As Opening Day draws nearer, every baseball analyst will attempt to break down each division in baseball and predict which team will come out on top. Most of these articles will skim over every team in the division, pointing out the obvious strong/weak points in each team. What im going to do for the next few weeks is preview each team team in the AL West and see how they really stack up against the Angels. This week we're going to focus on the Seattle Mariners.
Can King Felix take this team to the top, or are they bound to fall flat on their face one more?
Over in Seattle, Justin Smoak is expected to man first for the majority season. Smoak struggled early with his new team after being trade in the Cliff Lee trade, although he finished strong, batting .340 with 3 home runs in the last two weeks of his season. While he doesn't have much experience in the majors he shows very strong potential, and could potentially develop into a key player for Seattle in the coming seasons. Then again, he is just a rookie and could fall just as hard (or harder) as Brandon Wood did last season. Seattle lacks an anchor at first, or any real depth at that position for that matter. The outcome of Seattle's coming season strongly depends on the performance of Justin Smoak, if he can start of the season the way he ended it then Seattle is going to get that strong bat in the middle of the order that it desperately needs. Adam Kennedy is going to provide some depth at first, but he really can't provide any solid insurance if Smoak fails to produce mid-way through the season. All in all, if Smoak can put up those power numbers that are expected of him Seattle's offense is going to be in decent shape, but nowhere near enough to get them anywhere in the West.
Having both Brendan Ryan and Jack Wilson in the lineup does cause a sort of "jam" at short. In order to counter this, Eric Wedge has stated that he wants Jack Wilson to brush up on his defensive skills at second. This will cause a bit of confusion as there will be many conflicting reports of Wilson playing short and Ryan playing second and vice versa. It really is an open competition in Spring Training to see who will come out with which position, most of it depends on Wilsons ability to stay healthy and who shows better ability at each position. This is smart, as the Mariners want to avoid another flameout at second like they did with Chone Figgins last year.
While Jack Wilson is a shortstop by trade, he is preparing to open the season at second during spring training. With the arrival of Brendan Ryan, Wilson is most likely going to have to shift his defensive talents over to the other side of the infield. Aside from Wilson's great defense he struggled with the bat last year with the Mariners, only tallying 211 total plate appearances and putting up a .249/.282/316 slash line. It can be assumed that with steady number of at bats over a full season Wilson's offensive game should improve, only slightly though as his career slash line is .267/.309/.372. What Wilson excels with is his glove, but unfortunately Seattle doesn't need any more spectacular fielders. Seattle's problem has always been offense, and is going to continue to be offense. Taking on a defensive player like Wilson is bound to improve a team, but when a team doesn't really need to improve in defense whats the point? Jack Wilson has never been one to turn heads with his bat, shown by his career OPS+ of 78. His offense shouldn't turn out to be a liability in the lineup, but he isn't bound to strike much fear in whoever is lucky enough to be facing him on the mound.
I can tell you right off the bat that Seattle is much better off moving Chone Figgins back to the hot corner. After the departure of Jose Lopez and the arrival of Brendan Ryan, Chone was lucky enough to move back to his natural position of 3B. Last season he struggled pretty heavily at second, mostly due to having to learn a new position and the fact that he had to adjust to playing with his new team. Not only did he struggle defensively, his usual offensive prowess was nowhere to be seen. Figgins was a great disappointment to Seattle last year, but alas, this year will be much different. With Figgins no longer having his defensive troubles affected his mental game, he'll be able to regain the mojo that made him so special with the Angels. The real potential of having the one-two punch of Ichiro-Figgins will be realized, and Seattle is going to get that fire in the lineup they desperately needed. If only it didn't hurt seeing Figgins excel with another team.
The Mariners are looking at a strong upgrade at short after receiving Brendan Ryan from the Cardinals. Ryan was a key player for the Cardinals in 2009, but after undergoing surgery to remove dead tissue in his right wrist his game dropped off considerably. His average dropped 69 points (from .292 to .233) and his glove faced similar deterioration as well. His numbers have fluctuated year after year so it is very possible that his numbers weren't affected by his injury, just his inconsistencies. A middle infield of Wilson/Ryan should be fun to watch next year, as both players play with award winning defense, though their offense leaves much to be desired. If Brendan's offense recovers from last year and he can transition well to the AL, then he should be a solid addition to the team. Although he still doesn't fix Seattle's lack of strong bats in the lineup.
If Seattle had a physical embodiment of its weak offense, it would be Rob Johnson. Last year he manage to squeak together a measly .191/.293/.281 slash line, which is extremely weak even from the catchers position. Now that Johnson is gone, the Mariner's were able to upgrade at the backstop with Miguel Olivo. Is he really that big of an upgrade though? Offensively yes, he is a major upgrade, posting a respectable .269/.315/.449 for a catcher. His defense has never really been something to write home about, posting a career fielding percentage of .989, although he threw out runners at a strong 42% clip in 111 games.Even though he puts up respectable offensive numbers as a catcher, respectable offense isn't what the Mariner's need. I hate to sound like a broken record, constantly chirping about how the Mariners are failing to upgrade their hitting, but its the truth. It's no secret that the Mariners starting pitching is where the magic happens, everything else in their game is very weak. Even though their rotation is very capable of greatly limiting the opposing offense they have to limit them to an unrealistic amount of runs every single game if they want to keep their offense in the game, and when the offense is able to put the team ahead, the bullpen is often expected to give those leads right back.
The one acquisition that is going to help the Mariners big time is Jack Cust. While Cust has never really hit for the best averages, his ability to get on base at consistently is phenomenal. Not to mention that he brings the big power bat the Mariner's offense is desperate for. Cust does tend to strike out a ton (and in key AB's), being the kind of player that either crushes the ball or whiffs hard at it. Having him at the middle of the order with Smoak should boost the offense, though not by enough to cure Seattle's offensive woes. Still, having Cust in the lineup is going to be extremely valuable to the teams ability to produce runs in the late innings.
Milton Bradley is going into the spring looking to win a starting job in left field, and he looks to win the job as he has the most experience. Milton Bradley, oh what there is to say about Milton Bradley. Bradley the cancer in the clubhouse, Bradley the lazy player in the field, Bradley the underachiever with the bat. Bradley's numbers have been free-falling at an extremely alarming rate, his BA/OBP/SLG dropping over 100 points in each category in the past 2 seasons. Although he faced a limited number of plate appearances last year, he game has dropped off considerably. Bradley's bat and glove have long since disappeared, and he has become nothing more then a joke of a player, bashed on for his lack of passion on the field and his constant run negative run ins with other people in the league.
Look for Michael Saunders to get a fair amount of starts in left field, possibly taking over when Bradley is inevitabley released sometime near the beginning of the summer. Saunders, being a young rookie, is going to need to be eased into an everyday role in left. But once he finds his groove he should be a solid player in left. Then again it doesn't seem like he is going to be an offensive machine, more like another average bat in a severly lacking lineup. Aside from having Saunders patrolling left, the Mariner's are well off with Gold Glover's Ichiro and Gutierrez in RF and CF, respectively. Ichiro is going to have another Ichiro year, continuing to make his case for the Hall of Fame. As long as Ichiro continues to produce as usual, the Mariner's are going to have a strong 1-2 at the top of the lineup. Not really much else is expected to be strong about their lineup though. Gutierrez is another defensive machine that doesn't impress with that bat. Sure he's going to save an impressive amount of runs in the outfield, he won't be creating very many with his bat.
Finally, we get to the heart of Seattle's roster, their starting pitching. I hate putting down teams, so it feels good to finally be able to say something good about this team. Not enough can be said about Felix Hernandez, he's just one of those pitchers that comes around rarely for a team. Last year he came away with the Cy Young award, putting up eye popping numbers such as his 2.27 ERA in 249.2 innings pitching. He also struck out 232 batters, coming in second in the league for the title of Strike-out King, losing to the Angels Jered Weaver. Aside from the King, the Mariners having Jason Vargas, Erik Bedard, Doug Fister, and possibly Nate Robertson. Together Hernandez, Vargas, and Fister averaged a 3.39 ERA between the three of them, which is wildly impressive. Bedard hasn't pitched in the majors since 2009, when he put up 2.82 ERA in 83 IP with Seattle. He's been out due to injury, yet if he finds a way to bounce back he could be yet another valuable pitcher in Seattle's rotation. As much as i wanted to get through this paragraph without hating on Seattle, it needs to be said that this starting rotation will not be able to save the team no matter how strong it is.
With David Aardsma undergoing hip surgery, he is going to be out for the beginning of the 2011 season. Having Aardsma out is not going to hurt the Mariners in any way, Aarsdma was a less than reliable closer. Sure he has a 3.44 ERA, but don't let that fool you, Aardsma's control is well below what is needed for a closer. His 4.5 BB/9 is worse than the hated Brian Fuentes, who posted a 3.8 BB/9 in 2010. Anyone who saw Fuentes "close" (if you can call what he did closing), knows how bad he was with putting runners on base. Aardsma is much worse then Fuentes, which says alot about his problems with walking batters. Aardsma is not likely to keep the closer spot the whole season, most likely losing the job by mid-summer. After Aardsma goes down, expect League to be promoted from set-up to closer. While League is not going to be an elite closer his career BB/9 of 3.2 and K/9 of 6.7 point to him providing some stability in the role.
The rest of Seattle's bullpen put together an unspectacular WAR of -0.4, which ranking second to last in the entire league last year. The good news about the bullpen is that it's going to have a different look than it did last season. Rookies Josh Lueke and Dan Cortes are going to spend a lot more time on the mound this year, which would be a great thing for Seattle if their performances in the minors transition smoothly to the majors. As a starting pitcher in the minors Cortes put up an 8.3 K/9 in the minors, while Lueke has a career K/9 of 11.43 in the minors. Being able to keep runners off the base paths at these rates will be a godsend for a struggling Seattle bullpen.
If you didn't have this fact drilled into your head at this point in the article, then let me state this once more for good measure. Seattle is going to go nowhere with their lacking offense, no matter how good their starting pitching is. The pitchers are rarely going to have a lead to protect, and the bullpen is going to struggle to maintain any leads the offense and starting pitching hands them. Seattle is looking at another last place finish, especially due to the upgrades the Angels and Athletics put together this offseason. The Mariners aren't one to give their division rivals any trouble, so they'll be a pretty easy team to beat this season.
The Angels have never been one to have trouble with Mariners, and since the Mariners are practically the same team going into this season the Angels will walk over the Mariners. Having a much weaker team in the division to feast upon will not only greatly boost the Angels wins, but it will greatly improve their team confidence. Facing the Mariners before a tough division rival like the Rangers will boost the teams morale and fire up the players spriits, improving their game with the real division rivals. Maybe once the Mariners build a suitable offense in a few seasons they'll be something to worry about, but right now they're small fish in the quickly expanding pond of the AL West.