MLB Preview 2011: Predicting the Seattle Mariners Starting Lineup
Perhaps it's a bit early to be doing these sorts of things, considering pitchers and catchers just reported to Peoria, Arizona yesterday with today being the first day of workouts.
As the position players trickle in, full squad workouts will begin. Then there will be the annual charity game with hated rival and complex co-tenant San Diego. Then Cactus League games kickoff, some split-squad contests and finally an exhibition against the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
On the first day of April, the 2010 history can finally exit our mind as the last Mariners baseball we remember and 25 men—some new, some returning—will take the field in Oakland.
Here's a look at who I believe those 25 men will be, and what roles they'll fill.
We'll get the easiest "prediction" out of the way quick.
Felix Hernandez will get his fourth opening day nod as the Mariners' ace. Coming off a Cy Young winning performance in 2010, "King Felix" will make his first two starts of the season as a 24-year-old.
While he'll still have to pay a surcharge to rent a car until his third start, he's ran off two phenomenal seasons carrying a heavy load for the struggling Mariners.
Some run support would be fantastic for the amazingly-still-young Felix to reduce his high-stress inning count in 2011. Other than that, expect a bunch of the same from one of the best in the game.
Miguel Olivo returns to Seattle after a five-year hiatus.
Originally acquired in the trade that sent Freddy Garcia to the White Sox, then shipped off to San Diego after not being very good.
Fast forward and Olivo is relatively better. But coming off the best year of his career at age 32 screams expected regression. Safeco Field was death to his offensive skill set five years ago and since his approach hasn't changed, don't expect his stats to this time around either.
The money the Mariners paid for Olivo makes him a lock for this role. If I'm a betting man, Adam Moore probably ends up back in Tacoma to play every day.
Justin Smoak is going to get every chance to succeed at the big league level in 2011.
While his first trip to the rodeo wasn't what either Texas or Seattle hoped, there's plenty of reason to think he'll be fine. The Rangers likely rushed him to the big leagues last season, resulting in struggles while he adjusted to the best pitchers on the planet.
His stint in Tacoma and subsequent call up in September showed why he was a top prospect. He got things back together and handled his second trip, albeit a short one, much better.
I wouldn't rule out another trip to Cheney Stadium, but he's a lock for the opening day gig, and I'd look for Smoak to spend the entire season in Seattle while improving.
For Dustin Ackley to get this spot, it would require him to have a scorching spring performance and injuries to two or three of a group including Jack Wilson, Brendan Ryan, Josh Wilson and Adam Kennedy.
The Mariners added a bunch of middle infield depth this winter, possibly in part so their hand wouldn't be forced by Ackley.
Brendan Ryan figures to be the opening day starter. Jack Wilson, of course, is prone to injury, which would slide Ryan to shortstop and one of the others above into the second base job until Ackley arrives in May.
Chone Figgins is the other reason middle infield depth was added this winter.
The Mariners wanted to slide Figgins back to his best position now that Jose Lopez is (mercifully) gone. Who knows if the position change played tricks on Figgins offensive focus, but moving him back to third immediately improves his value and that of the club also.
Don't expect 2009 from Figgins again, but you can also happily not expect a 2010 repeat.
Jack Wilson will get hurt and end up on the disabled list in 2011.
That's about the only sure thing, outside of 200 hits from Ichiro, that you'll find on this team. Unless that happens in the next month, he'll take the field in Oakland with a reported 12 pounds lighter frame.
I don't think that 12 pounds makes him better or worse. In fact, that 12 pounds could have been added while he sat on the pine hurt last year. So it just stood to be lost.
If healthy, Wilson is one of the best defenders on the team. Luckily, the Mariners will have Brendan Ryan to slide over to short when the inevitable happens.
From all accounts, this is Michael Saunders' job to lose.
Even if he has a poor showing in Arizona, I'd still expect Saunders to be in left on opening day. The Mariners have to find out what Saunders is and if they should press forward with him.
He's a guy who has nothing to prove in the minors and who is on the brink of the nasty AAAA tag. There's talent in there, a guy still young with some pop, speed and defensive value. The 2011 season is going to be crucial for him to take a step forward.
Coming off a Gold Glove season in center, there's no doubt over who will patrol the spacious green in the middle of Safeco's outfield.
Franklin Gutierrez is now a proven elite fielder, which is where most of his value comes from. He'll never be a guy in danger of not having a major league job as long as his legs don't betray him. What the Mariners would really like to see, though, is improved value by way of his offense.
His 2009 contributions at the plate would be fantastic. We're not asking for leaps over that, as his defense coupled with league-average offense make him a high value player.
What really needs to be said here?
Jack Cust is everything Hideki Matsui is, but at a fraction of the cost and five years his junior.
Though he won't be a masher or the answer to the Mariners' offensive (and they sure were offensive) woes of a year ago, Cust is an improvement over the Griffey/Sweeney/Bradley trio of rotating suck in the DH spot.
A low-cost signing for pennies on the dollar compared to what Godzilla cost the Athletics, he doesn't kill payroll. He's not going to sell a bunch of season tickets, but he won't embarrass himself either and Safeco Field should play well to his hitting style.
The Rest Of The Rotation
Outside of Felix, here are the best bets for the starting rotation:
Jason Vargas: Vargas had a good 2010, surprising perhaps. He stands to hang around the same performance level. While his true talent is that of a fourth or fifth starter in a good rotation, he could sit at No. 2 in this one.
Doug Fister: Unlike Vargas, his 2010 may not be as sustainable. Well, at least the part before the injury. While his post-injury numbers may not be the best indicator either, he'll probably continue to rely on luck and defense to carry him to stretches of decent performance.
Erik Bedard: Don't hold your breath, as nothing is certain with this guy. Having chose a non-guaranteed contract from the M's over guaranteed money elsewhere, it gives you some hope that the guy wants to prove something here. If his arm doesn't blow up this spring, he might even provide some value for the team to deal at the deadline.
Michael Pineda: The Mariners have other guys in camp in case Bedard can't go or they want to play the service-time game with Pineda. I think he'll have a strong spring, though, and find himself as the fifth guy in the rotation. Pineda Day and Felix Day back to back could make the season that much more bearable.
With David Aardsma looking more likely to start the season on the DL, there is little doubt the Mariners will go with a 12-man pitching staff.
There are 33 pitchers in camp with the team. Thirty three. There should be a serviceable bullpen in there somewhere among the youngsters and non-roster invitees. Predicting the seven guys that make the trip to Oakland may be a futile exercise, but here's how I think it shakes out.
Manny Delcarmen, CL : He could have himself a nice spring. Being someone with closing experience is nice. Perhaps he gets the closer role as the Mainers don't need to give the league leverage in contract negotiations, which is exactly what a handful of saves would do.
Delcarmen also chose Seattle over Tampa Bay. While that could be attributed to facing AL West hitters versus AL East hitters to rebuild value, the Mariners may have also pitched the possibility of closing while Aardsma heals.
Brandon League, SU: I think the Mariners need to use Aardsma's injury as an excuse to see what they have in League as a closer. They, of course, will need some ninth inning leads to do that, which won't come easy with this offense. However, if they can send League in to slam the door 10-plus times, it should give them a good idea. It'll also help build his stock should they not be able to find an Aardsma suitor. In the end, though, I think they pass him up for Delcarmen.
Chris Ray, SU: He's another guy with closing experience, having saved 33 games for the Orioles in 2006 and 16 more the following season. He's had his issues the past few seasons but could be a nice low-risk reclamation project. I don't know that he earns the interim closer role, but I think he could show enough to enable the Mariners not to give service time to youngsters Dan Cortes and Josh Lueke.
Luke French, LR: He could start the season in place of Bedard, then end up in the bullpen, but there's a good chance this is where he starts and stays. As a lefty, the team has options to use him as a LOOGY, in long relief against heavy left-handed lineups and as a spot starter.
Garrett Olson, LH: I'd rather see Edward Paredes from a young talent perspective, but expect Olson to be the second lefty in the pen to save service time for the youngster who could still use some seasoning.
Jose Flores, RH: A Rule 5 draft pick at the winter meetings, Flores should make the team unless he shows nothing this spring. The Mariners could toss him back to the Indians for little loss, or pull one of those fake disabled list stunts teams are known to do with these kids. He'll turn 22 in July, so he'll get the honor of wearing the pink backpack (see photo above).
David Pauley, RH: The final spot could easily go to a Cortes or Lueke flame thrower to fill the void until Shawn Kelley returns, but I think the Mariners again decide to save service time for talented youngsters and slide another guy who could spot start into the final bullpen spot.
With a seven-man bullpen, the bench will only have three players. Realistically, it'll only be two since one slot goes to a catcher.
S, Josh Bard, C: The Mariners may already know what they have in Adam Moore and view him as a backup. In that case, he starts the season in that role with the Mariners, though he's still young and sitting on the bench doesn't make him better. For that, I believe he goes to Tacoma and Bard gets the backup catcher job.
S, Milton Bradley, OF/DH: As a switch hitter who can play the corner outfield spots if needed, it looks like Bradley indeed will stick with the club after charges in LA were recently dropped. There's still a good chance things don't work between himself and manager Eric Wedge, but for now the $12 million he is owed this season probably has him land a roster spot.
R, Josh Wilson, IF: The addition of Adam Kennedy could change this, though Kennedy recently got a DUI and is on a minor league contract. Unless he has a majorly less-crappy spring than Wilson, this is probably how the infield reserve role shakes out.