2011 MLB Preseason Preview: AL West: Seattle Mariners

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2011 MLB Preseason Preview: AL West: Seattle Mariners
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
RF Ichiro Suzuki

Seattle Mariners (2010 record: 61-101)

Many pundits believed the Mariners could win the American League West last season—I am numbered among those people. The joke was on us.

Instead of making a run at the Angels and the Rangers, the Mariners turned in one of the more disappointing efforts in major league history, going 61-101.

In the process, the club became the first team with a $100 million-plus payroll to lose 100 games in a season.

The primary culprit? An offense that averaged just 3.2 runs per game, finishing last in the league in runs while scoring 100 runs fewer than the next worst offense (Baltimore).

GM Jack Zduriencik seems to have gotten the message. The ballclub made several upgrades to the lineup—not that the new players are going to vault the offense to the top of the league or even league average.

Notable additions: OF/DH Jack Cust, 2B Adam Kennedy, C Miguel Olivo, SS Brendan Ryan

Notable subtractions: 1B Russell Branyan, INF Jose Lopez

 

The offense:

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
1B Justin Smoak

Catcher: Miguel Olivo

Infield: Justin Smoak (1B), Brendan Ryan (2B), Jack Wilson (SS) and Chone Figgins (3B)

Outfield: Michael Saunders (LF), Franklin Gutierrez (CF) and Ichiro Suzuki (RF)

Designated Hitter: Jack Cust

The offense scored fewer runs than any team in a full season since 1972. Afterwards, the front office bid adieu to Branyan (.215 BA), Kotchman (.217) and Lopez (.239 BA), and put Adam Moore (.195) on the bench.

In their place, the team will field Smoak, who was acquired at last year’s trade deadline, Cust (.272, with 13 HR last year), Brendan Ryan (career .259 average) and Olivo (who hit .269 with 14 HR last year). Granted, the lineup isn’t suddenly filled with All Stars, but it will be better than it was last season.

Smoak struggled in his first full season in the big leagues (.218 BA), but his minor league pedigree (he has a career .404 OBP) suggests that he will prosper in The Show.

Cust will provide basically the same production as Branyan, with a better batting average and a 15-point increase in OPS+.

Ryan has the potential to develop into a league average hitter while providing outstanding defense, while Lopez never reached the level of productivity that was projected for him.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
3B Chone Figgins

Olivo provides a veteran presence behind the plate and will be a substantial improvement on Moore…he is, as they say, addition by subtraction. While he won’t necessarily be a substantial force on offense, he will not be a black hole, either.

The organization may also be in the process of addressing another of its offensive issues, as Ryan may well slide to shortstop to replace Josh Wilson (.229) in the lineup. He is just as capable on defense, and his move to shortstop would allow Adam Kennedy (who owns a .275 career BA) to move into the lineup at second base until Dustin Ackley is ready to join the M’s at midseason.

Figgins submitted his worst offensive performance as a big leaguer last year (.259, with one HR and 35 RBI in 602 AB), a result which may have been related to his switch to second base. It wasn’t the kind of performance Zduriencik expected when he handed him a $34.5 million contract last winter. He will move back to third base in 2011, and I expect the move will result in dramatically improved offense.

Franklin Gutierrez has had a roller coaster career thus far, sandwiching a good offensive season between two subpar campaigns. While the center fielder is coming off one of his lesser years, I foresee improvement from him in 2011.

He makes decent contact (a career 77 percent contact rate) and his down seasons were largely based on bad luck (he had a 30 percent hit rate both seasons). Assuming even a marginal increase in that number, he should hit closer to .270, with 15 HR and 70 RBI (plus or minus).

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Staff ace Felix Hernandez

Left field is up in the air. Michael Saunders will have first shot at winning the job, but after hitting just .211 last year, his hold on the job is tenuous at best. Milton Bradley is waiting in the wings if Saunders falls on his face, but MB has had more than his fair share of personal problems throughout his career and he isn’t the answer over the long term.

And that leaves just Ichiro to discuss—and what is there that can be said about him that hasn’t already been said. While he is getting a little long in the tooth, he just keeps on ticking. He arrived in the US amid much fanfare in 2001, after having hit .340 or higher over seven straight seasons in Japan.

He has had 200 or more hits in each of his 10 seasons in the United States, hitting .300, making the All Star team and earning a Gold Glove each year, winning three Silver Slugger Awards and being selected as MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2001. There isn’t much more he can do, except to keep doing what he has ALWAYS done.

 

The pitching staff:

Rotation: RHP Felix Hernandez, LHP Jason Vargas, RHP Doug Fister, LHP Erik Bedard and RHP Michael Pineda

Closer: RHP David Aardsma

“King Felix” Hernandez is arguably the best pitcher in baseball. While he went just 13-12 last season, he posted a career-best 2.27 ERA and 1.057 WHIP and earned the Cy Young Award. If he had received any semblance of run support he would have won 20-plus games.

Vargas went 9-12, with a 3.78 ERA and 1.25 WHIP while pitching nearly 200 innings last year. It was clearly the best season of his young career, but it seems likely that he will not be able to repeat that performance moving forward. He is a finesse guy who pitches to contact and gives up a lot of fly balls.

While the fly balls won’t necessarily hurt him in spacious Safeco Field, they could be his undoing on the road. Last year’s success was driven by a 28 percent hit rate. When that number regresses to 32 percent (+/-) his ERA will approach 4.50.

Fister, likewise, pitches to contact. While he doesn’t surrender a lot of fly balls, he is not going to blow people away (4.9 K-rate). He induces a fair number of ground balls, and thus his productivity will be closely tied to the quality of his infield defense, and luck (his hit rate and strand rates will have to be favorable for him to succeed as a member of the starting rotation).

Bedard has been a bust in Seattle, but he still has the stuff to be one of the better pitchers in baseball when he’s healthy. The problem is that he hasn’t made more than 15 starts in either of his first three seasons with Seattle (he did not pitch at all last season).

Still, he posted a 5-3 record and a 2.82 ERA in 2009, clearly showing he retains the kind of skills he had in Baltimore when the Mariners acquired him for five players, including OF Adam Jones, reliever George Sherrill, top pitching prospect Chris Tillman and two others.

Norm Hall/Getty Images
Top prospect Michael Pineda

Pineda is the organization’s top prospect. Last year, he went 11-4, 3.36, between Double A and Triple A. He will start the year in the M’s rotation and should secure a permanent job with the big club as long as he throws strikes.

Closer Aardsma (hip) will be on the shelf at the start of the season, with Brandon League filling in for the first few weeks. Aardsma’s skill set is somewhat marginal… his success in Seattle was created on an extremely low hit rate (25 percent) over his first two years.

He gives up LOTS of fly balls, which often is not a favorable indication for closers. He’ll likely see some increase in his hit rate, which will cause his overall numbers to decline.

Prediction for 2011: 4th place (60-102)

I have actually downgraded my expectations for the Mariners over the last two months. The more I examine the numbers, the more likely it appears they will be a little worse this year as opposed to a little better.

The offense will be marginally better this season, but that isn’t saying very much, and a few more runs won’t be nearly enough to make the team respectable. As I wrote previously, even a sizable increase of 99 runs scored would still leave them in last place in the AL in runs.

No, the issue this year is going to be on the mound.

Hernandez will be the foundation of a weak rotation. Cliff Lee was traded last summer, and his departure left the ballclub with a collection of castoffs to fill out the rotation. I expect Bedard will be healthy this year and finally provide the organization with a return on its sizable investment in him, but the rest of the rotation is problematic.

Pineda will be good, but he is a rookie and will have to go through the typical ups and downs of a rookie pitcher. Vargas and Fister will both see a regression in their peripherals…that which will cause them to have far less success than they had last year.

Aardsma won’t last the year as the team’s closer, and I suspect League won’t have much more success. Look for someone like Lueke or Dan Cortes to take over the closer’s role in the second half.

But by then it won’t matter for the M’s, except in terms of 2012.

 

Top Five Prospects:

1. Michael Pineda, RHP
2. Dustin Ackley, 2B
3. Nick Franklin, SS
4. Johermyn Chavez, OF
5. TiJuan Walker, RHP

Most people place Ackley atop their list of Mariners prospects and project him as a future superstar, but not me. I happen to like Pineda much better in terms of being an “impact player” over the next several years. While Ackley may be the safer bet, I personally think his upside is limited (.300 hitter, with marginal power, good speed and an average glove). Nothing about him screams “superstar” to me. Sorry, M’s fans.

On the other hand, I think Pineda will be an impactful starting pitcher who will slot into the M’s rotation right behind Hernandez by 2013. The 22-year-old has an explosive mid-90s fastball with lots of life that tops out at over 100 MPH.

He has improved both of his off speed pitches to the point where they are at least major league average. He has learned to stay on top of his slider more consistently, making it a second quality out pitch. He has also learned to maintain his arm speed on his changeup, in the process developing a pitch that will keep hitters honest.

Over the next couple of years he will refine his mechanics and learn to command the ball better (cutting down on walks and pinpointing the ball within the strike zone). And then, King Felix will once again be a part of a dynamic one-two punch atop the rotation.

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