery kept him sidelined for the first three months of the Miami Marlins’ season. Morrison still had occasional power — he hit 23 homers for the Marlins in 2011 — but 2011 was looking distant.

A year ago Friday, Joe Beimel was working as a left-handed set-up reliever for the Atlanta Braves’ Triple-A affiliate. Beimel missed 2012 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and had reason to wonder, at the age of 36, if he’d reached the end of the line.

A year ago Friday, Chris Young was recuperating from neck surgery to correct a nerve problem that put pressure on his right shoulder. The former National League All-Star hadn’t pitched without some degree of pain for five seasons.

A year ago Friday, the Seattle Mariners were 37-48, well on their way to the team’s eighth losing mark since 2003. That the Mariners have flipped that record to 47-38 reflects the impact of second baseman Robinson Cano, a Hall of Fame talent whose radiant confidence has energized his new teammates.

The blockbuster acquisition of Cano, guaranteed $240 million through 2023, obscured some of the other moves Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik made before the season. And while none has turned out as pivotal as signing Cano, the Mariners aren’t contending for a playoff berth without the contributions of five guys who took an under-the-radar route to land on the roster.

Take Jones, for instance. Going into the season, the Mariners’ most desperate need — it superseded the quest for a power hitter — was somebody with the speed to jump-start the offense and stabilize the outfield defense. Jones has done both. And to think, he was promoted from Tacoma only after manager Lloyd McClendon gave the leadoff/center field job to Abe Almonte in spring training.

Jones wasn’t a victim of favoritism; the manager simply didn’t think he was ready.

“When this kid gets to the majors,” McClendon said more than once, “he’s not just gonna walk in. He’s gonna kick the doors down.”

True that.

Elias’ progression into a dependable back-of-the-

rotation starter has been no less remarkable. With seven wins in 13 decisions, he’s already surpassed his 2013 victory total in Double-A. The right-hander carries himself with a no-nonsense demeanor steeped in the belief he’s got a swing-and-miss pitch for every situation.

Morrison, meanwhile, showed up at first base almost as an afterthought. Justin Smoak suffered a quad injury, but even before he was ailing, he was flailing and failing. Enter Morrison, picked up in a winter trade that sent reliever Carter Capps to Miami.

Morrison’s stats don’t wow you, but he’s in the middle of everything, whether it’s a rally, a key scoop at first or as a participant in the bow-and-arrow routine performed by closer Fernando Rodney. Morrison belongs.

So does Beimel. Signed to a minor-league contract in January, Beimel didn’t clinch a roster spot on the big club until March 30. He’s become a reliable cog in a bullpen full of them.

And then there’s Young, obtained as a last-minute replacement after Randy “The Man Who Cried” Wolf reneged on the terms of his standard-issue, prove-it-and-we’ll-pay-you contract. Young accepted a similar contract and has turned his chance at reclamation into an 8-4 record, with a 3.11 ERA.

Young’s advanced stats are similarly impressive. His Wins Above Replacement (WAR) value is 1.9, highest among the five unheralded newcomers whose WAR numbers are all positive.

A final stat: The combined 2014 salaries for Jones, Elias, Morrison, Beimel and Young add up to $4.85 million, or about $850,000 more than the average big league player earns per season.

Zduriencik has taken flak for trades that disappointed (starting pitcher Cliff Lee to the Rangers for a prospect package centered around Smoak) and signing expensive free agents who turned out to be worthless (Chone Figgins, $35 million for four years of bad vibes).

But Zduriencik’s ability to patch a flawed team with bargain-basement acquisitions could do more than save his job.

It might establish his legacy.