Who will Eric Wedge be counting on in 2012
Coming off of a 67-95 season in 2011, the Seattle Mariners are looking to continue their climb back to the playoffs in the forthcoming 2012 season.
With the additions of Albert Pujols and Yu Darvish to their AL West rivals, the Mariners don’t figure to be a playoff team this year but they should improve on last year's win total.
Despite the disappointing record this past season, the Mariners were relatively quiet during the offseason with the one headliner move being the trade of Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero. Aside from that, the Mariners will return a roster that is very similar to last year's.
To avoid another subpar performance in 2012, the Mariners will need bounce back the season's key veteran players and improvements from the younger players.
Here are seven players who will be critical to the Mariners' success or failure in 2012.
In the trade that moved Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers, the centerpiece sent to Mariners was then-super prospect Justin Smoak.
After a brief 30-game stint with the Mariners in 2010, Smoak was given the starting job at first base in 2011.
The former University of South Carolina star started off the year well but regressed as the season went on and lingering injuries began to take their toll. The final numbers on the year left something to be desired as Smoak hit .234 with 15 home runs and 55 RBI’s.
Despite the struggles of Smoak last season it is important to remember that he is only 25 years old. With another offseason under his belt, Smoak could turn into the power hitter the Mariners need.
For the Mariners to continue their quest back to the top of the AL West, Smoak needs to show marked improvement in the 2012 campaign.
With an offense that isn’t going to scare anybody, the Mariner rotation will be called on to carry the team this season.
The departure of Michael Pineda this offseason means that Jason Vargas will slide into the No. 2 slot in the Mariners' starting rotation. Behind Felix Hernandez and Vargas, the Mariner rotation is filled with question marks.
Vargas has shown the ability to be a dominant pitcher and had three shutouts in 2011 despite the average stuff, but he has struggled with consistency.
To compensate for the question marks in the rotation, the Mariners will need Vargas to take a step forward in 2012.
After a strong debut as a Mariner in 2009, Franklin Gutierrez regressed slightly in 2010 before the bottom dropped out in 2011. Gutierrez’s nightmare 2011 season began in spring training with the diagnosis of a stomach ailment that plagued him throughout the course of the season.
After missing the majority of the first two months of the season, Gutierrez returned to action but never quite found his rhythm. While he did still provide strong defense in center field, Gutierrez was one of the Mariners' worst hitters as he only hit .224 with one HR and 19 RBI’s.
The 2012 season will be a pivotal one for Gutierrez as the Mariners will be evaluating whether or not he fits with the team's future plans.
If Gutierrez can rebound in 2012 and find his hitting stroke, it would further bolster the Mariners' anemic offense.
The Mariner offense in 2011 was bad by almost any metric. This wasn’t surprising as the offensive talent on the team was average at best, but what was surprising was the decline of Ichiro.
After 10 standout seasons in which Ichiro hit for an average above .300 and recorded at least 200 hits in each season, he struggled in 2011 en route to his worst year as Mariner.
At the age of 38, Ichiro’s bat may finally be slowing down, but with speculation that Ichiro may move to third in the order the Mariners appear to believe that he will bounce back in 2012.
If the Mariner offense is to climb out of the bottom five in the league in 2012, they will need Ichiro to shake off last year's down season.
One of the lone bright spots for the Mariners in the 2011 season was the arrival of former top pick Dustin Ackley. Faced with lofty expectations upon his arrival, Ackley didn't disappoint during his 90 games in a Mariner uniform.
By hitting .273 with six HR's, 36 RBI's and showing great plate discipline, Ackley gave Mariner fans a reason to believe the offense will improve in future years.
The continued development—both at the plate and in the field—of Ackley in 2012 will be one of the top story lines for the Mariners this coming season.
Will Montero become a fan favorite?
This may be unfair considering that Montero has a grand total of 18 games played as a professional, but the fact of the matter is that the Mariners' offense will need newly acquired Jesus Montero to contribute immediately.
In exchanging Michael Pineda for Montero, the Mariners acknowledged their offensive situation was in dire need of help. At the age of 22, Montero will be asked to step in and become one of the Mariners' top run producers.
In his 16 games with the Yankees last year, Montero displayed this ability as he hit .328 with four HR’s and 12 RBI’s.
If Montero can step in and provide the Mariners with run production immediately, the Mariners could surprise in 2012.
The third base position has been a weak spot for the Mariners in recent years. When the Mariners decided to essentially bench Figgins in the middle of last season, it led to Kyle Seager taking over at the hot corner.
Seager held his own in his 53 games at third base in 2011 and will be given a chance to prove he can be an everyday starter in 2012.
If Seager can seize the starting spot and continue to develop both offensively and defensively, it would bode well for the Mariners in 2012 and in the future.