On the morning of July 6, 2011, the Mariners were 43-43 and two and a half games out of the AL West lead. Less than three weeks later, they were 43-60 and 15.5 games back. The 17-game losing streak came to define the Mariners' season, plunging them back into the same last-place abyss they had occupied in three of the previous five seasons. In the process, they reached new lows for offensive futility, posting franchise records for lowest batting average and most strikeouts. And despite bolstering their offense with the addition of Jesus Montero in a January trade, the Mariners are in danger of falling even further behind division rivals Los Angeles and Texas, both of which made significant moves over the winter. Despite small pockets of progress, and some promising young players, the Mariners appear to be nowhere close to contending any time soon.
The Mariners split up one of the best young rotation duos in the game when they traded Michael Pineda to the Yankees for Montero, a slugging catcher/DH, in arguably the biggest deal of the offseason. They still have Felix Hernandez as the No. 1 starter, who remains one of the elite pitchers in the game despite a rather mediocre (by his lofty standards) season in 2011._Newcomer Hisashi Iwakumi, a righthander signed out of the Japanese league in January, could slide into the No. 2 spot vacated by Pineda. Iwakumi was 24 games over .500 in five seasons in Japan with a 1.130 WHIP. Lefty Jason Vargas is locked in as the No. 3 starter, while righthander Blake Beavan and lefty Charlie Furbush figure to vie with veteran Kevin Millwood for the final two spots. Vargas, in his second full season as a starter, went 10-13 with a 4.25 ERA. He has averaged just under 200 innings over the past two years. If one of the starters falters, the Mariners can look to young guns Danny Hultzen, Erasmo Ramirez and James Paxton to camp to step into the rotation. Hultzen, the No. 2 overall pick last June out of the University of Virginia, is quite polished for someone who has yet to throw his first pitch in the minors, but it remains doubtful that the Mariners would allow him to break camp with the big league club.
The December signing of George Sherrill satisfied two different bullpen needs for the Mariners - veteran leadership, and help from the left side. Though he was once a solid closer, Sherrill is pretty much used strictly as a left-handed specialist these days, something for which the Mariners had an acute need. Despite being the subject of trade rumors all winter, Brandon League is back as the Mariners' closer, coming off a solid 2011 that saw him named to his first All-Star team. The former Blue Jay saved 37 games in his first season as a closer. Tom Wilhelmsen and Shawn Kelley are penciled in as right-handed setup men, but Chance Ruffin, acquired in the Doug Fister deal with Detroit, has enormous back-end potential. He struck out 60 in 48.2 innings pitched in the minors last season. Hector Noesi, acquired with Montero from the Yankees, can start or come out of the bullpen.
Picked one spot behind Stephen Strasburg in 2009, second baseman Dustin Ackley arrived in Seattle last June with tons of hype, and despite some stumbles he proved himself worthy. His 2011 numbers may not leap off the page (.273/.348/.417), but that is solid production at Safeco. He should get better in 2012, with a year under his belt, but it is a bit disconcerting that his OPS declined in every month of the season. Ackley's double-play partner once again will be the sure-gloved Brendan Ryan, who hit just .248/.313/.326 in 2011. But on this Mariners team, numbers like those practically qualify him as a middle-of-the-order force. He is far from this team's worst problem.
First baseman Justin Smoak's first full year in the majors began with such promise - 12 homers by mid-June and an OPS that hovered in the mid-.800s until late June. But a thumb injury derailed him physically, and the death of his father brought untold mental anguish, and Smoak declined fast. He wound up hitting just .234/.323/.396. It goes without saying that an AL first baseman needs to do better than that. At third base, youngsters Kyle Seager and Alex Liddi, who looked solid down the stretch in 2011, will compete this spring for the regular job, with veteran Chone Figgins and his disastrous contract (which runs through 2013 with $17 million still owed) still the favorite. Figgins hit only .188 last season in 288 at-bats, almost 100 points below his career average. The Mariners hope a move to Figgins' more familiar role at the top of the order will spark the veteran who thrived in that position for the Angels.
Ichiro Suzuki arrived on these shores in 2001 at the age of 27, and 10 years later looked as if he hadn't aged a day. But that changed over the course of the 2011 season, when Ichiro suddenly seemed to have added those 10 years all at once. His paltry .272/.310/.335 line - easily career-worsts in all three - called into question his long-term future in Seattle (he is a free agent after the season). Of Ichiro's 1,733 games started, 1,720 of them have come out of the leadoff spot (the other 13 were all as the No. 3 hitter). But manager Eric Wedge has not committed to Suzuki as his leadoff hitter in 2012, after his career-low .310 OBP in 2011. On the other hand, the emergence of Mike Carp as an offensive force in the second half of 2011 - he hit 10 home runs in 212 at-bats after Aug. 1 - was arguably the team's best surprise of the year; he will likely split time between left field and designated hitter. In center field, former Gold Glover Franklin Gutierrez faces a pivotal year in which he has to do better at the plate than the anemic .224/.261/.273 he put up during an injury-plagued 2011. While he recovers from a torn pectoral muscle, Michael Saunders will assume the job in center.
The Mariners pulled off a surprising trade in November that netted them catcher John Jaso (in exchange for young pitcher Josh Lueke), who is likely to join veteran Miguel Olivo in a platoon for 2012. Jaso, who hits from the left side, struggled at the plate for Tampa Bay in 2011, but he is only two seasons removed from an impressive .263/.372/.378 year. Olivo, meantime, hit 19 homers for the Mariners in 2011, but his awful OBP (.253) and high strikeout rate (27.6 percent) put a serious drain on their offense. Montero will see the majority of his at bats as the DH unless he shows significant improvement defensively.
The Mariners are hoping Montero will provide some much-needed pop in the middle of the lineup. He hit 18 home runs in 463 at bats in Triple-A last year before impressing during a September call-up with the Yankees. The Mariners got almost no production from the position in 2011, with their DHs posting a combined OPS of .650 for the year. Casper Wells will see time as the fourth outfielder - if he doesn't beat out Carp - but also figures to get some ABs as the DH. Seager, Liddi and the odd man out in the catching platoon will form the bulk of the bench.
General manager Jack Zduriencik brought impeccable player-development credentials with him when he took over in October 2008, but after a promising debut in 2009 he has now overseen back-to-back last-place finishes, and one can imagine that if his 2012 youth movement doesn't pan out, then his days at the helm of the Mariners could be numbered. Wedge received a vote of confidence of sorts when his entire coaching staff was preserved, despite a last-place finish in 2011. Clearly, the Mariners franchise could use some stability in management, but to earn that Zduriencik and Wedge will need to win.
With plenty of talent and youth around the diamond and on the pitching staff, the Mariners should be better than a 95-loss team in 2012. You can certainly build around a core of Hernandez, Paxton, Hultzen, Carp, Smoak, Montero and Ackley. But the Mariners are stuck in the brutal American League West, and with the Angels loading up this winter (Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson) and the two-time defending AL-champion Rangers still a force, a .500 record and a third-place finish would appear to be the outer limits of hope for the Mariners. And in a worst-case scenario, they could easily tumble back into a loss total in the 90s. There is little hope in the short term for this franchise.
3B Chone Figgins (S)
$36 million contract has been disaster, but a return to his old lead-off role could still salvage the deal.
2B Dustin Ackley (L)
Might be better as No. 2 hitter, but Mariners think he will become a big-time run-producer.
RF Ichiro Suzuki (L)
If his acute 2011 decline doesn't turn around, his days at leadoff could be numbered.
LF Mike Carp (L)
Batted .286/.325/.494 with 12 homers in second-half breakthrough in 2011. Sprained shoulder in Japan and is on the DL.
DH Jesus Montero (R)
Too young to be a full-time DH, not polished enough to be a full-time catcher, but his bat is MLB-ready.
1B Justin Smoak (S)
Improved numbers across the board in second big league season; needs to improve even more in 2012.
C John Jaso (L)
Offensive numbers slipped in 2011, but he hits righthanders very well.
SS Brendan Ryan (R)
Seattle pitchers love his glove at shortstop where he makes their jobs easier. Opposing pitchers love his bat at the plate where he makes their jobs easier.
CF Michael Saunders (L)
Will fill in while Franklin Gutierrez recovers from a torn pectoral muscle.
INF Kyle Seager (L)
Will fill in at 2B, SS and 3B. Carp's injury is an opportunity for Seager.
C Miguel Olivo (R)
Ability to crush left-handed pitching makes him perfect platoon-mate for Jaso.
3B Alex Liddi (R)
Mariners took a good look at him in September and liked what they saw.
OF Casper Wells (R)
Has 15 homers, 44 RBIs in only 340 career plate appearances.
RH Felix Hernandez
With all he's accomplished, amazing to think he'll still be only 25 on Opening Day.
LH Jason Vargas
Not the hardest thrower, but 10 wins, a 4.25 ERA and 201 innings for a bad team are impressive.
RH Hisashi Iwakumi
Went 107-69 in 222 games in Japan; won the Pacific League MVP in 2008 with a 21-4 record, 1.87 ERA.
RH Kevin Millwood
Veteran impressed with nine starts for Colorado last season. He was 4-3 and the Rockies won one of his no-decisions and the bullpen blew a four-run lead in the other.
LH Charlie Furbursh
Went 3-7 with a 6.62 ERA in 11 games (10 starts) after coming over from Detroit last July.
RH Blake Beavan
Big (6'7") Texan pitched his way into rotation discussion with impressive 2011 rookie year.
RH Brandon League (Closer)
Key to All-Star 2011 season was his career-low walk rate (1.5 per nine innings).
RH Tom Wilhelmsen
Thrived in eighth-inning audition as 27-year-old rookie in 2011.
RH Shawn Camp
Averaged 73 innings over the past three seasons with Toronto.
RH Shawn Kelley
Mariners hope 2009 standout is healthy again after two elbow surgeries.
LH George Sherrill
Former All-Star closer returns to Seattle as top lefty specialist.
RH Chance Ruffin
Flamethrower has chance to be closer some day if he reins in his walks.
RH Hector Noesi
Came out of the pen 28 times for the Yankees in 2011 but could pitch his way into the rotation.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals