The Mariners think they’re getting better, but probably aren’t

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In Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik’s defense, he did aim high, pulling off a deal for Arizona’s Justin Upton that was negated by the right fielder’s no-trade clause. However, the moves that he’s actually completed this winter to aid the offense don’t bode particularly well for the Mariners’ 2013 hopes.

– Traded OF Trayvon Robinson to the Orioles for INF Robert Andino

– Traded LHP Jason Vargas to the Angels for DH/1B Kendrys Morales

– Signed DH/LF Jason Bay to a one-year, $500,000 contract

– Signed DH/LF/1B Raul Ibanez to a one-year, $2.75 million contract

– Traded C John Jaso to the Athletics for DH/1B/LF Michael Morse in a three-team deal with the Nationals

These transactions completely contradict the defense-first strategy that made Franklin Gutierrez a prized early addition for Zduriencik and has led to Brendan Ryan’s continued employment. Ibanez and Morse are two of the game’s very worst outfielders, and Morales has played 28 games at first base since suffering his devastating leg injury in 2010.

Also an issue: none of these guys are particularly outstanding hitters. Morales is certainly pretty good and Morse did have the big 2011. However, in 2012, all of these guys finished with OPSs under .800 (Morales and Morse just barely). Jaso outhit all of them by batting .276/.394/.456 in his 294 at-bats as a platoon player last season.

It’s also worth noting that none of these guys are necessarily long-termers. Morales and Morse are both free agents next winter. Morales turns 30 in June, while Morse turns 31 in March. Neither is exactly over the hill, but the risk would outweigh the potential reward in giving either a multiyear extension.

Jaso, on the other hand, is three years away from free agency.

But this isn’t really about Jaso, who likely played over his head last year and is a pretty poor defensive catcher. It’s about the Mariners seemingly playing next season at the expense of the long haul without really improving themselves for 2013.

– With Morales, Morse, Ibanez and possibly Bay cluttering up the first base, left field and DH spots, there’s no room for Justin Smoak, Mike Carp or Eric Thames anywhere. Now, Smoak has had his chances, Carp has struggled to stay healthy and can’t help defensively and Thames probably isn’t going to hit enough to overcome his poor glove. But there’s still some upside there. Morse didn’t have his first promising half-season until 28. For Ibanez, it came at 29. Smoak, Carp and Thames are all 26 at the moment.

– The presence of those veterans also figures to put Jesus Montero back behind the plate fairly regularly, even though it’s obvious now that 2012 first-round pick Mike Zunino is the team’s catcher of the future. The Mariners are just delaying the inevitable, which is that Montero is going to end up as a first baseman or a DH. And they’re going to have a crappy defensive catcher while they’re at it. Worse, they’ll probably end up signing a non-entity like Rod Barajas to pair with Montero.

– The pitching has gotten worse with Vargas’ departure. The Mariners did manage to re-sign Hisashi Iwakuma to a club-friendly two-year deal, so they dodged that bullet. Still, he’s not an ideal No. 2 starter behind Felix Hernandez, and behind him are promising sophomore Erasmo Ramirez and the homer-prone Blake Beavan. None of the team’s top pitching prospects figure to be ready to make an impact early on this season. If the season started tomorrow, Hector Noesi would likely be the fifth starter.

Of course, the winter isn’t done. The Mariners could still sign Michael Bourn to replace Gutierrez (not recommended) or maybe Kyle Lohse to serve as the No. 2 starter. They could try another trade to improve the offense (Jacoby Ellsbury? David DeJesus?). As is, it’s hard to imagine them contending in an AL West with a top three that averaged 92 wins last year (the Mariners were 75-87). And if they don’t, it doesn’t seem at all likely that Zduriencik will get another chance in 2013.

Astros push ALCS to Game 7 with 7-1 stunner against Yankees

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There’s just something about playing in your home ballpark. The Astros decimated the Yankees at Minute Maid Park on Friday, riding seven scoreless innings from Justin Verlander and a pair of big runs from Jose Altuve to win 7-1 and force a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

Through the first four innings, however, the teams looked equally matched. Luis Severino no-hit the Astros through 3 2/3 innings, losing his bid on Carlos Correa‘s line drive single in the fourth. The Astros returned in the fifth to do some real damage, drawing two walks and plating the first run of the night with Brian McCann‘s ground-rule double off of the right field wall. Things didn’t get any easier for Severino. Jose Altuve lined a two-RBI base hit into left field, upping Houston’s advantage to three runs.

Verlander, meanwhile, muted the Yankees’ offense with seven innings of five-hit, eight-strikeout ball. While he didn’t come close to matching his complete game effort in Game 2, he was still plenty dominant against a struggling New York lineup. No player reached past first base until the sixth inning, when a pair of base hits from Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius gave the Yankees their first runner in scoring position. That didn’t last long, though, as Gary Sanchez grounded out on a 3-0 slider to end the inning.

In the seventh, Houston’s ace got into another spot of trouble. He walked Greg Bird on six pitches to start the inning, then plunked Starlin Castro on the wrist. Aaron Hicks struck out, in part thanks to a questionable call by home plate umpire Jim Reynolds, but it was Todd Frazier who presented the biggest threat after returning an 0-1 fastball for a 403-foot fly out to left field. Luckily for Verlander, George Springer was there to bail him out with a leaping catch at the wall.

The Yankees kept things exciting in the eighth, too. Aaron Judge ripped his third postseason home run off of Brad Peacock, taking a 425-footer out to the train in left field to spoil the Astros’ shutout. That was the only real break the Yankees got, however, as Altuve, Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis returned in the bottom of the inning to tack on another four runs, including Altuve’s solo shot off of David Robertson:

Ken Giles handled the ninth, expending 23 pitches and giving up a base hit and a walk before retiring Frazier and Headley to end the game. Thanks to Houston’s winning efforts, the two teams will compete in their first seven-game Championship Series since 2004 — and this time, at least one of them is guaranteed to come away with a win.

Game 7 of the ALCS is set for Saturday at 8:00 PM ET. Houston right-hander Charlie Morton (14-7, 3.62 ERA) is scheduled to face southpaw CC Sabathia (14-5, 3.69 ERA).