Rife with Questions, the Seattle Mariners Look to 2009

Casey MichelCorrespondent INovember 2, 2008

In America, November brings more than basted turkeys and wasted elections. The 11th month signifies the stoking of baseball’s hot stove, a panacea to the unavoidable candy-induced hangover of Halloween.

While the Phillies wipe the crust of champagne from their hair, most teams utilize this month to assess themselves, their situation, and their future. The A’s scrounge McAfee Coliseum’s dumpster, the Yankees cull the crop of “Antiques Roadshow,” and the Nationals try to find nine people who own a baseball bat and four limbs.

It’s fair to say that most teams have a gameplan, or, in the least, an idea of what it takes to be successful. The Mariners, alas, are not one of those teams.

Oh, they won some games last year—61 wins would make then instant contenders in the NBA—but in doing so, they became charter members of the “100-100 Club.” With a payroll of $116 million , the M’s successfully put their full effort into eclipsing the 100-loss plateau, a feat not easily attained. Technically, you could adjust for inflation, but even Titanic fans will still claim that the Mariners suck.

In a rare feat of rationality, heads rolled during the season, and yet, after John McLaren and Bill Bavasi found their way to the welfare line, the troubles continued. Injuries were chronic, underperformance was palpable, and team infighting was as veiled as John McCain’s anger issues.

The entire team may not have wanted to knock out Ichiro or bring shame to their family , but 2008 turned this squad’s cracks into canyons of callousness and conceit.

Now, new General Manager Jack Zduriencik has a bigger workload than Hank Paulson. With M’s president Chuck Armstrong and CEO Howard Lincoln breathing down his neck, Zduriencik will be expected to fix a busted garbage truck with some worn Scotch tape. Not exactly enviable.

As the offseason beckons, the questions boring into Zduriencik are great in number and few in enjoyable, and yet, all will need to be dealt with.

Let’s start at the top, shall we?

Raul Ibanez, long a stalwart in Safeco’s outfield, has run out of contract but not yet ability. An underrated slugger—last year he brought in .293/23/110—Ibanez’s bat has been a lone bright spot in an otherwise moribund offense, and his high affability has made him a unique draw in an industry that prizes loyalty.

But as torched as his bat’s been, Ibanez’s glove has nullified any contribution he has made, relative to fellow fielders. Ibanez is as good at defending as Bill O’Reilly is at subtlety , and his Tin-Man legs need to be considered when discussing his future.

In the least, if Ibanez leaves, his Type-A distinction will land the M’s either a first or second-round pick in the 2009 draft, depending on who plucks him up.

Fortunately, the Mariners have a gaping, desperate, bottomless hole at designated hitter. Since Edgar Martinez last swaggered off in 2004, Seattle’s DH’s have done nothing but doze off and bring blocks of Swiss cheese to the plate. Ibanez’s bat is proven, his off-field demeanor is collected, and his fit at DH is tacit.

The second free agent of importance—and I’m trying to stifle a laugh—is Willie Bloomquist. The longest-tenured Mariner has always brought a grittiness to the latté’d Northwest, and his Bremerton roots have brought him into the hearts of M’s fans young and old.

Although his bat has more holes than Augusta National, he’s a decent fielder and can still swipe a base when asked. He’ll only crack the starting nine on a neighborhood softball team, but he’s an essential stopgap during the late innings. Thus, there’s reason to bring him back, so long as his contract is minimal and requires him to dress as the Mariner Moose ever fifth game.

Once these free agents are settled, all eyes turn to the host of the hot corner: Adrian Beltre. A Gold-Glover and perennial guarantee for .270/25/85, Beltre now finds himself in the final year of his contract.

He’s been maligned for his post-Dodgers downturn—and will always be subconsciously associated with Richie “I Can Hit, I Swear!” Sexson—but the third baseman has constantly provided Seattle with solid performances, and aside from Ichiro, Felix Hernandez, and Brandon Morrow, no Mariner would net a greater haul.

You could discuss trade scenarios all day, but I tend to shy from peddling crystal balls, although I think it’s safe to say that Beltre’s days in Seattle are over. Unfortunately, that means that his patented "1, 2, Step" in the batter’s box will also be taken with him.

The other everyday Mariner nearest to the trading block is second-baseman Jose Lopez. The former All Star has dropped off since his heady 2006 campaign, falling prey to a leaden glove and, from his appearance, Carlos Silva’s diet.

Lopez’s defensive decline has become so apparent that Seattle’s typically-inept braintrust has mentioned switching Lopez to first base, which rattled the obstinate second baseman . However, Lopez’s bat showed resurgent pop last year to the tune of .297/17/89, helping offset his fielding miscues. Both he and his partner-in-crime, the slippery Yuniesky Betancourt, are bought on the cheap, so Lopez may be safe yet.

Wladimir Balentin and Jeremy Reed should battle it out for the rights to Cameron’s Woods, otherwise referred to as center field. It’s possible that Ichiro may give it another go, but the Japanese giant’s legs wore out two-thirds of the way through last year, so his presence in right field is all but assured.

And for the conspiracy theorists claiming that Ichiro’s time in Seattle is finished, it’s time to wake up and smell the green. There’s no other Mariner that brings in more revenue, no one as flamboyant, exciting, or debonair as the “Kasugai Killa’.”

With the immediate future already in the tank, ownership won’t risk turning Safeco Field into Dolphins Stadium, and while Ichiro may not bring clubhouse leadership, he brings the crowds. And if that wasn’t enough, his stats are ridiculous: eight years of 200-plus hits alongside a composite .331 BA and 1.02 OPS? Ring me up Pete Rose—it’s time to crown a new hit champion.

So, with Ibanez, Bloomquist, Beltre, Lopez, center field, and left field up in the air, you’d think Zduriencik’s play couldn’t hold much more, right?

Um, no.

Kenji Johjima, he of LVP fame , is currently slotted at catcher, much to Jarrod Washburn’s chagrin . Joh is an all-encompassing hole in the lineup, seeing more strikes than the Paris subways and missing more swings than Pompeii's playgrounds. His unprompted contract extension turned heads, and the questions he garnered were exacerbated by his (gulp) .227/7/39 line.

Furthermore, queries of the time arose from his blockage of Jeff Clement, the Mariners’ super prospect. However, Bavasi, in his bald-pated wisdom, may have been on to something. It appears that Clement can’t grasp the nuances of the pitching staff, so a move to first base is in the works.

Or not . Or…maybe . No one’s really sure at this point, just as no one’s sure why Zduriencik is sporting the same hairdo as his predecessor (…creepy).

But if Clement can’t handle a big-league staff, it’s not his fault. After all, he’s yet to see one. Want proof? Go wash down some rancid meat with a glass of sour milk, then look at the lines of Washburn, Silva, and Miguel Batista, and tell me which one makes you feel worse.

This is the most terrible threesome since Bush, Cheney, and Wolfowitz, but the latter trio will at least get book deals out of their debacle. Washburn is unsalvageable, Silva only performs when his stomach is full—an incredibly rare feat—and Batista is constantly getting distracted by his next volume of poetry . Felix, Morrow, and Ryan Rowland-Smith have all carried this bloated (literally) staff, but their youth and inexperience will only take them so far.

And it’s not like the three vagabonds come with a receipt—this cast costs $28 million, or about 28 million hot dogs for Silva’s slovenly stoutness .

Meanwhile, Erik Bedard languishes with a pitcher’s worst nightmare, a torn labrum. With only a year left on his contract, Bedard may still be traded, but his stock is lower than AIG, so he will likely return as a cog in the M’s rotation. That is, if he can be healthy for the first time in his career. At least Adam Jones didn’t make last year’s All-Star team...?

As you can see, Zduriencik’s work will be treacherous, with long hours, meddling superiors, and a roster that would make Peter Angelos cringe. The only area bringing relief will be the bullpen (pun intended), but in a game of complex and interdependent parts, having only one area in working condition simply will not suffice. Zduriencik won’t just need a plate for these problems—he’s going to need the whole buffet.

Speaking of food, I’m going to go guzzle some rancid meat and sour milk, because chewing on the Mariners is making me sick.


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