SEATTLE -- The Mariners made no bones about using this past season as a developmental year for their young players. But general manager Jack Zduriencik says he's open to bringing in key veterans in the right spots to bolster that group next season.
Zduriencik believes much of the expected improvement next year will come from within. He feels a healthy return of Franklin Gutierrez in center field would be a key. He expects Justin Smoak to be stronger next season, too.
He looks at the host of young players -- the 18 rookies who saw action during 2011 -- and anticipates many of them will take solid steps forward with their new-found experience.
Zduriencik hopes there'll be a surprise emergence or two -- much like Mike Carp, Brandon League and Michael Pineda this past season -- as players grab hold of opportunities.
But, yes, the GM plans to supplement the emerging group of youngsters with some help wherever it most makes sense via free agency and the trade markets.
"You're always looking to add," Zduriencik said. "We've got to look at where we are offensively. I think we saw some improvement in the last two months, and we've still played without some guys who were hurt.
"But if there's the right bat to come in, you'd love to be able to bring in a veteran. Where it fits in, we'll have to see. Maybe we'll have to make a spot for it. But so many things happen from now 'til the Winter Meetings 'til the beginning of Spring Training -- and even through Spring Training. So oftentimes there are surprises, but our ears will be open."
The obvious positions to add offense also happen to be spots with lots of young talent in the mix.
There are a fistful of outfielders -- Carp, Casper Wells, Trayvon Robinson, Carlos Peguero, Greg Halman, Michael Saunders -- capable of challenging for the left-field job. Third base could be a battle between Kyle Seager, Alex Liddi and Chone Figgins. Or both could be spots where the Mariners bring in a proven bat.
Designated hitter is another potential opening, though Carp could fill that spot or left field, depending on the direction the Mariners want to go.
Zduriencik said the competition will sort itself out.
"There are some spots on this club that will be wide open next year -- left field probably being one of them," he said. "There are a whole group of guys that ought to be looking at that position and figuring, 'Hey, I want to be the left fielder, and what am I going to do to get it?' Well, it's up to them. Prove it. Take it by storm. The DH spot might also be open. There should be some battles going on."
Though Carp doesn't have a set role yet, he did establish himself firmly in the Mariners' plans with his breakout second half, by hitting .286 with 12 home runs and 46 RBIs in 64 games.
Zduriencik says Carp is the perfect example of a player who "made up our minds for us with his performance," and should inspire others to make similar offseason efforts to get themselves in the best condition possible.
"He's the poster child for what you have to do in the wintertime," Zduriencik said. "He's been brought up a couple times, he went home and lost weight, got himself in great shape, made himself more athletic.
"If I'm him, I go back and do more. And if I'm any player on this ballclub, I look at him and say, 'Look what this kid did.'"
Though offense is clearly the Mariners' biggest need, Zduriencik didn't rule out bringing in a veteran starter to help bridge the gap before a host of young pitching prospects arrives to supplement Felix Hernandez, Pineda and Jason Vargas.
"We'll have to see what's available in the wintertime," he said. "If you could bring in a veteran guy, maybe that's the right thing to do. A lot of factors tie into that. No. 1 would be who the veteran is, what level of experience he's bringing and how he fits into the club. You're always going to look to stabilize things, and maybe a veteran player here or there can do that.
"I like what's coming. When I look down the pipeline and see Danny Hultzen and James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez and Taijuan Walker, you have to figure, if these guys stay healthy, they've got a real nice chance to be a part of what we're doing. But you always keep your ears open, and if there's a right piece for the right type of contract and the right terms, then I do think you would look into doing that. But that's yet to be determined."
This figures to be a critical offseason for numerous players -- and not just the youngsters. Zduriencik feels Gutierrez and right fielder Ichiro Suzuki are also facing potential turning points.
"I think with Guti, it'll be important that he goes home and stays healthy," he said. "He has to maintain his diet and get his strength back. And it should be a good winter for him to come back next spring and really have a nice bounceback year.
"He's a key. If Guti comes back and is the Guti of two years ago, when he hit 18 home runs and played a phenomenal center field, boy, that'd be a big boost for this club and for him, as well."
As for Ichiro, he'll be 38 next spring and coming off his least productive Major League season. Zduriencik declined to say whether he thinks age is the concern, but did say he believes Ichiro will need to take a different approach as he gets older.
"I think with Ichiro, it'll be interesting to see how he evaluates himself, and how he goes home and looks at the kind of year he had," Zduriencik said. "It's still a pretty good year. But every player, as you get older, always has to reevaluate where their game is at and what are they going to do to top off their career.
"In Ichiro's case, this was the first time he didn't get to 200 hits, and it'll be interesting to see his mindset in the wintertime. We all know the kind of person and worker the guy is. His preparation is second to none. But every player, any time, goes through evaluations when a season is concluded, and it'll be interesting to see how Ichiro approaches this winter to prepare for next year."