The first month of the baseball season is in the books with the Seattle Mariners among the league's biggest surprises, sitting atop the AL West with a 13-9 mark.
It's a record that seemed highly unlikely given the M's 101-loss campaign in 2008, the complete overhaul of the team, and the fact that their April schedule included matchups with the Angels, Rays, White Sox, and Twins.
Are the Mariners a better team than most of us suspected?
Or are they doing this with smoke and mirrors, only to level off once we get into the dog days of the season?
The answer—as it usually turns out to be—is a little bit of both. Remember, people expected big things from the Mariners last year. Now, some of those players are still around, living up to last year's expectations. So, there is some good. But there are also some red flags that could bring the good ship Mariner back down to earth.
Starting pitching: What was supposed to be a strength last year has finally materialized, with Felix Hernandez leading the way.
For all his accolades, Felix has been just an okay pitcher (43-36, 3.73 ERA entering 2009). But so far this year, he seems to have put it all together, jumping out of the gate at 4-0 and working on a scoreless streak of 19 innings. If Felix maintains his ace-like pace, the M's will be in good shape.
Erik Bedard caught a lot of criticism last year for being a surly bastard who ran out of gas after six innings. But the dirty little secret is that he had put up some decent numbers before going on the DL.
While he's still not reliable for more than six innings, he's become the solid No. 2 pitcher the M's brass hoped for.
Jarrod Washburn has been the biggest surprise, but was his last (horrible) start against the Angels a sign of things to come? Even rookie Chris Jakubauskas, who was thrown into the fire, has pitched well save for one start.
Russell Branyan: I didn't think much of this offseason acquisition, because it felt like the M's were getting a cheaper Richie Sexson. However, Branyan has been the team's most consistent offensive threat (.333 AVG, 4 HR, .415 OBP). Branyan has never been an everyday player, but if he continues to produce, the Mariners will have received the steal of the year.
Endy Chavez: Another questionable offseason move (he came over the in the J.J. Putz deal), Chavez was brought on to bolster the M's outfield defense.
Whatever he could bring to the plate would be gravy. Well, bring on the potatoes because he's hit .305 and stolen five bases to help spark the Seattle offense. He's only hitting .179 in his last seven games, however, so that's something to keep an eye on.
The bullpen: While the Mariners' bullpen has been poorly constructed (no lefties!), you can't argue with the results. Seattle ranks No. 5 in bullpen ERA (3.23) and No. 2 in saves (eight). Brandon Morrow has been sharp as the closer while David Aardsma is proving to be another savvy Jack Zduriencik pickup.
Ken Griffey Jr.: As a Mariners fan, it pains me to say this, but it's been the worst-case scenario thus far for Griffey. He's hitting .200, his bat looks slow (15 Ks in 60 ABs) and aside from 15 walks, hasn't brought much value to the Mariners' offense.
As long as the team continues to do well, most folks will be fine with letting Griffey hang in the lineup. Yet if the team starts struggling, will Don Wakamatsu be ready to sit The Kid?
The offense: Griffey's not the only one who's been struggling. Adrian Beltre, Franklin Gutierrez and Jose Lopez have also gotten off to slow starts—a big reason why the Mariners rank near the bottom in nearly every statistical category (26th in HR, 20th in RBI, 21 in runs, 28 in OBP/SLG and 29 in OPS).
They've scored three or fewer runs in 10 of their 22 games. But, due to their pitching, they are 4-6 in those contests.
Yuniesky Betancourt's plate approach: This is a recurring problem that seems to be getting worse.
Yeah, he's hitting .303. Yeah, he may not be up there always hacking at the first pitch. But go beneath the surface and the numbers are disturbing: 76 at-bats without a walk, (most in the majors) and an average of three pitches seen per plate appearance. Nobody's asking this guy to take the Oakland approach, but how about a little discipline?
Can the Mariners keep it up?
They'll have to continue to take advantage of the injuries that have crippled the Angels to try and get as much distance between the teams until L.A. gets back on its feet. With six games against Oakland, five against Texas and sets with Kansas City and San Francisco this month, they've got a shot to do just that.
Whatever happens over the long haul, Mariners fans can be thankful for one thing: at least the season's not over by May 1.
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