SEATTLE — The Mariners didn’t land the two biggest players they pursued, Josh Hamilton and Justin Upton. They are coming off seven last-place finishes in nine years and play in a powerhouse division that produced two playoff teams last year.
Nevertheless, general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge, speaking Wednesday at the Mariners’ annual spring-training luncheon, portrayed the team as moving steadily toward its goal of contention.
“I feel as confident as ever in regard to our future here in Seattle,” said Wedge, about to embark on his third season with the Mariners. “I’m excited about the upcoming year, and I think the fans should be excited.
“I know there are a lot of questions and that’s a good thing, but in regard to where we see ourselves right now, we feel we’re in a very, very good place.”
That optimism is based on the anticipation of improvement from their young corps of players, the impending influx of touted minor-league prospects, and the addition of some veteran players.
The Mariners traded for first baseman/designated hitter Kendrys Morales (costing last year’s top winner, Jason Vargas) and outfielder/first baseman Michael Morse (giving up the leading average hitter last year, John Jaso) to add some pop to the lineup. They also signed free-agent outfielders Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay, presenting Wedge with some challenges regarding playing time at the outfield corners, designated hitter and first base.
“I have a clear idea of how I see it playing out, but they’ll ultimately determine that,” he said.
With spring training less than three weeks away, the Mariners still are in the market for a backup catcher and a veteran starter for the rotation.
“I’m not sure if we’ve done doing everything we’re going to do this offseason,” Wedge said. “If we go into spring training status quo, then we have some unbelievable competition. If you look at some of the veterans we brought in, plus the young kids, the versatility is really going to work for us.”
While not mentioning Hamilton by name, Zduriencik indicated the Mariners went hard after the free-agent outfielder. The Mariners reportedly offered a four-year, $100 million contract, with vesting options for a fifth and sixth year, based on plate appearances, that could have brought the total package to about $150 million. Hamilton signed with the Angels for five years and $125 million, all guaranteed.
“I’ve said on many occasions that at the right time, ownership would step up and allow us to do something that was outside the box,” Zduriencik said. “I think certainly in one of our challenges this winter, they allowed us to do that.
“We went after him. At the end, every player has their comfort level. He made his decision, which he got a fantastic deal for. Next time, maybe it will come our way.”
As for the purported Upton trade, vetoed by the Arizona outfielder, the Mariners were reportedly going to send top prospects Taijuan Walker and Nick Franklin, along with relievers Charlie Furbush and Stephen Pryor, to the Diamondbacks.
Again without mentioning names, Zduriencik said, “In one of the deals, no one was able to do what we were able to do. That (shows) the strength of our organization.”
Both Wedge and Zduriencik said they aren’t ruling out the possibility that one of their young pitching prospects — Walker, James Paxton, Danny Hultzen or Brandon Maurer — could crack the rotation.
Right now, the Mariners are set with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma as starters, with Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez and Hector Noesi among the candidates with major-league experience.
“We’d like to bring in another veteran,” Wedge said. “It’s a thin free-agent market. Jack has been tireless in regard to trade talk and conversations. ... But we’re wide open for the kids, too. I look at it like everybody who comes into camp has a chance to make the ballclub.”
Zduriencik, beginning his fifth season in Seattle, has said from the start that his priority is raising the talent base in the organization. He said he believes he’s succeeded, and that it will translate to success on the field.
“It’s a continuing, building process,” he said. “We haven’t deviated from that. We’ve stayed the course. We’ve tried to augment the big-league club. We continue to build this thing. I like where this organization’s health is right now.”