Spring Training 2: Seattle Mariners

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The Spring Training series continues with Spiffy’s favorite team, the Seattle Mariners. I’ve become a little bit of a fan myself, mostly because I want Spiff to be happy, and his other Seattle teams are on rough times: the Seahawks have sucked since losing the Super Bowl a few years ago, though there’s hope for the future with the addition of Pete Carroll; and Andy’s former NBA team has moved to my city and become the best young team in the league, so Seattleans (?) in general and Spiff in particular need the M’s to do well.

Will they? Read on.

A Look Back

2009 Season

The Mariners were a surprise team to most of us in 2009. I didn’t like at all their chances to go .500, but they reached that mark and passed it, finishing 85-77. That record would have had the Mariners in the thick of the race in the AL Central, but Seattle still wound up third in the AL West, 12 games behind the juggernaut Los Angeles Angels, who posted the second-best record in baseball. Still, the Mariners were in contention for much of the season, and it was a positive step forward, notching just their second winning season since 2003, after losing 101 games in 2008.

The Offseason

Did anyone have a better a better offseason than the Mariners? In short, no, as general manager Jack Zduriencik has become a legend in just one year on the job. They let third baseman Adrian Beltre sign with the Red Sox, having replaced him with the speedy Chone Figgins. Figgins not only gives the M’s another top-of-the-order bat, but signing him also hurts his old team, the Angels. They followed that up with an even bigger move, trading for ace Cliff Lee from the Phillies. Seattle did give up some nice prospects to get Lee, but no one who qualifies as a “can’t miss.” The Mariners then extended their other ace, Felix Hernandez, to a very reasonable deal. Ditto for center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, who signed a very cheap extension, and shortstop Jack Wilson, who got a two-year deal. If Jack Z made one questionable move, it was trading young starter Brandon Morrow to the Blue Jays for reliever Brandon League, shoring up the bullpen at the cost of high upside rotation depth. But Seattle rebounded with an incentive-laden deal for perennial disappointment Erik Bedard, who’s coming off surgery but still has ace ability if healthy. 

Offensively, other upgrades were a bit harder to come by. They did trade pitcher Carlos Silva, perhaps the most worthless player on an MLB roster, for troubled outfielder Milton Bradley. Bradley can be a good hitter, but he struggles with injuries even more than he does with outbursts, and the M’s are going to be paying him a lot of money. Seattle let first baseman Russell Branyan leave after a career year of 31 home runs, and he just recently signed with Cleveland. Seattle had justifiable concerns about Branyan’s health, consistency and defense, and so they traded spare part Bill Hall for Red Sox backup 1B Casey Kotchman, a great defender with a so-so bat. Then they signed Ryan Garko to platoon with Kotchman. And somewhere in there, they signed Eric Byrnes as a backup outfielder, Josh Bard to throw in the mix at catcher, and gave veteran Mike Sweeney a minor league deal.

Whew.

The Team

Catcher

The Mariners have several areas of uncertainty, but none has bigger potential for disaster than catcher. Seattle will try to turn over the everyday catching duties to Adam Moore, who got a September call-up last year but looked terrible. The Mariners hope Moore is their catcher of the future, and he does have nice power potential, which is always nice from a catcher. But he’s about to turn 26 and he’s not a young prospect, so we’ll see how much room he has to grow. Pairing with Moore is Rob Johnson, who is great defensively, but slugged a whopping .326 last year. Whether either of these guys can hit at all is very much in question, so the M’s added veteran Josh Bard as insurance, but it’s not like he’s going to hit much, either. Some teams could just roll Johnson out there and be satisfied with strong D and good game-calling from their catcher, but the already light-hitting Mariners have to be hoping Moore, or someone, breaks out with the bat.

First Baseman

The M’s certainly aren’t sexy at first base, but I kind of like their duo: Casey Kotchman and Ryan Garko. Neither is great by himself, but they could form a potent platoon. First of all, both are plus defenders, especially Kotchman, which fits in with Seattle’s overall strategy of building with pitching and defense in a pitchers’ park. Kotchman looked like a budding star before the Angels traded him, and he’s never fully recovered his power potential. Safeco Field isn’t the place to recover power, but Kotch is in his age 27 season. Garko’s overall numbers don’t look great, but he kills lefties. Paired with the left-handed Kotchman, the Mariners can play to both players’ strengths. The result could be 25ish home runs with a .280-.290 average from first base for Seattle, all with solid defense.

Acquiring this duo means that the Mike Carp era will likely have to wait in Seattle. Carp is a 23-year-old lefty 1B prospect with massive power potential. He could get a call-up if Kotch/Garko struggle, or maybe if the M’s need a lift at DH. Veteran 1B/DH Mike Sweeney may or may not see much of the major leagues this year, but what his bat lacks at this point in this career, his personality apparently makes up for, as he’s known as a great clubhouse guy.

Second Base

Rumors have swirled since Jack Z took over in Seattle that he wants to trade away starting second baseman Jose Lopez. And to be certain, Lopez is the weakest link in Z’s defense-first philosophy. But if I’m a Mariners fan, then I’m thrilled Lopez didn’t depart. He’s the best power hitter in that lineup, and he’s only 26. He went 25-96-.272 last year, one of the best offensive performances by a second baseman, though Lopez still went largely under the radar. It is worth noting that he hasn’t learned to draw walks yet, posting just a .303 OBP. If he can develop some patience, he’ll be a star, even if his defense would be better suited at first.

If anything happens to Lopez, though, the M’s don’t have a strong back-up, unless super prospect Dustin Ackley can make his MLB debut a year early. Figgins can and has played second, but moving him would just open a hole at third. Jack Hannahan is the utility infielder, and from what I read, his D can play well at any position. But his batting numbers are U-G-L-Y, and he ain’t go no alibi.

Shortstop

It’s all about Jack Wilson, whom the M’s picked up from the Pirates in a deal last year. Any offense Wilson gives you is gravy; count yourself quite lucky if his average hits .270. But the heart of Wilson’s value is all about defense. Wilson has never actually won a Gold Glove, which is probably evidence of how messed up the GG voting is, but he gives that caliber of defense. Watch for him on Web Gems, where he’s always a regular, and his pitching staff will be thanking him for the plays he’ll make.

Hannahan will back up here, as well.

Third Base

Offseason addition Chone Figgins will man the hot corner for Seattle this year. Figgins might not be the vacuum cleaner at third that the Mariners’ last 3B, Adrian Beltre, was, but he’s still a solid defender, maybe even a plus defender. But most importantly is what he gives the M’s at the top of the batting order. Right fielder Ichiro Suzuki has long held down leadoff, but adding Figgins to bat second gives Seattle the best 1-2 punch at the top of a lineup. Figgins is a safe bet to hit near .300, score 100 runs, and steal at least 40 bases. With the Mariners lacking in big boppers, the speedy combination of Ichiro and Figgins will allow the team to play small ball and manufacture runs.

Again, it’s Hannahan backing up. I think this is his most natural position, as I remember him filling in for Beltre a while last year.

Outfield

I’m a fan of Seattle’s outfield, which should be a relative strength. Admittedly, it lacks a true RBI man, which will hurt the team at times. But the defense is outstanding, and there’s potential for nice offensive role players.

Leading the way is superstar right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. The best contact hitter of the past decade, Ichiro will get 200 hits and play great defense, as he always does. His steals have gone down some, but he’s still about as reliable of a table-setter as you’ll find.

In center field, the defense gets even better. Franklin Gutierrez was robbed of a Gold Glove last year, but he robs a lot more guys of base hits. He might be the best defensive outfielder at any spot in the game, and he’s developing into a nice offensive player too, hitting 18 HRs last year with a .283 average. He’s in his age 27 season, and has room to grow, particularly with plate discipline. If he turns into that RBI guy, to go with his D, then look out.

Left field is a bit more of a question mark. It appears the Mariners will go with Milton Bradley as the main starter after trading for him in the offseason. After a great 2008 with the Texas Rangers, Bradley had a disastrous 2009 with the Cubs, hitting .257 and eventually getting run out of town after pissing off practically everyone on the team. Bradley knows this might be his last chance, so I’m not just terribly worried about outbursts this year, though it’s always a possibility with him. The bigger concern should be his health, as he’s always been injury prone, and whether he can be consistent with the bat.

Bradley will also get some starts at DH, too, giving opportunities to Seattle’s backup outfielders. One of those is Eric Byrnes, another offseason acquisition. Byrnes has great years in 2006 and 2007 for Arizona, cashing in with a nice contract, then turning in two awful season in 2008 and 2009 before getting released and signed with the Mariners for next to nothing. I think he rebounds some, though not to his 2007 level. He’s a fun player to watch, too; tons of hustle.

Michael Saunders will also be in the mix for the Mariners. Saunders is one of Seattle’s top prospects, and they would love to see him force his way into increased playing time, as he’s the future in left. Ryan Langerhans is also around, and I think he can play center in addition to left. Just don’t expect much from his bat.

Designated Hitter

For presumably the last time, this season will open with Ken Griffey Jr. as the starter. Griffey is one of the greatest sluggers of my generation, though he’s clearly reaching the end of the line. He still has some pop — hitting 19 home runs last year in under 400 at-bats — but hit just .214. It’d be nice to see him go out on a strong note, but I don’t know that he has much left in the tank.

As I mentioned, one would expect Bradley to get some looks at DH, which might help keep him healthy. Ryan Garko may also be in the mix, as could Sweeney and Carp at some point.

Bench

This looks like a weakness to me. It’s true that you can get by with a shallower bench in the American League, but you’d like for it to not be quite so shallow. Hannahan is the only utility infielder, and he’s all defense; so, if any of the infielders go down for long, an already iffy offense could struggle. If Saunders needs more seasoning, then the outfield depth consists of just Byrnes and Langerhans, neither one of whom are a poster boy for high expectations. Garko gives one decent pinch hitter, but that’s about it.

Starting Pitchers

I think the jury is still out on the Mariners’ rotation. When you see their top two, it’s easy to just say daaaaaamn. But the dropoff after that 1-2 punch could be severe and costly.

We start with Felix Hernandez. King Felix has tantalized fans with his huge potential since he broke into the league at age 19. But last year, he put it all together for a Cy Young-caliber year, winning 19 games with a 2.49 ERA and 217 Ks (but still finished second in the Cy behind Zack Greinke). This year, I think he grabs that Cy Young Award. Joining him at the top of the rotation is fellow ace Cliff Lee, who has had two brilliant years with the Indians and Phillies. What’s more, Lee is in a contract year, so he should be extra motivated.

After that, I would feel much less at ease about the rotation. Much of a person’s judgment about what comes next depends on how you view Ryan Rowland-Smith. RRS looked impressive last year, posting a 3.74 ERA in 15 starts. But I would be surprised to see his ERA finish below 4 this year. He’s a solid pitcher, but I think he’s more of a No. 4 or 5 starter, not the strong No. 3 he’s being asked to be. Ian Snell is intriguing for Seattle fans. He looked like a budding star in 2007 for the Pirates, but fell apart after that and burned his bridges in Pittsburgh. If he can regain his potential at age 28, then the Mariners will be in good shape.

Doug Fister appears to have the edge to start the year as the fifth starter, though Luke French is a possibility. Either one would pitch like a fifth starter, so nothing to get excited about there. Garrett Olson and Jason Vargas are other depth options, and maybe Yusmeiro Petit.

Giving hope to the rotation is Erik Bedard, whom the Mariners once sold the farm for. Bedard might be back some time in May, but he’s coming off shoulder surgery, so expectations should be tempered. If he comes back at full strength and stays healthy, then Seattle will have an electric top three. If not, then they’ll have to find out whether King Felix and Lee are enough.

Relief Pitchers

The Seattle bullpen was bolstered last season by a breakout year from closer David Aardsma. I think he might have overperformed, but the M’s have other options. Mark Lowe is a guy to watch, as he’s young and throws hard, something anyone would like to have in a closer. If his command improves and Aardsma falters, he should get first shot at saves; even if Aardsma doesn’t struggle, Lowe could be a great set-up man. Joining him is Brandon League, for whom Seattle paid the steep price of Brandon Morrow. Sean White and Shawn Kelley will also be in the mix, and Petit, Vargas, and Olson can be long relievers. If there’s a weakness in this solid bullpen, it’s the lack of a shutdown lefty. As near as I can tell, Vargas is the top lefty, and he doesn’t seem too special. One more name to keep an eye on: Chad Cordero, who has 128 career saves after a dominating start to his career in Washington. He’s missed almost two full seasons, though, and hasn’t regained his velocity yet. If he does, though, he’ll be a huge bargain for Seattle.

The Result

Divisional Competition

I’ve said it before and will say it several more times: the AL West is going to be craaaaazy this year. There are only four teams, but all four are very legitimate contenders to win the division. You have the Los Angeles Angels going for their fourth-straight division title. But the Angels lost John Lackey and Chone Figgins, not to mention Vladimir Guerrero. They’ll need Jered Weaver to become a full-fledged ace, as well as get rebound seasons from Scott Kazmir and Ervin Santana; nice outings from Howie Kendrick and rookie Brandon Wood would also help. But I actually like shortstop Erick Aybar to step into Figgins’ leadoff role with just too much dropoff. I also think Hideki Matsui could have a nice year at DH.

The Texas Rangers are the heir apparents to the AL West, with a ridiculously loaded farm system to supplement a team that already has young talents like Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler. But if Rich Harden breaks down, as he always does, then the rotation might be shaky. I don’t love Scott Feldman to repeat last year’s breakout, but if Tommy Hunter progresses and Neftali Feliz steps in, they might be fine anyway.

Lastly, there’s the Oakland Athletics, who could have the best rotation in baseball if things work out: two former All-Stars, Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer, can give the A’s a nice 1-2 punch if healthy, and young guns Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, and Trevor Cahill (not to mention Gio Gonzalez and Vin Mazzaro) round out what could be a great pitching staff, with a great bullpen featuring Rookie of the Year closer Andrew Bailey, Michael Wuertz, Brad Ziegler, and the return of Joey Devine. The A’s just have no offense, and if those injury risks or young pitchers struggle, they could fall out of contention.

The Verdict

I predict the Seattle Mariners will win about 85 games and finish third in the division, behind winner Texas Rangers, second-place Los Angeles Angeles, and ahead of the Oakland Athletics. To be sure, M’s fans will be disappointed if this is the case, as excitement for the team is very high after Jack Z’s brilliant offseason. However, Seattle’s success last year was bolstered by some overperforming veterans, and they were still outscored by 50 runs. It’s tough to stay too far above .500 if you get outscored, which will be a real possibility again this year. Lack of heavy hitting and a weak back of the rotation could cause them to fall a little behind in a tough division.

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3 Responses to “Spring Training 2: Seattle Mariners”

  1. spiffyithaca Says:

    Seattle-ites.

    First off, well done on your research. Nice stuff.

    It’s weird, I fear the Angels the least this year, with the A’s and Rangers have much better offseasons, but then again, making the Angels an underdog is very dangerous (see: 2002/Rally Monkey hijynx).

    Like you, I go back and forth and can’t decide this division one bit, but being an eternal optimist and hopefully biased Mariner fan, I have to predict we’ll finish #1. I believe I picked them to finish #3 last year, which was fairly ballsy at the time (which is sad), so sometimes I’m right (I also picked them to finish 2nd the year they finished last by a billion games, however).

    I know we have a few holes, and you did a great job of highlighting them: catcher, depth on the bench and in the rotation.

    At catcher, I kinda like Rob Johnson. He was brilliant defensively, and really meshed well with the rotation, and had a knack for clutch hits (though he only had like 30 hits all year lol). I think Johnson and Moore are a strong duo for the future and would trust them. We need more production elsewhere to be sure, but I’m not going to go crazy worrying about this position, especially with Moore’s upside. Also, it wasn’t too long ago that Bard was a fantasy relevant catcher with pop.

    It’d be nice if Jack Wilson had a repeat of his All-Star year where he combined his awesome defense with a solid bat. But even I won’t be expecting/hoping for that. I’m just hoping he can stay relatively healthy. He hasn’t the last couple of years, and like you said Hannahan is our only option behind him right now.

    Dave of ussmariner.com called Jack Hannahan the most important utility player in the world (a semi amusing nod to the Dos Equis commercials), because he’s going to have to back up Lopez, Wilson and Figgins in the infield, with little help elsewhere. I kinda like Hannahan to hit a bit better if he’s given regular playing time, but he’s no answer other than a guy to spell the aforementioned players for a game a week or something. I mentioned Felipe Lopez as being more than a utility player (he deserves a spot in the lineup every day after last year), he’d be an awesome fit here if we had the room and he’d be willing to play second fiddle once in awhile.

    The whole roster space issue sucks, because I would’ve loved to see the Mariners sign Carlos Delgado or Gary Sheffield as another DH body/awesomely scary pinch hitter. Sheffield especially can still hit whenever he actually can step on the field.

    I think we’re set in the bullpen, for the most part. I would’ve loved a Darren Oliver signing here, but I think Lowe/Aardsma/League will give us 3 above average relievers who all have the capacity to close. I didn’t like the League/Morrow trade because it’s simply much easier to find able set up man than possible ace righty’s, but I think there’s a far greater probability that League gives us a return on our investment, and looking at his peripherals from last year, I’m tentatively predicting he is our best bullpen arm this year. Would I still have done the trade? I doubt it, especially since I do think Morrow has the talent to not only succeed, but thrive in the majors, at least for a couple years before his arm falls off.

    A Felix/Lee/Bedard/Morrow/RRS rotation would’ve been droolworthy, especially with Snell as a potential lights out set up guy, swing man or great fill in guy in case of injury. I still do really like Snell. Guys like Snell and RRS are who the season hinges on, methinks.

    And while I said I would’ve liked Oliver on the club, I don’t think the lack of a lefty matters. Z and Wak don’t care about the lefty/lefty adage. We have a few guys who can get both righties and lefties out.

    I fucking love our outfield. I think Milton has a year like he did in Texas in 2008, where I believe he led the AL in OPS or was close or something ridiculous. The guy can fucking hit, and I think at least part of his injuries and problems are mental and related to his clubhouse problems. Gutierrez is the man. If he can go 20-90 and be the best defensive centerfielder in the game (his defensive sabermetrics were apparently historic), he’s one of the most valuable players in the world.

    I have one (I think it is) interesting suggestion: hit Ichiro third. I know the Ichiro-Figgins duo at the top of the order is tantalizing, but we lack people that can drive them in, and I’ve always wondered what Ichiro would do if he changed his mindset a bit more, and went for the extra base hit/power. It would certainly turn a lot of heads, and not surprise me one bit, to see him thrive at #3. I would most likely stick with the speedy combo at the top to start the year, but if injuries or a lack of production behind them saps the lineup, I’d go for it. Take a look:

    1. Figgins 3b
    2. Gutierrez CF (he could swap with Bradley too)
    3. Ichiro RF
    4. Lopez 2B (his OBP sucks, but he’s the best run producer we have)
    5. Bradley LF
    6. Kotchman/Garko 1B
    7. Griffey/Warm Body DH
    8. Wilson SS
    9. Johnson/Moore/Bard C

    It’s much better than last year’s triple AAA/retirement home lineup, even if Griffey doesn’t project to do any better. That said, the guy was clutch last year, despite his poor numbers, and is one of the best leaders in MLB.

    So anyways, I could go on forever, so I’ll stop here, but leave with one parting shot. I know the Mariners have a lot of flaws, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit for us to crumble under the expectations. God knows it’s happened before. But I really like this group of guys, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that Jack Z will spend the entire year reacting to injuries or a lack of production, and do all he can to improve the team if he thinks we have a shot at the playoffs and contention. He’s shown a brilliant mind for trades thus far, and trust him to do us right in 2010 (so go get Adrian Gonzalez).

    -Spiffy

  2. davidry214 Says:

    I kept forgetting offseason moves until I got to that position in the team breakdown (such as Byrnes and Bard). Talk about eventful. Jack Z’s wife must have had to start fucking the poolboy with as busy as he was this offseason.

    I had the Angels winning the division when I did my first draft, but changed my mind to Texas. Meanwhile, PECOTA predicted LA to finish fourth. I just really don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Seattle win. Oakland is the longest shot, to me, with Duch already having shoulder problems. But I like Anderson as a strong sleeper, and Sheets apparently looks great. Who knows, I’m too conflicted.

    Bard is two miserable years removed from being offensively relevant. With so many cheap veteran catchers available this offseason, I would have liked to see them sign someone with a bit more to offer. But if you’re going to have offensive concerns at catcher, at least you have a guy like Johnson whose D skills are unquestionable.

    The point about Jack Hannahan is a very valid one. A couple injuries would be devastating to this team, particularly in the infield. That’s true for most teams, but the Rangers are the only team in the West with as little infield depth, now that Khalil Greene won’t be joining the team after all.

    Delgado won’t be playing for three to four months, but I would’ve loved Sheffy. Some AL team should’ve snagged him.

    As for the bullpen, I like Lowe to become your best pitcher. You’re right that League is a surer thing than Morrow at this point, but they could have signed Oliver or someone instead of trading for him. Say they went Oliver, since I’m blanking on other FA middle relievers. He signed for $3.5MM — maybe slightly high, but not unreasonable. How much would an SP with ace potential cost? Rich Harden was the cheapest, at $7.5MM with incentives. Maybe Morrow never does anything and this ends up looking like a good deal, but I don’t think it was a wise move.

    I don’t like Snell anymore, but I do agree that the season hinges largely on him and especially RRS.

    I don’t think Milton has as big of a year as he did in 2008 with Texas; there’s a big difference between Safeco and the Ballpark at Arlington, and he had more lineup protection and less pressure that year. But I do think he bounces back strongly and has a nice, solid year, if not necessarily a brilliant one.

    I love the Ichiro idea. I’d probably start with him and Figgins 1-2, but like you said, if there’s a lack of production that way, why not try it? The Marlins did it with Hanley, the Mets are going to do it with Reyes. I remember hearing when Ichiro was in his ultra-prime that baseball guys thought he could hit 25 HRs if he adjusted to go for power instead of contact. But I wouldn’t even necessarily have him try to adjust like that; just do what he always does, and he’ll drive in a lot of people. If Bradley does have a nice year, I’d put him at second and Gutierrez fifth as his power continues to arrive.

    I know you were at least half kidding about A-Gonzo, but I don’t see how the M’s have the farm depth to make any big trades. They won’t/shouldn’t give up Ackley, and even Triunfel and Saunders wouldn’t get Gonzo (especially with the Red Sox dangling much bigger carrots). So as brilliant as I find Jack Z, I think this is more or less the team.

  3. spiffyithaca Says:

    I think one of the 3 other A’s pitchers will grow into semi-stud-dom along with Anderson and Sheets, but their lineup is worse than ours. Their bullpen might be the best of the division, however.

    The only catchers in free agency that I liked enough to sign were Mike Redmond (who’s a WA guy too), who’s been underrated and so helpful for the Twins the past few years, and perhaps Torrealba (though he flamed out pretty fast on our team last time). Who else was there, and who really is still around?

    I definitely agree that signing Oliver or someone like him and keeping Morrow for the rotation would’ve been wiser and the best of both worlds, but I feel like Z sees something special in League, and really hates most of the guys Bavasi drafted the past couple years, and is trying further to reboot.

    It’ll definitely be hard/impossible to repeat his Rangers year in 2008, but great hitters hit regardless of the ballpark, and I think Milton Bradley will be more motivated this year than he’s ever been, and Safeco isn’t that bad to lefties, which he’ll be hitting the majority of time, presumably with the array of outfielders and DH types we have.

    I’d love to see him try and muscle up, but agreed, the same approach would still work beautifully. If he could hit .350 in the #3 hole after Figgins and Bradley/Gutierrez, jesus. Incredible to think about.

    And I was mostly kidding about Gonzalez. That won’t happen for us. But my point still stands: I think Jack Z will find ways to fill holes if they do arise and I trust him as much as anybody in the game to do so right now. But it’s clearly early. If Ichiro dislocates a hip, we’re doomed.

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