In 2012 the Seattle Mariners won 75 games, an improvement of eight wins over 2011, yet at times last season it was difficult to judge whether the team was moving forward, backward or stuck in neutral.
Mixed between the highs and lows of a season that saw Felix Hernandez throw a perfect game and Ichiro leave Seattle, the Mariners' young lineup struggled at times to adjust to life in the major leagues, especially at home at Safeco Field.
Over the winter, the Mariners’ front office set out to help the team's offense by moving in the fences at Safeco Field and made attempts to add outfielders Josh Hamilton via free agency and Justin Upton in a blockbuster deal with Arizona to the lineup. Instead, the Mariners opted for trades that netted Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse with Los Angeles and Washington in addition to signing veteran free agents Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay. Then, just prior to the start of spring training, the team extended Felix Hernandez’s contract through 2019 while making him the richest pitcher in baseball; thus putting a bow on what had overall been a disappointing winter.
Can the Mariners with the fences moved in and a retooled lineup backed by the richest pitcher in baseball continue to progress toward respectability in an already stacked AL West?
Let's take a look and see how the Mariners are shaping up heading into 2013.
2012 Record: 75–87, fourth in AL West
Key Arrivals (courtesy of official site): 2B Robert Andino (from Baltimore), OF Raul Ibanez (FA), RHP Jeremy Bonderman (FA), 1B Mike Jacobs (FA), 1B Kendrys Morales (from LA Angels), LF Jason Bay (FA), C Ronny Paulino (FA), LF Michael Morse (from Washington), RHP Kameron Loe (FA), RHP Jon Garland (FA), LHP Joe Saunders (FA), C Kelly Shoppach (FA).
Key Departures: SS Munenori Kawasaki, LF Trayvon Robinson (to Baltimore), LF Chone Figgins, LHP George Sherrill, RHP Kevin Milwood, C Miguel Olivo, LHP Jason Vargas (to LA Angels), C John Jaso (to Oakland), RHP Shawn Kelley (to New York Yankees).
Projected Starters (per official site)
C: Jesus Montero (.260 / 15 / 62)
1B: Justin Smoak (.217 / 19 / 51)
2B: Dustin Ackley (.226 / 12 / 50)
3B: Kyle Seager (.259 / 20 / 86)
SS: Brendan Ryan (.194 / 3 / 31)
LF: Michael Morse (.291 / 18 / 62)
CF: Franklin Gutierrez (.260 / 4 / 17)
RF: Michael Saunders (.247 / 19 / 57)
DH: Kendrys Morales (.273 / 22 / 73)
1. Felix Hernandez (R) (13-9, 3.06 ERA, 1.14 WHIP)
2. Hisashi Iwakuma (R) (9-5, 3.16, 1.28)
3. Joe Saunders (L) (9-13, 4.07, 1.34)
4. Blake Beavan (R) (11-11, 4.43, 1.26)
5. Erasmo Ramirez (R) (1-3, 3.36, 1.00)
6. Hector Noesi (R) (2-12, 5.82, 1.37)
Closer: Tom Wilhelmsen (R) (4-3, 29 SV, 7 HLD, 5 BLSV, 2.50 ERA, 1.11 WHIP)
Stephen Pryor (R) (3-1, 5 HLD, 3.91, 1.52)
Charlie Furbush (L) (5-2, 1 SV, 6 HLD, 2.72, 0.95)
Oliver Perez (L) (1-3, 0 SV, 5 HLD, 2 BLSV, 2.12, 1.25)
Lucas Luetge (L) (2-2, 2 SV, 12 HLD, 1 BLSV, 3.98, 1.50)
Carter Capps (R) (0-0, 2 HLD, 3.96, 1.44)
Josh Kinney (R) (0-3, 1 SV, 9 HLD, 1 BLSV, 3.94, 1.22)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
The good news is that Felix Hernandez isn't going anywhere and that help is one the way with a special group of youngsters who could make it to Seattle some time this season.
The bad news is that until the likes of Danny Hultzen and James Paxton are ready to join the rotation, the Mariners will have to hope that a mix of veteran imports and fledgling youngsters can hold down the fort.
At first glance Hisashi Iwakuma may seem like a stretch as the team's No. 2 starter entering his second season with the M's after arriving from Japan, yet during the second half of last season he was arguably one of the better pitchers on the roster. Assuming that Iwakuma is far more comfortable going into this season with himself and playing in the major leagues, I'd like to believe he's capable of posting some decent numbers across a full season as a starter while notching double-digit wins.
Coming in at No. 3 in the rotation, veteran Joe Saunders is no stranger to the AL West and Safeco Field having pitched for years with the Angels. Of course it's one thing to pitch against the Mariners rather than with them. Saunders though, much like Iwakuma, may not be young or flashy, but he can hopefully be relied upon to eat innings and occasionally make people forget about the recently traded fan-favorite, lefty Jason Vargas.
It's at this point in the story that I'm not quite sure what to say?
Essentially the No. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation are first come first served with Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez, and Hector Noesi serving as potential candidates until someone else from a crop of veterans like Jeremy Bonderman or Jon Garland or the aforementioned group of prospects such as Hultzen, Paxton, or Brandon Maurer steps forward.
The possibility of one of the youngsters emerging is certainly exciting and not out of the question given how Michael Pineda's performance in the spring of 2011 translated to a spot in the rotation, but nothing short of a "preseason Russell Wilson" month of March will get any of the prospects to Seattle by April.
Instead I can picture the M's taking the best option from the Beavan, Ramirez, Noesi trio and either Bonderman or Garland based on which one can get the ball over the plate with the greatest degree of consistency hoping they can stay healthy long enough to promote the likes of Hultzen by mid-June.
In short, you will continue to love Felix, feel a sense of indifference towards Iwakuma and Saunders, and pray for rain until one of the top prospects comes up from Tacoma some time before the All-Star break.
Scouting the Bullpen
Last season the bullpen looked like a disaster in the early going as closer Brandon League struggled mightily before giving way to journeyman Tom Wilhelmsen.
Meanwhile beyond the pleasant surprise of Wilhelmsen and his 29 saves, several other "spare parts" began to click as Charlie Furbush, Oliver Perez and Josh Kinney carved roles for themselves while rookies Lucas Luetge, Stephen Pryor, and Carter Capps cut their teeth to varying degrees of success at the major league level.
So what's next for the M's bullpen in 2013?
Perhaps no one individual stands out as here exceptional, yet I can see this unit being greater than the sum of its parts and believe they can be the key to how many games this team wins and loses.
With an eclectic mix of lefties and righties, youth and experience, power and finesse, the Mariners bullpen may make believers of even the most jaded fan this season if they can help the team not only hang on, but button down close games.
If not it could be another long summer in Seattle.
Scouting the Hitting
For the Mariners there's really nowhere to go but up following years and years of mediocrity.
With the infusion of veterans Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, and to a lesser extent Raul Ibanez along with Jason Bay, the Mariners offense would look to be moving in the right direction provided general manager Jack Zduriencik has a time machine hidden somewhere in Safeco Field.
Joking aside, it will be certainly be interesting to see if the mixture of veterans and youngsters will properly mesh into a productive or at the very least entertaining lineup.
Yet who can be trusted to lead the way?
Last year the M's banked on a trio of youngsters in Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, and Justin Smoak, only to see them struggle, in some cases mightily. Meanwhile third baseman Kyle Seager and outfielder Michael Saunders seemingly came out of nowhere to lead the team in several offensive categories after earning every day roles. Beyond them and catcher John Jaso who was traded to Oakland for Morse, it proved difficult to find any meaningful signs of consistency, especially at home at Safeco Field.
Things became so bad for the Mariners at home last year, that the powers that be decided to change the dimensions of the ballpark with the hopes of changing the dynamic...namely that Safeco is a hitters graveyard.
At the same time let's not forget that the change is neutral for both the Mariners and their opponents which makes me feel the move is more of a placebo to help kick-start the offense.
Of course if it does work will the results be attributed to the altered nature of Safeco or the nurturing of a young lineup with power hitting vets?
That depends on whether Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales can stay healthy and productive enough to form a solid foundation in the middle of the order capable of taking the pressure off the younger guys to do all of the heavy lifting.
That's not to say anyone like Justin Smoak for example should be given a free pass, but according to manager Eric Wedge via Geoff Baker at The Seattle Times, Smoak will be the M's starting first baseman to open this season unless 'something drastic' happens.
What worries me is how do we define drastic with this team?
To me what happens to the core group of Smoak, Ackley, Montero and now Seager and Saunders is critical when you consider that Morse and Morales are only under contract for this season. Before all is said and done, no less than three of the five youngsters need to stake their claim as part of the long-term nucleus in Seattle, otherwise I'm fearful the cycle of offensive mediocrity will continue.
That may seem harsh, but veterans such as Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay and even mainstays such as Brendan Ryan and Franklin Gutierrez simply aren't part of the big picture regardless of their contributions this upcoming season based on their age and health. They may contribute to the cause with their talent and wisdom, but the true measure of success will depend largely on how well the quintet of young hitters respond to the duo of Morse and Morales.
It's not often you get a second chance in life that can change the past, present and future, but for Morse a return to Seattle could accomplish all three if this year things go according to plan.
A solid season in which Morse rediscovers the joy of playing in Seattle can hopefully erase any bad memories about his trade to Washington in 2009, help the current Mariners lineup find their stroke with him at the heart of the order and perhaps lead him to sign a deal beyond this season to stay if all parties agree that's best.
On some levels it's wishful thinking, but it's not a pipe dream either as Morse seems to be embracing his return to the M's based on early reports coming from camp.
Even if he decides this is only a one year stint, it still can't hurt to have someone capable of hitting .280 with 20 HR and 80 RBI potential in the cleanup spot.
Who else? Some day we may have a debate here, but for this season Hernandez is hands down the best thing the Mariners have going for them on their entire roster.
Will he have a monster season now that he's inked the richest deal for a pitcher in all of baseball?
I believe Felix will be solid, but not quite perfect in 2013.
My biggest concern though is that Felix will try to do too much especially in the early going as means of showing his gratitude and to help keep the team afloat while the rest of the roster comes together.
Of course the last thing the Mariners need is Felix getting hurt. Instead let's hope the King eases his way into the season and his big contract while providing the steady leadership the M's need for the better part of the next decade.
There are quite a few players you could choose here, but I'm going with the guy who seemed like a sure thing and potential future face of the franchise going into last season.
Unfortunately, Ackley never became the catalyst the Mariners desperately needed at the top of the order and speculation swirled for the better part of the season as to the reason why.
This spring Ackley isn't making any excuses, but he's not getting any ringing endorsements from manager Eric Wedge either according to Doug Pacey of The Associated Press:
"I think he's going to be a good big-league hitter," Wedge said. "I don't like to make predictions like that, but I think he's going to be a good big-league hitter. I think he's going to be a better hitter this year. To what degree, I don't know. I think he's very capable of being a good big-league hitter."
During a time of year where hope springs eternal for anyone with a pulse, that's not what you want hear about the player the team drafted with the second overall pick following Stephen Strasburg back in 2009.
The question for 2013 is which Dustin Ackley will show up? The dynamic top of the order Wade Boggs type from the second half of 2011 or the guy that seemed to have slipped a gear or two last year.
According to the projections, there's little need to get excited as the general consensus has Ackley hitting roughly .250 with 12 HR and 55 RBI with 80 runs scored thus making Wedge's quote sound all the more on point.
That's a shame really because I like to think that Ackley is a much better ball player than what we're being led to believe and if given a mulligan on last year could end up becoming the dynamo we saw during his rookie year.
If Ackley can become the table setting catalyst atop the batting order, then perhaps the guys behind him will get better pitches to drive him in and led the M's offensive resurgence?
If not it would simply be nice to see a highly touted home grown offensive player find his niche without having to leave Seattle, otherwise all our hopes and dreams will be pinned on the next guy.
Prospect to Watch
For those of you tired of wishing, hoping, and waiting on the Big Three, I present to you someone who may actually play every day for the Mariners for hopefully a very long time.
Last spring when the Mariners drafted third overall, I wasn't so sure about this pick, but over the course of the summer Zunino basically made me eat those words by knocking the cover off the ball while making it all the way up to Double-A Jackson before playing in the Arizona Fall League once the MiLB season ended.
So what's next for Zunino?
While I'm unsure we will see him in Seattle this year, I wouldn't rule it out. If the Mariners quickly crash and burn and become sellers at the trade deadline, the urge to promote Zunino may be that much stronger.
Even if things fall into place for the M's, some times talent simply wins out and at the rate Zunino is going it may be hard to keep him down on the farm for all of 2013.
What the Mariners Will or Won't Do Well?
Well they did install a new scoreboard this winter and the hydroplane races are always a crowd pleaser, but seriously this a bit of a tricky question.
Over the last few years the M's have been good, bad, and ugly, all while promising us that better times are just around the corner.
Yes, the Mariners have arguably the best pitcher in baseball under contract until 2019, but the rotation behind him is a total crap shoot.
The bullpen has a few lively arms, but no one you would consider unstoppable.
As for the offense, they're bringing in the fences with the hope that it might help.
Defensively they have one of the best shortstops in the major leagues in Brendan Ryan, but he in all likelihood lost out on a Gold Glove because he couldn't hit above the Mendoza Line. In center field Franklin Gutierrez actually won a Gold Glove in 2010, but hasn't played over 100 games in a season since.
We've got plenty of young talent, but either they haven't cemented their spot as part of the core nucleus moving forward or they're still a year away from even arriving in Seattle down on the farm.
One minute you love this team, the next you ask yourself why you even bother...and then something wonderful happens. Felix takes the mound and for one night each week over the course of the summer you suspend your beliefs, prejudices, questions, and doubts to watch a master at work.
Win or lose, that night you go to bed with a sense of belonging and hope for something greater...greater for you, greater for Felix, greater for the Mariners, greater for Seattle.
Then you wake up the next morning to see that Hector Noesi is scheduled to pitch later that day, shake your head and mutter under your breath, "eh forget it..."
This time of year fans all across America believe if one particular player stays healthy and if another player can make a few important adjustments, then maybe our team will finally turn the corner.
Couldn't the Mariners catch lightning in a bottle similar to Oakland last season?
As much as I would like to join the ranks of the optimistic, for the Mariners this year there are simply too many Ifs and Buts required for something truly special to happen. General manager Jack Zduriencik has tried his best this winter to retool the roster, but may be running short on time along with manager Eric Wedge if this team fails to deliver some excitement.
With the Angels, Rangers, and A's all set to compete for the division title with rosters built to win now, the Mariners will likely find themselves on the outside looking in this year.
That's not to say that this season is already a lost cause.
Beyond winning ballgames though what the Mariners need to is win the hearts of their fans and strive for some semblance of relevance. Right now the Seahawks appear poised to own Seattle for the next decade if things continue to progress as planned. Meanwhile I'm no longer certain that the Mariners are even the second most popular team in town?
If it wasn't for Felix signing an extension to stay with the M's just last week, you could argue that the mere idea of the Sonics returning to Seattle has more people excited than anything the Mariners could do on the field of play.
Perhaps it's unfair to turn this into a popularity contest, but for over a decade now the Mariners organization has been selling us only a handful of real ballplayers (namely Ichiro and Felix) and twenty something bobble-heads to fill out the rest of the roster.
For today some of us may still feel warm and fuzzy about Felix opting to stay with the circus, but will we feel the same when Hector Noesi or Blake Beavan takes the mound in late June if the team is sitting seven or eight game under .500 and a dozen games behind at least two teams in the standings?
At some point you figure, it has to get better right?
Sadly there are no guarantees, just ask anyone in Pittsburgh still rooting for the Pirates.
This year I do believe the Mariners will improve upon last year's win total, but not everyone you see today will make it to the finish line. I'm hopeful though that we will finally see the team separate the men from the boys by finding answers to many of the questions outlined here while playing an entertaining brand of baseball.
Otherwise you're probably better off spending your time this summer keeping your eyes focused down the road in Tacoma watching the Big Three, Mike Zunino and Nick Franklin brush up on their skills before they arrive in Seattle either this year or next.
Projected Record: 78-84, fourth in AL West.