Last season: 67-95 (4th in AL West, 29 GB)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Sean says: The Seattle Mariners should not invest in a whole lot of champagne this season, because frankly, they won’t be needing it. As far as the postseason is concerned, the Mariners are not the longest of shots (that honor is being shared by the Twins and Orioles), but the lineup is thin, the rotation is too, and the bullpen is largely unproven. In the difficult AL West, manager Eric Wedge will have his work cut out for him with the players available for his lineup card.
We’ll start with the good news: Felix Hernandez is still a Mariner. He was not as dominant last season with an ERA of 3.47, although it was difficult to go anywhere but down following his 2010 Cy Young performance. And, early returns have the Mariners winning the Michael Pineda trade: While Pineda will start the season on the disabled list, Hector Noesi will start the season in Seattle’s rotation, and Jesus Montero has kept expectations high after a strong spring for the Mariners.
There’s also promising second baseman Dustin Ackley, who made his Major League debut last season and hit .273 in 90 games. He was once Baseball America’s 12th-ranked prospect and only figures to get better, even at the pitcher’s haven that is Safeco Field.
Mike Carp, too, deserves mention. He hit .276, smacked 12 homers and drove in 46 runs with only about a half-season’s worth of at-bats last season. He also shredded Triple-A to the tune of 21 jacks and a .343 average. But he’ll start the season on the disabled list with an injured right shoulder, although it appears the injury is only a minor inconvenience.
And now, the bad news. Ichiro Suzuki had the bottom suddenly fall out of his game last season, struggling to a .272 average and an atrocious .645 OPS; making matters worse, he’s 38 years old, meaning it’s possible we’ve seen the last of Ichiro the Hit Machine. Seattle is also waiting on Justin Smoak, who was supposed to blossom last season but could never stay completely healthy and finished the season hitting .234 with 15 homers. They were chief among many reasons why the Mariners’ offense was the worst in the Bigs in 2011.
Still, Ichiro’s numbers were so far below his career averages (43 points off his batting average, 146 points off his OPS) that, even at an advanced age, it’s still hard to believe that 2011 was anything but an abberation. Plus, Smoak’s power stroke means that opposing pitchers have to do better than simply grooving one down the pike. Considering Ichiro’s track record and Smoak’s yet-unrealized potential, you could do much worse at their positions, even if their performances see no improvement. Just ask Oakland and San Diego.
Unfortunately, it dries out quickly after that. Chone Figgins made a strong case for League’s Worst Player last season (.188/.243/.484). Brendan Ryan is not on the team for his offense. Casper Wells doesn’t have the feel of an everyday player, at least not at this point. Michael Saunders is a classic example (so far, anyway) of a solid minor league player who has been unable to make the adjustment to Major League pitching. And Miguel Olivo, whose 19 homers led the M’s last season, did it while hitting .224 and is a career .243 hitter.
In the rotation, Pineda and Doug Fister are both gone. Pineda was pretty lousy after the All-Star break, and his trade this offseason prompted more than its fair share of “What do the Mariners know that we don’t?” questions; Fister, meanwhile, improved significantly over past seasons and was dealt with his value never higher. The serviceable Jason Vargas returns, as does Blake Beavan, who was largely able to hold his own in the three months after making his Major League debut in early July. The other two spots go to Noesi, who allowed five runs over 4.2 innings in two very abbreviated starts for the Yankees in September; and to Kevin Millwood, who remarkably hasn’t retired yet and has had exactly two good seasons since 2003 ended. To his credit, Millwood was pleasantly adequate for Colorado last season, and as far as fifth starters go, one can’t really be picky.
Then there’s the bullpen. George Sherrill was solid for Atlanta last season, and the Mariners can take solace knowing their 9th inning leads will be safe with Brandon League shutting the door. But nobody after those two threw more than 33 innings last season except for Charlie Furbush, whose starting rotation experiment was ended indefinitely after a 6.62 ERA in 53 innings. Three arms out of the bullpen (Hisashi Iwakuma, Erasmo Ramirez and Rule 5 selection Lucas Luetge) have never appeared in a Major League game. Tom Wilhelmsen, Shawn Kelley and Steve Delabar all put up fine numbers last season, but did them in a combined 41 games and 52.1 innings. Seattle’s bullpen could turn out to be great, but it could easily go the other way or fall anywhere in between.
To recap: The rotation is less than star-studded, the bullpen is loaded with question marks and the offense is lackluster. And unfortunately, Octobers are rainy in Seattle, so even those post-season rounds of golf won’t be much to write home about.
Worth watching: Ichiro will be hitting from the 3-hole this season and should see his numbers resemble something much closer to normal as a result of having better protection in the order. Ichiro’s protection for much of last year came in the form of Figgins or Ryan, who hardly resemble Major League hitters, let alone fearsome ones. Smoak and Montero have power, though, and that changes the dynamic significantly. Last season, pitchers could nibble at Ichiro and then just lob three pitches down the middle against the 2-hitter. But this year, because of the power behind him in the order, pitchers will have to go after Ichiro and nibble at the cleanup spot. Expect Ichiro to be around .300 this season, and if anyone gets on base ahead of him, 70-75 RBIs are entirely possible.
Featured Image Credit: Koji Sasahara, Associated Press