Seattle Mariners: 10 Reasons the M's Can Compete in the AL West in 2012
The AL West is no AL East, but as a division, it is on the rise.
The Texas Rangers will start 2012 with the same outstanding hitting they have had for the past two years and that has earned them the AL pennant. They also bought the rights to negotiate with Japanese phenom Yu Darvish, who could be a smash hit (or a Matsuzaka-esque bust) should they sign him.
The LA Angels secured the top free agent of the season in Albert Pujols. They finished five games over .500 last year, and that margin could increase with their new all-star first baseman.
The Oakland Athletics are of the least concern to the Mariners, since Billy Beane likes to trade away his best players before they can have any sizable impact on the win column but still a force to be reckoned with.
So can the Mariners keep up in 2012? Here are 10 reasons why they can, and will, compete for the top spot in the AL West.
Rise of the Young Stars
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It is widely known that the past few years in Seattle have been dedicated to rebuilding. It has been a long, miserable process from the surface perspective, but the young talent that GM Jack Zduriencik has worked hard to acquire has been piling up and swelling out of the minors.
The first agents of change made landfall in the majors last year and began to root themselves in the starting lineup.
In 2012, look for Dustin Ackley to be a key player. He was one of the top hitters on the team in 2011, even though he did not come up until June. He will continue to improve and develop this offseason in winter leagues, and we should expect him to produce some much-needed offense once the season kicks off in April.
Alex Liddi, Kyle Seager, Trayvon Robinson, Chih-Hsien Chiang, Casper Wells and Chance Ruffin are among other names we will frequently see throughout 2012.
Justin Smoak Will Have His First Solid Year
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Last year, Justin Smoak's father died, and Smoak was plagued by freak accidents that kept him out of the lineup. That combination of bereavement and injured reserve time clearly inhibited his play when he did manage to get out on the diamond.
Thus far, nothing seems to be clouding the skies for Smoak's 2012 season, so a breakout is imminent. I foresee Smoak hitting in the heart of the order—hopefully surrounded by some other real hitters—racking up at least 25 home runs and 100 RBI.
If each of the starters makes an improved (from last season) contribution to the team's offense, a lot more runs will be in order. And more runs means more wins.
The Emergence of the Big Three
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Michael Pineda is going into his second year after a brilliant rookie campaign. His innings limit will rise as the leash is let out on the Dominican flamethrower.
Pineda will likely move up to the second spot in the rotation behind King Felix Hernandez. Those two together are a pretty devastating one-two punch, with a combined 395 strikeouts between them in 2011.
They each average about one K per inning. With Felix usually going at least seven innings and Pineda six, all the rest of the team has to do is put up three or four runs.
Throwing 2011 draftee Danny Hultzen into the mix will add depth, variety and a lot more strikeouts. Felix and Pineda are both what I call hefty hurlers—they use their size to catapult the ball across the plate at speeds touching the upper nineties.
They are both right-handed though, which makes it easier for opposing hitters. Hultzen is also a big guy with a canon for an arm, but he is a lefty which is where the aforementioned variety comes from.
This triumvirate of torch is the the next nightmare for American League hitters. Watch out for the next big three.
Prince Fielder Is Coming to Town
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Sure, this is speculation, but Prince in Seattle makes a lot of sense for both parties.
I analyzed it more in depth here, but I will run through the argument here briefly.
One side reason that Fielder could turn into the next Adrian Beltre or Richie Sexson. They say that since he would be moving into a pitcher's park, a drop in production is inevitable and spending a huge chunk of money on him would be foolish.
The other side purports that Fielder is the missing piece in the Mariners power-challenged lineup. They say that he is the necessary charge to get the runs across the plate.
If Fielder does end up in Seattle, the Mariners will have their own super-sized acquisition to match the Pujols and Darvish deals. This is a pretty necessary part of the Mariners' ability to compete in the division.
The Brittle Rangers
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There is always someone injured on the Rangers, whether it is Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton or one of their other superstars.
When the entire lineup is healthy, it is arguably the most dangerous in the majors, but that has been a relatively rare occurrence over the past few years in Arlington.
The Rangers also lost CJ Wilson, but they have the rights to Darvish, and apparently they are converting Neftali Felix to a starter.
Personally, I think Alexi Ogando is their most dangerous pitcher though. He and Pineda ran a relatively similar course last year, but Ogando was a bit more consistent in the long run.
The Rangers will be the Mariners' toughest divisional opponent, but only if they remain healthy.
The Apathetic A's
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I say apathetic because Billy Beane and the A's management do not seem to care about making any progress. They take in talented young players, nurture them through the minors, let them sprout in the bigs and then send them off to a competitive team in exchange for more prospects.
That is not exactly a formula for winning, as we have seen over the past few years.
Albert Pujols Isn't Enough for the Halos
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Signing Pujols for 10 years was not a smart move by Arturo Moreno and Jerry Dipoto. It was a smart deal for Pujols, since he is guaranteed boatloads of cash up through age 41, but will he be the Pujols we know today? I doubt it.
Some people claim that Pujols has already peaked. The same thing can be said about a lot of the players on the Angels, namely, the outfield.
Also, Pujols played his first 11 seasons with St. Louis, so switching to a completely new environment, team and league will have some effect on his play.
There are plenty of high caliber players in LA, but the stars will have to align for them to be the superb team that many people expect. Otherwise, the M's will be chasing them down with a purpose.
The M's Have a Winning Set-Up
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The three things a political candidate must possess in order to win an election are media, money and momentum. It's the same thing with a baseball team...almost. Those three things are very important, but some good scouts and level-minded leaders are also necessary for success.
The Mariners have media. They have a great television contract with ROOT sports that broadcasts all over the Pacific Northwest as well as into Canada and to anyone with a baseball package through their TV service.
They have also attracted a substantial international following from a number of places, Japan, in particular. Bringing Ichiro over in 2001 was huge for marketing, and the team has continued to milk that connection for everything it is worth.
The team has money. Going back to Japan, the primary owner of the team is Hiroshi Yamauchi, the former president of Nintendo. They also aren't tied down in hardly any bad contracts (the primary exception being Chone Figgins).
The momentum is there since the general direction of movement in the organization right now is up (based off the fact that the young players are moving up and the team really has nowhere to go but up). As the cohesiveness increases and chemistry builds throughout the season, that momentum will continue to grow.
The Mariners scouting team is one of the best in the MLB, particularly the international scouts (who got Felix, Pineda, Ichiro). Jack Z has an eye for talent (incidentally, he drafted Prince Fielder while he was with the Brewers) that will translate into success for the ball club in the very near future.
As for leadership, it is currently one of the team's strongest qualities. Manager Eric Wedge has done a great job bringing the team together from the dugout and the locker room. He has earned the respect of the players which is a huge part of the player-manager relationship.
There are also veteran leaders on the team like Miguel Olivo, who has been a fantastic mentor for the young Mariners pitching staff. Since a lot of next year's lineup will likely be homegrown, the players will have already established relationships with each other so that they can immediately play as a unit in the bigs.
All of these are components of a winning team that are sometimes overlooked, but quite important, and the Mariners are strong in all of them.
Chone Figgins Can't Be as Bad as Last Year
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He really can't be. Figgins actually finished last year with a negative WAR. Something will have to give this year, whether it is a trade or just a new spot in the batting order.
I have talked about Figgins leading off in the event that Ichiro does not, and it is a viable option. He was a great leadoff with the Angels, which is what we expected when he came to Seattle, but we didn't ever let him leadoff. That could be the cause of his poor performance at the plate.
I don't see any other teams willing to take Figgins and his swollen contract off Jack Z's hands unless there is a deal for a player in a similar situation on another team (Barry Zito?). With that said, we may be stuck with Figgins for another three years until his contract runs out.
But if there is some marginal improvement from last year, we will have something to be happy about, even if it is a .220 average. The less of a detriment Figgins is to the team, the better chance the M's have in the AL West.
Ichiro's Bounce Back
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I am calling it now: Ichiro will have a big year in 2012. That may mean a typical Ichiro year, hitting leadoff with 200 hits and 40 stolen bases, but it may be something new.
Ichiro may be hitting second or third at the beginning of the season, just to shake things up. That could translate to a role more based on power—we all know what he is capable of.
Either way, this guy can't be finished. It is true that he is approaching his 39th birthday, but he is still in top physical shape, thanks to his famed stretching habits.
If Ichiro has a big year this year, it will show in the team's record.
So watch out Texas, Oakland and LA, the Mariners are on the rise. It's been too long since 2001—they're ready for the title.