Seattle Mariners: 10 Bold Predictions for the Team’s 2011 Season
It's like hitting the big red reset button.
Spring comes and players report to Arizona. Some have new looks with their hair or physical condition. Some spent the winter hibernating while others never stopped to enjoy the downtime.
You never know what you'll get from your team heading into a new season. Unfortunately, the 2010 Mariners saw that these surprises aren't always as sweet as the contents of a box of chocolates.
So we turn the page to 2011 and find out what surprises lie ahead. Here are 10 of those that we might (maybe, possibly, could) see.
10: We'll Want To Go To Games
Some time early in the season, say May, eyes will start to open.
Who is this kid at second base getting on base seemingly every time up?
Is that the same guy we traded Cliff Lee for?
Did the Mariners sign Felix Hernandez's brother or something?
Well, actually, they did, but that last one is in reference to how Michael Pineda may burst on to the scene as another young gun for the Mariners. The others, of course, are Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak.
Then you have an improved Michael Saunders. An infield defense that resembles a vacuum. A healthy Erik Bedard (well, maybe). A Chone Figgins who wants to hit baseballs, not his manager.
The Mariners probably won't seriously contend for the division, but there should be a lot of exciting things to make you want to attend a couple more games than you did last season. Or, at the very least, not change the channel after the fourth inning.
9: The Ichiro-Figgins Combo Will Annoy Opposing Managers
More details on how Figgins will pick up his end of this later in the slideshow.
What the Mariners thought they were going to have in their top of the order last season did not come to fruition.
Chone Figgins ran a low BABIP, the team around him was lousy, he had to switch positions and he tried to fight his manager.
I'm not one who puts a ton of stock into things like chemistry. I believe winning creates it, not the other way around. These are human beings, though, not line 243 and 487 on a spreadsheet. They do have feelings, emotions and have to deal with struggles while under pressure.
With the Griffey/Wakamatsu fiasco out of the way, Figgins played much better in the second half of the season. Expect to see that over a full season in 2011.
There will be times that having two lead-off guys turn a would-be infield single into a fielder's choice, but with a better Figgins, expect to see havoc on the base paths and managers and opposing pitchers scratching their heads at how to stop it.
8: Erik Bedard Will Be Healthy(ish) and Get Traded
Okay, you wanted bold? Here's bold.
A guy who didn't throw a single pitch in 2010 will find a way to bring something of value back to the team.
Erik Bedard signed sort of an "I owe you" contract with the Mariners this winter. While he reportedly may have had a guaranteed contract offer or two, he opted for a non-guaranteed deal from the Mariners worth $1 million with a bunch of incentives.
Maybe he's not such a jerk after all, right?
It might be extremely optimistic to expect Bedard to break camp with the team, but the early reports are that he's throwing on flat ground without pain and should be ready to report. They'll probably want to take things slow, and perhaps have him keep working in Arizona.
He could skip the first first road trip which goes from Oakland to hitter friendly Texas, and make his season debut at home against the Indians or Blue Jays.
If he stayed in that slot, he'd then face Detroit and Oakland at home, at Boston, Texas at home, at Baltimore and Minnesota at home. Facing two of the three strongest offenses at home would be helpful. All the way down the schedule, there are some favorable matchups. This is just one idea, but it might be moot if he's ready earlier or later.
Whatever happens, we know he has to be healthy. When he is healthy, we've seen tremendous results. The package Bavasi gave up was foolish, but the pitcher we thought we were getting is the same pitcher we could finally get some results from and trade for an interesting minor leaguer or two.
Teams always need pitching at the deadline. If Bedard shows flashes of his former self, he'll be a cheap option clubs will look at.
7: The Team Will Flirt With .500
This may seem like a real stretch, but let's not forget a 2009 team with arguably less talent won 85 games.
Yes, that team overachieved. However, I think most agree that as bad as 2010 was, they underachieved. Just about every risk they took failed. Every bounce was bad.
Finishing with a .500 record would require a 20-win improvement, which won't be an easy task. The division should be more competitive, and they're breaking in some rookies.
If the team can get closer to career-average contributions from Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley (be it in a smaller role), strides are made by Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak and they see immediate impacts from Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda, it's possible.
Probable? I don't know. So while this bold prediction is aiming for mediocrity, 10-15 wins might be needed to ensure Jack Zduriencik gets to see his work through another season.
6: Michael Pineda Will Sparkle
Often times, highly-touted rookies have a rough go their first trip up to the big leagues.
We have to look no further than Justin Smoak to see evidence of this.
Pitchers have advantages in baseball, as we know. They get batters out more often than they don't and they also have slight differences from each other that make hitters have to adjust to them.
There are lots of signs from his 2010 season that might make us excited about his future. He strikes out a bunch of batters (10.97 K/9 at Triple-A), and shows solid control. He ran a 2.16 FIP in Double-A, which jumped to 3.6 while adjusting to Triple-A but should regress.
He will run a league-average ground ball rate, and playing half his games at Safeco Field should also regress the HR/9 spike he saw in Tacoma.
He'll be slotted in the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation to limit his pitch count, so he'll have chances to get some wins if his offense can score off backend starters. Let's not focus on the wins too much, though. We saw that those don't matter with Felix winning the Cy Young.
I think we'll see a nice 140-160 inning season, depending on if he breaks camp, where he jumps to early success and heads into 2012 as the team's second or third starter.
5: Felix Hernandez Wins a Second Cy Young
On the surface, this doesn't seem so bold. Why couldn't a 25-year old on top of his game do it again?
However, no player has repeated as a Cy Young winner in the American League since Pedro Martinez in 1999-2000. Roger Clemens did it a pair of times, and Jim Palmer did it in the 70s.
Aside from that, it hasn't been an easy feat.
The AL is widely regarded as the better hitting league, and while Felix dominated some of the best hitting clubs in 2010, you may wonder if that small sample can be repeated.
I think it can.
Many will point to the workload he had in 2010, which might be concerning. Felix showed no signs of tiring towards the end of the season, though, and aside from a couple scares he hasn't had any major arm injuries or a delivery that should worry us.
There are a bunch of comparisions between Felix and Pedro and Clemens. In 2011, there will be one more.
4: Chone Figgins Will Bounce Back
I'm not going to say that Figgins can repeat his 6 WAR 2009 season.
He can, however, be closer to his career norms. Though he had a good second half, his first half was so miserable that the numbers overall look like he fell off a cliff.
Part of the blame can go to his BABIP of .314 which was the second lowest of his career. He's averaged .337 and if the breaks go his way and he returns to that average or higher, it's not outside the realm of possibility to see him have success in 2011.
In fact, I'm betting on it and the major projection systems tend to agree.
How big will the bounceback be? Well, that's hard to tell but we could see his batting average raise to anywhere from .280 to .300. His steals were dead even with 2010, even with the low percentage he was on base.
He's a guy with something to prove. I expect him to get on base 20 points higher, which will result in more steals, more runs and thus more overall value. Plus, the return to third base should put him back in a comfort zone.
3: Justin Smoak Will Break Out
Smoak's first trip to the big leagues didn't go as anyone had planned.
Between Seattle and Texas, he hit .208/.307/.371 which is too much like a weak-hitting middle infielder, not a first baseman with some pop that was the key to the Cliff Lee trade.
Being a struggling rookie and having your first call-up met with a trade for one of the best pitchers in the game can't be a great confidence booster.
So down to Tacoma he went. In 35 games there, he didn't show what he did in the Texas system, but he did post a slash line of .271/.377/.481.
Back in Seattle for 14 September games, he finished well. It's a small sample, but a 10-game hit streak, with four games seeing multiple hits, to end the season for a last place club is nice to see.
In 2011, I think he'll put things together. I'm not talking about his potential ceiling, but I could see a .285/.390/.490 type line while he racks up a bunch of doubles and cracks 20 homers.
He's got the potential, even at only 24. This is the season he starts to put it all together,
2: Dustin Ackley Will Compete For Rookie Of The Year
Much of this prediction depends on when Ackley is called up, and what kind of spring he has.
He made the transition last season to second base and wood bats. Early struggles were shaken, and he made his way all the way up to Triple-A Tacoma where he held his own.
Though the Arizona Fall League isn't the best barometer, he was its MVP and continued to make great strides.
He's likely to start the season at Tacoma to refine the second base defense and save service time in the majors. This will, I think, help him in his chase for his first award.
There are a few players who may stand in his way, however.
The Royals' Mike Moustakas is a strong candidate, who could hit 20-plus home runs in his rookie campaign. While Ackley stands to get on base a ton, steal some bases and inject energy into a flailing franchise, voters might be too busy marveling over Moustakas' power to notice.
Another guy in the running will be Tampa's Jeremy Hellickson, who could make his first big league start on his 24th birthday, depending on where he's slotted in the rotation.
Hellickson may break camp with the Rays who want to compete, while Moustakas likely will be held off until May for service time reasons. Pitchers are wildly unpredictable, especially young ones on pitch counts. So, Moustakas will probably be the biggest competition.
There are others who stand to break into the bigs this season that could make a charge, but I'm predicting a second-place finish for Ackley as he also competes for an OBP title.
With a little luck in the form of struggles from Moustakas, Ackley could burst onto the scene with a piece of hardware to show for it.
1: Ichiro Will Win a Batting Title
Last season, Ichiro finished sixth in BA in the American League, 44 points behind leader and MVP Josh Hamilton.
So, how can Ichiro make up the gap?
One indication could be his BABIP. A lumbering slugger like Russell Branyan or Jim Thome might hover around .300 with seasons of extreme variance in either direction. There's a bunch of luck involved, like bloop singles or the quality of a defense you face.
Due to the nature of his approach, though, Ichiro is a guy who always runs higher than a league average BABIP, and is prone to extremely high spikes when everything goes right.
If you look at his best seasons, 2001 (MVP) and 2004 (All-time hit record), where he won a batting title, his BABIP was over .350. The other super-high BABIP seasons were 2007 and 2009. In each, he posted a batting average over .350 and finished second in the batting title race.
So if Ichiro runs a BABIP in the 90th percentile or higher, as he's done often, and gets some lucky breaks he's capable of racking up a ton of hits and thus a high average.
"Hey, this is his age 37 season!"
Players with Ichiro's skill set age well. The stories about his conditioning and stretching are well known.
Ted Williams was 39 when he won his last batting title. Obviously, Ichiro is not Ted Williams. He is, though, like Teddy Ballgame, capable of continuing to play well in his late 30s.