Last season, the Minnesota Vikings fought injuries and poor play on the way to a 10-loss season. With the Bears and Packers playing in the NFC Championship game last season and the Detroit Lions adding more talent through the draft, the Vikings are going to have to do a lot to get out of last place in the NFC North. After last year's failed Brett Favre finale and a limited amount of time to get 1st-round pick Christian Ponder up to speed, the team brought in veteran Donovan McNabb to run the offense for at least one season. With many players remaining from the team that almost went to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, the Vikings are in "win now" mode. In order to succeed this season, everyone on the team is going to have to put in a better performance than what they did last season. Here's a look at five players whose season could determine whether the Vikings go 6-10 or 10-6.
1. Mike Carp
Carp is currently on an MLB-best 16-game hitting streak. Since manager Eric Wedge moved him to the cleanup spot, he's hit .377/.406/.639 with four homers and 18 RBI.
It's safe to say that he's on a wicked tear right now and that he'll probably cool down a bit, but it would take a pretty significant slump to drop him down to the level of the rest of the team. There's no reason for GM Jack Zduriencik to send Carp back down to the minors, so we should see him start next season with the Mariners. No more Quadruple-A, Carp.
2. Kyle Seager
If Seager doesn't get a starting job at third next season, he'll be an infield/DH backup, filling in for injured or tired players.
1. Miguel Olivo
Many of us have been disappointed with Olivo's play of late, particularly at the plate. It's true that he's been in a bit of a hitting slump, but defensively, behind the plate, he has been solid all year. At the beginning of the year, he was actually contributing offensively, too.
He's a career .243 hitter, but his 162-game average of 21 home runs is a sufficient trade-off. He's currently leading the Mariners in home runs with 14, which doesn't say much, but it shows how much they need him in Seattle. Very recently, Casper Wells and Mike Carp have been flashing power (it's so nice to see the M's hit home runs in their own ballpark), but the team is still power-deprived, last in the majors in the home run category.
Apart from his performance on the field, Olivo has also proved invaluable to the pitching staff. Both starters and relievers have commented on how Olivo helps them to maintain composure through tough games, of which there have been many.
2. Josh Bard
Everyone in Seattle, players and fans alike, appreciated Bard's display of heroics at the plate in last week's game against the Boston Red Sox. However, apart from that play, Bard's contributions have been few and far between to the Mariners since he hasn't been started hardly at all this year.
Like Olivo, Bard is on the older side for a catcher, but he remains a competent backup for when Olivo gets injured or just needs a day off.
3. Adam Moore
Moore has had a frustrating start to his career, plagued by bad streaks and injuries. He's currently on the 40-man roster and the 60-day DL. We hope he'll be healthy by next March so he can fight for the starting job, but as of now, Moore has yet to prove anything.
1. Justin Smoak
Smoak has had an unfairly tough year in 2011. Between bereavement for his father and injuries, he hasn't been able to get into the rhythm we'd all like to see. However, after having an offseason to recover, Smoak should be set to go for a powerful 2012 season.
2. Mike Carp
Carp has been playing at first in Smoak's most recent absence (fractured nose) without any problem. If Smoak does get re-injured, Carp would move to first and one of the other second-string guys (Adam Kennedy, Kyle Seager, Casper Wells or Jack Wilson) would shift to DH.
Carp was playing first base and left field in the minors.
3. Adam Kennedy
Adam Kennedy is the ultimate utility for the Mariners. This year, he's bounced around the infield a fair amount, mostly pinch-hitting but occasionally getting the start. Kennedy most likely won't see any starts, but he'll probably serve a role similar to this year's.
1. Dustin Ackley
Ackley has earned the starting spot at second this year above Jack Wilson, the Opening Day starter. Since his call-up in June, Ackley has impressed us with five homers, five triples and a .297 average.
His transition from Triple-A Tacoma to the majors has been very smooth; each game he grows more comfortable with major league pitchers.
Barring any major setbacks or a huge slump, we should see Ackley start next year at second base, hitting second or third in the order.
2. Jack Wilson
Wilson hasn't had a stellar year at the plate in 2011, but his defense has been dependable and frequently exciting. He represents the average player that we've seen on the Mariners for the past few years: not good enough to lead the team to a winning record, but good enough to keep a starting job until someone younger and better comes along.
The Mariners may attempt to trade Wilson during the offseason, but his market value isn't very high, and he could be valuable to the team in the next few years as a veteran backup.
3. Kyle Seager
Again, if Seager doesn't get the starting job at third, he might see some time at second.
Seattle fans have not been too pleased with Chone's performance so far this year, and they have reason. Figgins is hitting below the Mendoza line, and his fielding is below par. Many fans have called for him to be cut or traded, but he still has two years left on a pretty hefty contract, so it's likely he'll stay.
And if he's staying, it would be a waste not to play him. It's true that his stats have dropped off drastically this year, but we can expect some regression next year; he isn't that old.
2. Kyle Seager
Seager has a lot of hype surrounding him ("The Next Dustin Ackley"), but he's yet to live up to it. Until he does, he probably won't see a lot of starts. Once Figgins returns from the DL this year, Seager will most likely go back to pinch-hitting and playing backup.
There's a decent possibility, however, that Seager erupts this September and gains favor with the front office. In that case, there could be a battle for the hot corner next spring.
3. Adam Kennedy
Utility man. He's always there for you.
Note: Italian third baseman Alex Liddi is in the Mariners' near future. Liddi is one of the top prospects in the Mariners system, and we'll probably see him next June.
1. Brendan Ryan
As soon as Ryan returns to full health, he'll reclaim his spot at shortstop. Ryan has been solid in the field and decent at the plate. He's in the same category as Jack Wilson with a little more production potential and some positional advantage.
The Mariners don't have any particularly lucrative options for shortstop right now. However, the other "Next Dustin Ackley" is almost ready to come up to the majors; we should see another June call-up in SS Nick Franklin, the Mariners' first round draft pick in 2009.
2. Jack Wilson
If Wilson doesn't see any playing time at second, he could fill in for Ryan at short. Wilson is currently getting the start in Ryan's absence. He has decent value to the Mariners as a middle infielder, so he'll probably stick around next season.
3. Luis Rodriguez
Rodriguez hasn't really shown us anything special, but he's on the 40-man roster. It's very likely that Rodriguez is designated for assignment next year to make space for either Liddi or Franklin. However, in the unlikely event that Ryan gets injured and Wilson is needed at second base, Rodriguez could see starting time.
1. Trayvon Robinson
Robinson has seven hits in his major league career. Three of those are doubles and one's a home run. He hits for power. Finally, the Mariners got someone who can hit for power.
This is Robinson's first major league experience, so his poor average and high strikeout rate can be excused.
After having seen Carlos Peguero, Greg Halman and Michael Saunders rotate through left field earlier this season, it's nice to see Robinson start to settle in.
It's nice to see his power display, but it's also nice to see him on the SportsCenter Top 10 for his defense.
2. Casper Wells
Wells along with Robinson and Carp have been the new faces of the Mariners this August. Over the past week, we've seen mainly those three guys jump-start the team into a welcome power display. Mariners pitching has suffered from dismal run support for the past few years, but it finally looks like they'll be getting some help.
Wells already had some major league experience before coming to the Mariners, so his incendiary performance is just a little bit less thrilling.
Wedge will probably continue giving Robinson starting time in left, but a small slip-up or slump could quickly change things. And when things do change, Wells is ready in the wing.
3. Greg Halman/Carlos Peguero
These were two of the guys fighting for the left field spot earlier this year. Neither made an astounding impact, but each showed some promise.
Peguero has the power the Mariners need, but he has a strikeout problem. Hopefully after finishing the season in the minors, he can refine his batter's eye and come back next spring with something to prove.
Halman had us all going after his first two games were such a success, but his stats quickly dropped off. Perhaps after some more work down in the minors, he can also fight for the spot in March.
Both guys remain on the Mariners' 40-man roster, so they're definitely still in consideration, but the new guys (Robinson and Wells) have set the bar pretty high. This could shape up to be the most interesting contest of spring training 2012.
1. Franklin Gutierrez
It's most likely that Gutierrez will start the 2012 season in center field, but a quick reversal could occur with the younger, more explosive Casper Wells.
Gutierrez is valued for his talent in the field and appreciated for any contributions he makes at the plate. Wells is almost equally valued for his talent in the field, but he's also shown much more pop at the plate, hitting .359 with four bombs since he came to Seattle.
Gutierrez will get the Opening Day start, just because of his experience, and it's then up to him to protect his spot from the eager Casper Wells.
2. Casper Wells
Wells has shown extreme ability in the field, which is something the Mariners seem to love. He can play anywhere in the outfield, so he's pretty much the backup for all three positions. Center field is his most likely opportunity for promotion, however.
1. Ichiro Suzuki
He isn't done yet. No way. Ichiro isn't putting up his usual stats, but this is a freak year. You don't go from 10 straight seasons of 200-plus hits and a .300-plus average to hitting .265 with lots of strikeouts in one season.
Many people are calling old age on Ichiro, and it may be time to start doing that, but you've seen the way he takes care of his body. That guy is always stretching—either in right field, in the on-deck circle, or while he's trash-talking the opposing first baseman in Spanish.
He'll bounce back, and he'll keep his starting job in right, at least for one more season.
2. Casper Wells
Here's Wells again.
1. Felix Hernandez
2. Michael Pineda
3. Jason Vargas
4. Blake Beavan
5. Danny Hultzen
Yes, this is almost exactly the current rotation the Mariners are using. Almost the entire depth chart presents the same starters as this year. That's because Jack Z has called in all the reinforcements, and they're all proving their worth.
The rest of the young guys in the Mariners' future are just a little behind this wave. They won't be ready to start Opening Day, but we'll inevitably see some major June call-ups. The September 2012 depth chart will look entirely different than this, but it will probably include most of the same guys I've mentioned.
Although I'm sure you've caught the one difference in my prediction. That's right, Danny Hultzen is coming up. The Mariners signed him for a sizable contract and have said he'll be competing for a major league spot come spring. Danny Hultzen will be next year's Michael Pineda.
In no particular order:
1. Brandon League (Closer)
League has made the most of his opportunity. He was given the regular closer role once Aardsma got injured. He was picked for the 2011 All-Star Game and currently ranks third in the American League for saves. It's safe to say that, barring any trades, he'll keep the closer role going into the 2012 season.
2. Charlie Furbush
If Hultzen replaces Furbush in the starting five, Furbush will move to the bullpen as a long reliever. He'll lay in reserve as a sixth starter.
3. Dan Cortes
It's unlikely that they'll choose to convert Cortes to a starter next year. He is one of their hottest pitching prospects though, so he'll see much more time next year in relief.
4. Mauricio Robles
Robles will get a chance to show his stuff in the spring. I think he'll get the promotion and pitch some relief in 2012.
5. Jamey Wright
Wright has stepped up in David Pauley's absence as the most reliable reliever in the bullpen. He's pretty old for a pitcher, but his experience will be valuable in coaching the rest of this young bullpen.
6. Chance Ruffin
The M's just acquired Ruffin from the Tigers as the player to be named later from the Doug Fister trade back in July. He's young but consistent. He has a wicked slider that will be a valuable asset.
7. David Aardsma
Aardsma underwent Tommy John surgery in July and shouldn't be back for a while. He'll most likely miss the start of next season, according to ESPN.