Can Ichiro, King Felix get the M's back to the postseason?
Someday, historians may look back in amazement at the 2010 Seattle Mariners, who managed the unique feat of losing 101 games despite boasting a rotation headed by two Cy Young winners, in Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez; a lineup that featured two potential Hall of Fame hitters, in Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki; and a defense that ranked among the game’s best. They were, in fact, the first $100 million team to lose 100 games. How did such a thing occur? The culprit, of course, was an offense that scored just 513 runs and hit just .236. And the result, predictably, was a bloodbath. Griffey, a shell of his former self, retired in midseason. Lee was traded for prospects. Manager Don Wakamatsu was fired. The offseason brought a careful overhauling, beginning with a new manager, former Cleveland skipper Eric Wedge. For the Mariners, the best that can be said about 2010 is that it’s over.
The Mariners no longer have their brilliant 1-2 punch, as Lee was traded to the Rangers for prospects in July. Lee-Hernandez was formidable. Hernandez-Jason Vargas? Not so much. Certainly, Hernandez is a bona fide ace — the latest evidence being the AL Cy Young Award he won last year despite going only 13–12 — and won’t even turn 25 until the season’s second week. Beyond him, though, the Mariners appear to be piecing together a rotation out of decent arms and chicken wire. Vargas, a 28-year-old, soft-tossing lefty, had a breakthrough year in 2010, making 31 starts and posting a 3.78 ERA, but he also had a rocky second half and suffered from the same lack of run support as Hernandez. The back end of the rotation, such as it is, will consist of some combination of Doug Fister, Michael Pineda, David Pauley, Chris Seddon and Erik Bedard. Of those, Pineda, a 22-year-old Dominican, is by far the most intriguing, as he showed top-of-the-rotation stuff in Double-A and Triple-A.
It was lost amid the historic ineptitude of the Mariners’ offense, but the bullpen did not perform so well, either — posting a 4.23 collective ERA and the second-worst strikeout rate (6.57 per nine innings) in the majors. And it has to scare a Mariners fan to note the team did little to upgrade the pen for 2011. Closer David Aardsma was the subject of some trade rumors, coming off a season in which his ERA shot up by nearly a run, and his strikeout and walk rates both regressed slightly. But he is back in the ninth-inning role again, and his chief setup men will be the same as well — Brandon League from the right side and Garrett Olson from the left. However, righthander Josh Lueke, a 26-year-old flamethrower who came over in the Lee deal, is an intriguing possibility for a back-end job. Lefty Luke French and righthander Danny Cortes figure to hold down middle-relief jobs, while the lefty Seddon, who had a strong 2010 season at Triple-A Tacoma, could get the long relief job as a sort of apprenticeship before ascending to the rotation.
The Mariners’ infield changed significantly with the December trade for Brendan Ryan — a trade made possible, in part, by the versatility of Chone Figgins. Figgins, one of the Mariners’ big acquisitions from the previous winter, spent 2010 as the team’s everyday second baseman. But before that, he had played primarily third base for the Los Angeles Angels. And that, presumably, is where Figgins will spend 2011, with Ryan taking over at second. Ryan, though, may just be keeping the position warm until prospect Dustin Ackley arrives — perhaps as soon as June. Ackley, chosen with the second overall pick of the 2009 draft, posted a .267/.368/.407 batting line (combined Double-A and Triple-A), then topped it off with a stellar showing in the Arizona Fall League. At shortstop, veteran Jack Wilson returns for a second full year in Seattle. The Mariners expect little offense from Wilson, but will settle for his usual brand of spectacular, steady defense.
The centerpiece of the package the Mariners received from the Texas Rangers for Lee last July was Justin Smoak, a big, switch-hitting first baseman who — following an up-and-down 2010 — is expected to break camp as the Mariners’ starting first baseman. His minor league track record (especially a .404 career OBP) suggests he can, and will, hit big league pitching. Across the diamond, Figgins is expected to man third base, with the Mariners praying his precipitous drop in production last season was just a one-year blip, and not an indication of a steep decline. At the very least, Figgins will play exceptional defense.
For 11 years now, the Mariners have been able to count on one thing without fail — Ichiro Suzuki playing right field (well, except for that brief flirtation with center field a few years back) and batting leadoff. In 10 seasons in America, he has 10 Gold Gloves and 10 200-hit seasons. At the other corner, Michael Saunders represents a leap of faith. He is still only 24, and the Mariners appear ready to anoint him the everyday left fielder. His growth as a hitter is crucial to the team’s 2011 fortunes. Franklin Gutierrez is arguably the top defensive center fielder in the game, but the Mariners need more than just fancy glovework from him in 2011.
The December signing of free agent Miguel Olivo underscored the Mariners’ failures to develop a homegrown catcher. Olivo is what he is — a competent, journeyman backstop with significant pop but little plate discipline (.283 career OBP). He won’t hurt the Mariners, but he won’t help them significantly either. And the two-year contract puts an end to any talk of Adam Moore being a part of the Mariners’ future. He could stick around as Olivo’s backup, but that’s about it.
After signing free agent Jack Cust to a one-year deal in December, the Mariners have what amounts to a very intriguing DH platoon, with Cust from the left side and holdover Milton Bradley from the right. Cust provides tons of walks, strikeouts and homers, and little else of note. Meantime, Bradley was a bust in Seattle, and he has a checkered history with new manager Eric Wedge from their days in Cleveland. But perhaps seeing a steady diet of lefties could revive his career. The Mariners’ bench is fairly boilerplate: steady Josh Wilson as a utility infielder, Matt Tuiasosopo as a backup corner infielder, Moore as the backup catcher, and possibly Greg Halman as an extra outfielder.
This is a critical year for GM Jack Zduriencik, who drew raves across baseball for his pitching-and-defense blueprint but by midseason was rumored to be on the way out. He survived, but one gets the feeling his survival will depend, even more than usual, upon results in 2011. In choosing Wedge, Zduriencik passed over sexier names (Bobby Valentine) and other experienced skippers (Lloyd McClendon, John Gibbons, Cecil Cooper). Wedge comes out of the Cleveland Indians organization, a like-minded operation that shares many of Zduriencik’s theories, so the GM/manager relationship should be strong.
The AL West has gotten more competitive over the past couple of seasons, and within this dynamic, the Mariners are in danger of falling even further behind, which is why 2011 is such a crucial season. Theirs was a roster that appeared in need of a radical transformation, and instead the team’s braintrust simply made some tweaks. The Mariners will live and die this year with their young talent, but ownership of the AL West cellar could be theirs again.