Well, with pitchers and catchers reporting in a little over two days, I feel it's the best time to make analyses and predictions that are sure to be incorrect six months from now. But just the same, I haven't written anything in a while, and I've got itchy typing fingers. So here we go!
Last year, the Mariners were the darlings of the media to compete for the AL West title, building on the previous year's improvements. The big trade for Eric Bedard was seen as the missing piece of the puzzle for a Mariners winner.
Those hopes quickly fizzled as the Mariners never seemed to get off the bus anywhere they went. When the hitters were struggling, the bullpen was good, but the starters couldn't get their heads together. Then the hitters would warm up, and the pitchers would fall off. This led to an abysmal start, the firing of the manager, General Manager, and the release of beloved but struggling slugger Richie Sexson.
New year, new staff.
GM Bill Bavasi: out. GM Jack Zduriencik: in.
Manager Jim McClaren and his staff: out. Manager Don Wakamatsu and his staff: in.
J.J. Putz and Shawn Greene shipped to the Mets, in come prospects to replace them.
So, with all this turnover, what are the Mariners going to look like in '09? Here's what I think.
Jeff Clement appears to be the early favorite to be the starter. A first-round pick from a couple of years ago who has struggled a bit when called up, he still has enormous potential. A little alarming is his tendency to struggle against righties and pound against lefties, despite being a left-handed hitter.
Kenji Johjima makes the most money, but is also coming off a dismal 2008 season and is now thought to be imminently disposable thanks to top prospect Adam Moore, who may be a late season call-up or a next-year type of prospect. The kind of money Johjima is making will make it difficult to trade him unless he comes out of the gate blazing, so Rob Johnson may end up DH-ing or back at AAA.
Your guess is as good as mine. The early word is that Russell Branyan will be the starter on Opening Day, with Bryan LaHair the backup. Neither option seems appealing to this writer, as both tend to hit about the same. In fact, both put up identical averages, with Branyan having a bit more pop.
Keep an eye on Mike Carp, though, one of the prospects received in the Putz trade. He's an appealing player with no Major League experience, but if the Mariners start out horribly he could easily leap-frog Branyan and LaHair with a hot start in AAA.
You would think this was a no-brainer. Jose Lopez had his best season yet, and despite struggling a bit defensively at times, he was the most consistent bat other than Raul Ibanez and Ichiro Suzuki. But the new management has hinted that recently-acquired middle infielder Ronny Cedeno will compete for playing time at both second base and shortstop to "light a fire under those guys (Betancourt and Lopez)." Lopez, should he fight off Cedeno, should slide into the No. 3 spot in the order and have another good season.
This is the position most likely to give Cedeno a chance to take the starting job. Yuniesky Betancourt has made some spectacular plays at the position, but has booted some unbelievably easy ones too often. Couple that with his free-swinging attitude and little to no stolen base acumen, and a young guy like Cedeno with better legs and a steadier glove may steal the job from him, and a few more bases besides.
By now, everyone should realize Adrian Beltre is not going to hit .300 with 40 home runs, but he will give you about .270 with 25, making him the best choice for the fourth spot in the lineup (on this team at least).
His glove work will keep him at third, with no competition forthcoming from young Matt Tuiasosopo. Beltre may be trade bait around midseason, depending on his performance, as his contract is expiring and the big paycheck may not deter teams as much as in the past.
Don't pencil, but ink, Ichiro's name into right field. He ain't moving, although I've always thought his glove was wasted in right.
Franklin Gutierrez, coming over from the Indians in the big Putz trade, will take over in center, and with his great coverage and laser arm will acquit himself nicely in the field, if unspectacular at the plate.
Left field has been handed to Endy Chavez, but with a .194 average against lefties he could platoon with either Mike Morse, who had a hot Spring last year but blew out arm early, or Wladimir Balentien, he of the near .200 average, depending on who comes to Spring in better shape with a hotter bat.
Unfortunately, if you take Ichiro's .300+ average out of the equation, the outfield average is around .220, so don't expect much out of left and center.
Felix Hernandez will take the top spot in the rotation, showing when healthy to be one of the best pitchers in the game.
Erik Bedard, coming off an injury-riddled season, will be the No. 2 guy, and, if healthy, will make the top of the Mariners rotation formidable indeed.
Jarrod Washburn gave what he usually does, mid-4.00 ERA and a steady innings eater. He'll do the same, and may get moved midseason to a contender, when lefty starters with playoff experience are in demand.
Carlos Silva blew up last year, physically and statistically. The word is, he's 20 pounds lighter and more focused, but he'll have to perform very well to hold off Brandon Morrow, who is the future fire-balling righty who will supplant him in the rotation.
Ryan Rowland-Smith, shuttling back and forth between the bullpen and rotation last year, appears to have the last spot all but locked up, and may be a younger, slightly more talented version of Jarrod Washburn.
If everyone stays healthy and gets some run support, the starting rotation may be a bright spot for the Mariners this year.
With J.J. Putz and Sean Green gone to the Mets, the bullpen is searching for the shut-down closer and steady middle reliever it no longer has.
Mark Lowe is the favorite to take the closer job, but has had health issues in the past. He has the stuff and the attitude to do it, but can he keep control of his fastball with two outs and runners on?
Roy Corcoran appears to be the de facto set-up man, but that's an open competition that anyone can rise up and take. Miguel Batista appears to be the long middle-relief guy, as he's done it before, but the rest of the pen has big question marks over it.
Health is always a factor, but barring major injury the starting pitching staff has the most depth and best chance to be great this year. The relief corps may be good, but that's a big question mark at this point. Defense will be much better with the new additions.
The biggest flaw in this team is still the batting order. Take Ichiro, Beltre, and Lopez out of it, and everyone else is a huge drop off. There's not a person other than those three who batted higher than .250, and none slugged more than 15 home runs.
If the pitchers carry the load, this team may hit the .500 mark this year, but the batters are going to keep the Mariners from going any further.
Early prediction: 60-70 wins, last place in the division.