For the Seattle Mariners, 2012 will once again be a rebuilding year. It's something that fans have come to expect from the ballclub over the better part of the past decade, but this time the M's are taking the approach of building from the bottom up.
With prospects both at the plate and especially on the mound, the Mariners now seem poised to turn a corner following the misery the franchise has endured the past two seasons.
So while only the most diehard of fans would expect a trip to the postseason, this season could be the beginning of something far bigger as we start to see which players are capable of contributing now and, more importantly, later.
Players like Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero and Danny Hultzen may not be household names today outside of the Pacific Northwest, but by season's end, they and a handful of others could have people talking about the Mariners' future.
Understand though when I'm discussing breakout season, I'm trying to keep expectations within reason.
This is still a very young team trying to find its way; hence you won't see anybody putting up career/prime numbers...think more along the lines of Ken Griffey Jr. 1989-1990, versus MVP Junior 1996-1999...
On some levels, this would seem easy to be an easy choice given Ackley was the No. 2 pick in 2009 following Stephen Strasburg. Last year as a rookie, he finally gave Mariner fans a solid showing for more than half a season.
Statistically speaking, Ackley's figures were encouraging but modest given he was playing within a punchless Mariner lineup by the time he arrived in June of last year, and he seemed to tire out a bit by the end of the season given how much the team slumped after his arrival.
This year, situated at the top of the order—either at leadoff or the No. 2 spot—one would like to think he could score a hundred runs if he can raise his average just a little bit from last year's .273 figure, cut down on the strikeouts, and get some help from the guys hitting behind him, namely Ichiro.
A statistical line of .285 / 15 / 75 with perhaps a 100 runs and just shy of 20 steals would make for an impressive sophomore season, as we begin to see Ackley mature as a hitter some day being capable of manning the No. 3 spot.
It's okay Mariner fans—you can get excited.
After years of watching this team piece together one punchless lineup after another, the Mariners front office might finally have someone capable of delivering some power.
Jesus Montero comes to Seattle with big shoes to fill, and on some levels the expectations are almost unfair given his youth and the current supporting cast.
While I don't see Montero hitting thirty homeruns this year or driving in a hundred runs, what I do see is someone capable of anchoring the heart of the M's order for years to come.
This year will be a test for Montero both at the plate and behind it, but I'm fairly confident (or perhaps blindly hopeful) that the once prized Yankee prospect makes his mark.
Similar to Dustin Ackley, a stat line of .265 / 20 / 85 may not make anyone swoon, but it would be a solid start to a career.
This spring a lot of excitement circled around the names Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, and Erasmo Ramirez in regards to young pitching.
But Blake Beavan could be the guy who ends up making the greatest impact for the better part of 2012.
As Seattle Times Bob Condotta in talking to Mariner pitching coach Carl Willis reported from spring training:
"Beavan went 5-6 in 15 starts for the Mariners last year, then dedicated himself to getting in even better shape over the offseason.
'I think the confidence he built in himself, seeing he could compete at the highest level; he really did a lot of hard work over the winter and it's evident here — he really came in here ready to go and he's been nothing short of outstanding,' Willis said."
Situated at the back end of the rotation, I could see Beavan quitely winning 10-12 games, picking up a few more strikeouts, and keeping his earned run average under four.
At 6'7" we may expect more power with strikeouts, but understand that not everyone can be an ace like Felix Hernandez. Yet, if Beavan can build confidence over time along with his command, his value can also be significant within the rotation once the big name prospects (Hultzen, Paxton, Walker, and Ramirez) arrive.
Will the No. 2 pick in last year's draft get the call this season?
Right now, there seem to be more than enough players to fill out the rotation.
At the same time, beyond Felix and Jason Vargas, I have my doubts that both presumed starters Hisashi Iwakuma and Hector Noesi are going to stick long-term in the rotation. Unfortunately Iwakuma still hasn't managed to get comfortable so far this spring, and Noesi is being converted to a starter after working out of the bullpen last year with the Yankees.
Meanwhile, the Mariners may also be shopping Vargas by summer time if he gets off to a solid start and the team finds itself buried in the standings. In this case, they might flip him for prospects, similar to last year with Doug Fister.
Factor in all of those points—along with Hultzen pitching lights out in the minors—and we could see the young lefty from UVA in a Mariner uniform by around the All-Star break.
Once he gets to Seattle, I could see him having continued success with a solid second half, perhaps winning 6-7 games across roughly a dozen starts while showing the command and poise of a veteran. It's not much, but it's a start.
Right now, Chone Figgins looks to be the starting third baseman for the Mariners this season. However, I don't see that lasting beyond July.
Meanwhile some Mariner fans would love to see Vinnie Catricala starting at third this season, but I still think he needs some seasoning in the minors.
Somewhere in between, Kyle Seager has managed to keep himself in the running with three homeruns this spring and just missed a fourth due to a rain out on Sunday.
Could the small sample from this spring translate to bigger things?
In 2012, I think it can, as manager Eric Wedge explained to the Seattle Times Bob Condotta:
'He's really driven the ball better this spring. He's always been a good, hard contact guy. But he's stronger, his body is working better because he is a little bit more flexible and his core is in a little bit better condition for him from a baseball standpoint and he's been swinging the bat well.'
Seager has the talent to play every day, yet the Mariners are going to have to make a decision on whether they have room for him at some point.
If he can consistently get in the lineup, Seager could hit at least .270 / 10 / 50 this year. Not the numbers you want from your starting third baseman, but figures you would be willing to accept at second base.
If the M's are willing to mentally swap the production of Seager and Ackley, it could work in 2012.
Where Seager ends up five years from now remains a mystery, but I like to think if given a genuine chance this year, he will be starting in the major leagues in someone's infield.