How the Mariners can be contenders

The Seattle Mariners improved by eight games in 2012, but they remained the same, boring Mariners of recent vintage, once again finishing last in the American League in runs scored and seeing their attendance decline for the fifth straight season. Runs in Safeco Field were particularly difficult to come by -- there were three no-hitters and two perfect games there in 2012 -- leading to talk throughout the spring and summer about terms such as "marine layer" and "heavy inversion."

Mariners fans used other terms to describe the team's offense, most notably "Olivo" and "Figgins," usually preceded by a descriptive adjective.

Miguel Olivo is gone, mercifully, but Chone Figgins is still plugging up space on the 40-man roster. The Mariners' front office also realized it was time to help create more offense at Safeco, and it will lower the fence in left field from 16 feet to eight feet, move in the left-center power alley from 390 feet to 378 and move in the center-field fence from 405 feet to 401. The right-center power alley also will move in four feet, from 385 to 381.

This makes for a challenging offseason for people in the front office, as they'll have to estimate how the changes will affect play -- and, most importantly, the value of individual players.

As we did with the Royals, let's see how the Mariners can become instant contenders.

2012 runs scored: 619

2012 runs allowed: 651

2012 runs scored at home: 257

2012 runs allowed at home: 260

We start again with runs scored and runs allowed. The changing dimensions mean we have to make an adjustment. For the sake of this analysis, let's say run scoring at Safeco will be boosted by 15 percent. That could be conservative; the Mariners hit .220 with a home run every 46 at-bats at home (3.2 runs per game) but .247 with a home run every 31 at-bats on the road (4.5 runs per game). The pitching staff received a similar boost, allowing 3.1 runs per nine innings at home and 4.9 on the road.

Basically, this means the Mariners had a mediocre offense and mediocre pitching, not a terrible offense and good pitching.

One final adjustment: The Mariners outscored their projected runs created total by 15 runs, so let's establish their offensive talent level at 604 runs. This gives a new baseline to work from:

2012 adjusted runs: 642

2012 adjusted runs allowed: 690

To make the Mariners contenders, we have to turn them into a 90-win club in the AL West. That means totals of 720 runs scored and 635 runs allowed. In other words: A lot of work is needed on both sides of the ball -- 78 more runs on offense, 55 fewer on defense.

The good news is the Mariners gave more than 1,000 plate appearances in 2010 to Olivo, Figgins, Ichiro Suzuki and Munenori Kawasaki, four guys who won't be with the team in 2013 (well, let's hope Figgins won't be around). Here are some areas where the Mariners can improve:

Catcher: John Jaso was the Mariners' best hitter in 2012, although it took manager Eric Wedge half a season to realize it. Jaso created about 57 runs in 361 plate appearances; Olivo created 24 in 323. Jaso's production for 2013 is admittedly a little unpredictable: He hit well in 2010 and 2012 but not in 2011. If we take his career line of .255/.359/.395, that's still 39 runs created over 300 PAs. I think it's fair to say the Mariners could get a 15-run boost at catcher.

Jesus Montero: With 2012 No. 1 pick Mike Zunino a possible midseason call-up, Montero's days at catcher might be numbered. He should spend most of his time in 2013 at first base or DH. A .260/.298/.386 line as a rookie left a lot of room for improvement. I'm not sure he'll ever be the star hitter once projected, but he can do 15 runs better.

Dustin Ackley: What to make of the heralded former No. 2 overall pick? He was an offensive disaster in 2012, hitting .226/.294/.328, well below what he did as a rookie. He struggled at Safeco (.228) and on the road (.224), although 10 of his 12 home runs came on the road. He created about 62 runs in more than 600 PAs. Let's bump that up to 13 runs.

Right field: Mariners right fielders were another disaster, hitting .245/.287/.373, good for about 69 runs created. At his U.S.S. Mariner site, ESPN Insider Dave Cameron has advocated for signing Nick Swisher, showing here how Swisher is pretty close to Prince Fielder as a hitter -- Fielder had five more home runs and three more singles, but four fewer doubles. He also had 24 more walks plus hit-by-pitches, although 16 of those walks were intentional. Anyway, the point: Swisher is a good hitter. He created about 93 runs in 148 games with the Yankees. His home/road splits were even, but even if we dock some of that production for moving from Yankee Stadium to Safeco, this could be a 20-run improvement.

Just like that we've added 63 of our 78 runs. The other big hole is first base, where Justin Smoak lost his job but looked better after a stint in the minors. With improvement from Smoak (or another first baseman), plus Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders and a reasonably healthy Franklin Gutierrez, the Mariners are up to the runs we need.

The pitching staff is more problematic. The bullpen was solid a year ago and should be solid again with power arms such as Tom Wilhelmsen, Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps, so we'll leave that alone (although bullpens can be notoriously inconsistent from year to year). Right now, the rotation lines up as Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Hisashi Iwakuma, Blake Beavan and Erasmo Ramirez. Iwakuma had the second-best ERA in the AL after the All-Star break (2.50), and Ramirez looked impressive after getting recalled in September. For the season, he made eight starts and eight relief appearances and posted a 3.36 ERA and held batters to a .217 average and .262 OBP.

The problem with Iwakuma, Ramirez, Vargas and Beavan: They all can be prone to the long ball. Vargas has turned into a durable innings eater, but he allowed 35 home runs in 2012 -- and that was with Safeco's deeper fences. Vargas allowed just nine home runs at home but a staggering 26 in 19 starts on the road. Beavan is a finesse strike-thrower, but he generates fly balls, not grounders, and he allowed 23 home runs in 152 innings.

So where's the improvement going to come from? Not giving 18 starts to Hector Noesi (5.82 ERA) to begin with. Noesi allowed nearly six runs per nine innings. Replace those 100 innings with a full season of Iwakuma and we can estimate about 25 runs saved.

It's not fair to ask Hernandez to have a better season, but a late-season slump left his ERA at 3.06. If he cuts his runs from 3.25 per nine innings to 2.9, that's 10 more runs.

If Ramirez is the real deal, he'll be an upgrade over Kevin Millwood. That's 10 more runs.

That's 45 runs, but we need 55. And that's assuming Vargas doesn't implode with the moved-in fences. That's why I advocate an upgrade over Beavan -- top prospects Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton all need more time in the minors, so this starter should be one of the veteran free agents. The Mariners have the payroll flexibility, even if they sign a bat such as Swisher. So unless they upgrade their offense at first base or DH, they should sign a guy such as Ryan Dempster, Hiroki Kuroda or … Zack Greinke.

Hey, Mariners fans can dream, can't they?