What is Michael Saunders' role for the upcoming season? I thought he was showing progress until the shoulder injury last year.
-- Gene R., Durham, N.C.

That will be determined by two things. No. 1, how many outfielders the Mariners add in free agency or through trades. And No. 2, how Saunders performs next spring when new manager Lloyd McClendon and his staff get their first opportunity to work with him on a daily basis.

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I'm a Saunders believer as he's a big, athletic outfielder with a good work ethic and attitude who offers exactly what any MLB team wants in terms of skill set and potential. Remember, this was a guy everyone thought was ready to bust out after he starred for Canada in the World Baseball Classic last spring. He didn't take the step forward and will likely need to earn playing time from the new staff with a strong camp. But the Mariners need him as the only other returning outfielders from the end of last season's roster are Dustin Ackley and Abraham Almonte.

What are the odds of the Mariners bringing back Franklin Gutierrez on a one-year, incentive-laden deal? The man can hit when healthy. If they don't re-sign Kendrys Morales, wouldn't it make sense to bring Gutierrez back and have him be the designated hitter 50 percent of the time to keep him healthy?
-- Brandon M., Spokane, Wash.

I'm sure some team will give Gutierrez a shot on that kind of low-risk deal and see if he can stay healthy, but I'd be surprised if he winds up back in Seattle after playing just 173 of the Mariners' 486 games over the past three years. Sometimes a player needs a fresh start, and Gutierrez seems the ultimate case of that scenario.

From the Mariners' perspective, the mistake last year was counting on Gutierrez to be a key right-handed bat and outfield contributor. If they do bring him back, it should be a situation where they don't expect him to fill any certain role because his health situation is too unpredictable. If he's willing to take a Minor League deal and just see what works out, that would make sense for the Mariners. But even giving him a spot on the opening 25-man roster in lieu of another proven outfielder would be risky, given he's shown no ability to last a full season since 2010.

Gutierrez is just now starting to play winter ball for Caracas in Venezuela, so I'm sure teams will be interested to see how he looks. But he had a strong winter last year and then immediately ran into right hamstring problems and played just 41 games for the Mariners, so even that won't tell a whole lot, unfortunately.

With Mariners president Chuck Armstrong retiring, who exactly will decide his replacement? And did Armstrong report to Howard Lincoln, or vice versa?
-- Randy W., Bainbridge Island, Wash.

Lincoln is above Armstrong as the CEO of the company and will now oversee the hiring process to find a new club president, with Armstrong set to retire on Jan. 31. As for the structure, you have an ownership group at the top, with Nintendo of America and its CEO, Satoru Iwata, the current majority owner, along with a group of minority owners led by former Microsoft executive Chris Larson.

As CEO, Lincoln is chairman of that ownership's board of directors, which meets every month at Safeco Field. Armstrong reports to Lincoln, then come the four executive vice presidents who oversee the business and baseball operations. That level would include general manager Jack Zduriencik, who is the vice president of baseball operations.

Lincoln will ultimately need to get approval on a new team president from the rest of the voting members of the board, which also consists of Larson, former Nintendo president Minoru Arakawa, former Mariners CEO John Ellis, RealNetworks founder Rob Glaser, former NextLink Communications CEO Wayne Perry and former Boeing CEO Frank Shrontz.

Have you heard anything out of the Morales camp? Do you think the Mariners will re-sign him?
-- Matt W., Bellingham, Wash.

Things have been pretty quiet from Morales' agent, Scott Boras, so far this offseason on the 30-year-old designated hitter, but that's not too surprising. Any team that signs Morales will have to surrender its first-round Draft pick -- unless it has one of the first 10 selections in the next Draft; in those cases, a second-round pick is taken away -- and that factor put a severe damper on several of the qualifying offer free agents last year and led to some very late deals. The Mariners aren't going to want to wait forever on Morales and could use that money elsewhere if other free agents are willing to sign, so my gut says he could wind up back in Seattle on something like a three-year, $38 million deal if he agrees relatively soon. But the longer it goes, the less likely he'll return to Seattle unless the Mariners just can't find other options to fill their DH spot.

With all of the free-agent signings happening already, it seems like the Mariners are missing their opportunity. What are your thoughts on why free agents may not want to come to Seattle?
-- Scott B., Ogden, Utah

While I know it can seem like players are getting snapped up left and right since every signing creates a headline and some buzz, most of the top free agents are still available. By one RotoWorld rating I just looked at, only two of the top 20 and 11 of the top 50-ranked free agents had signed as of Friday morning. Typically, the majority of free agents wait until the Winter Meetings (Dec. 9-12) or beyond in order to test their market and find the best possible deals.

There are things the Mariners need to overcome -- primarily the reputation of Safeco Field as a tough hitters' park and the recent run of losing seasons -- but there are also positives for Zduriencik to sell. Seattle is one of the favorite cities to visit for many players, the park is beautiful, there is an opportunity to have a big impact on a young club building now with a new manager and, most importantly, the Mariners have quite a bit of available money without a lot of long-term commitments already on the books this offseason.

You previously mentioned Nelson Cruz has the problem of the 50-game suspension he served this season, but won't that be a good opportunity for the Mariners to get him at a reasonable price?
-- Ronald J., Salem, Ore.

The suspension as a result of the Biogenesis investigation doesn't seem to have had much of an impact so far, given shortstop Jhonny Peralta signed a four-year, $53 million deal with the Cardinals despite his own 50-game suspension at the end of last season. Cruz is reportedly seeking something in the four-year, $75 million range, and while he presumably won't get that much, I'll leave it to others to determine what a reasonable price is for a 33-year-old outfielder with limited defensive skills and a career OPS of .912 at Rangers Ballpark and .734 on the road.

Why was promising reliever Carson Smith taken off the Arizona Fall League roster? Was he injured or released?
-- Rick F., Surprise, Ariz.

No, Smith just ran out of gas after a long season and was shut down to get ready for Spring Training instead of pushing him unnecessarily in the AFL. Smith was very impressive for Double-A Jackson with a 1.80 ERA and 15 saves in 50 innings over 44 appearances, with 71 strikeouts and 17 walks. But he wasn't faring as well in the AFL, and Minor League director Chris Gwynn noted that the hard-throwing youngster taxed his arm pretty well in the regular season with his "let it fly" approach, so the club imposed an innings limit and sent him home for some recuperation time.