M’s 2012: Can the Kids Carry the Load?

This article first appeared in the April 2012 of The Grand Salami.


C/DH Jesus Montero was acquired for pitcher Michael Pineda over the winter

By Jon Wells

After a disappointing 2011 season during which the Mariners’ record improved just six games from their 61-101 season of 2010, it was expected that the team would spend some dollars to bring in reinforcements for 2012. Seattle General Manager Jack Zduriencik seemed to imply as much when he told the New York Times in May of 2011, “We’re going to have a lot of money coming off the books this year.”

While that money is now indeed “off the books” due to the expiring contracts of Milton Bradley and Jack Wilson and the end of payments to departed players Carlos Silva and Yuniesky Betancourt, it didn’t go back into the M’s player payroll this winter as expected.

Instead, the M’s ownership has once again decided to cut player payroll significantly, as they did in each of the previous two seasons. Following up on a year when the team’s biggest offseason additions were Miguel Olivo and Jack Cust, the biggest outlay for a new player for 2012 was a $1.5 million, one-year contract given to Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma.

Those acquisitions haven’t exactly led to a flurry of activity at the ticket window on Edgar Martinez Drive and they’re a far cry from the offseason moves made over the winter by two of the Mariners’ A.L. West rivals in Anaheim and Texas, who both spent big dollars this winter on marquee players—the Angels signed first baseman Albert Pujols to a ten-year, $254 million contract and the Rangers made a $111 million commitment to add 25-year-old Yu Darvish, considered by many to be the best pitcher to ever come out of Japan.

Cutting payroll is a curious move for a team sorely in need of some offensive firepower. Seattle finished last in the American League in runs scored for the second consecutive season in 2011, scoring just 46 more runs than the 2010 team that set a franchise record with only 513. The ’11 M’s also finished last in the league in team batting average (.233), on-base percentage (.292), and slugging percentage (.348).

The Mariners never announced a cut in payroll for 2012 and in fact seemed to indicate that they were trying hard over the winter to sign free agent slugger Prince Fielder, who eventually signed with Detroit. One free agent hitter after another signed elsewhere while it was speculated that the M’s were saving their money for Fielder. By the time Fielder signed with the Tigers in late January, of course, few hitters of note were left on the market.

While it’s clear that the M’s are in a rebuilding mode and have little chance to contend for the postseason this year, adding a veteran hitter or two to a lineup that’s been the worst in baseball the last two seasons would have helped the team’s offense significantly. 2012 will be the fourth year of Seattle’s rebuild and it would be nice to see the club make some progress in the standings—if only to stem the tide of declining attendance at Safeco Field and ensure that upper management doesn’t pull the plug on Zduriencik.

Several prospects drafted by Zduriencik, including a trio of young pitchers that all project as aces (Danny Hult­zen, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker), are closer to being ready for the Majors, but the kids can’t do it all themselves. Young hitters like Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero, acquired in an offseason trade with the New York Yankees, have potential, but they’d develop much more quickly if they had some veteran protection in the lineup.

The trade for Montero—who’s listed on the roster as a catcher but will likely wind up at DH—cost the club starting pitcher Michael Pineda, who thrived in the M’s rotation in 2011, striking out 173 batters in 171 innings and making the A.L. All-Star team as a rookie.

Zduriencik would certainly have preferred to keep Pineda, but with his bosses cutting his budget and the club in dire need of offensive improvement, the trade with New York was one he had to make. The 22-year-old Montero is one of the top hitting prospects in baseball, has top-level power to all fields, and has been compared to elite sluggers like Miguel Cabrera, Frank Thomas, and Seattle’s own Edgar Martinez.

Not bringing in any veteran hitters in the offseason means that the Mariners, as they did the last two years, are counting on players at several positions who haven’t yet proven that they can hit consistently in the Major Leagues. That plan didn’t work so well in 2010 or ’11, but it’s one the M’s have decided to repeat for a third consecutive season.

While Mike Carp hit well after being inserted into the lineup in the second half of 2011 (.276 with 12 home runs and 46 RBI), it’s tougher to do that for a full season than for a couple of months. And with Smoak at first base and Montero getting most of the DH at-bats, Carp is being asked to play a position, left field, which he’s ill-suited for.

The M’s have bigger question marks at third base and center field. While young Kyle Seager hit well over .300 in the minors and showed some flashes in a late-season trial in Seattle in ’11, he’s seen as more of a line-drive hitter who doesn’t have the power a team needs to get from the hot corner. Center field, where Franklin Gutierrez put up abysmal numbers in 2011 (.224 with one home run and 19 RBI), a season in which he was hampered by stomach issues, looks to again be a problem area. Gutierrez spent the offseason bulking up, regaining weight he’d lost last year, only to be felled by a torn pectoral muscle early in spring training. He’ll start the season on the disabled list and, much like last year, isn’t likely to play for the M’s until May. In his absence, 25-year-old Michael Saunders, who hit .149 last year, is expected to get most of the playing time in center.

The M’s did bring in several low-salaried players for 2012, mostly on the pitching side. Iwakuma, veteran Kevin Millwood, and 25-year-old Hector Noesi (acquired in the Montero/Pineda trade) competed for rotation spots during spring training. Iwa­kuma, a veteran of ten seasons in Japan’s Pacific League and winner of the 2008 Sawamura Award (Japan’s version of the Cy Young), has a history of pitching well when healthy, but was limited to 119 innings in 2011 due to shoulder issues. A strike­thrower who keeps the ball down, he should be well suited to Safeco Field. Millwood, a fifteen-year veteran with 163 big league wins to his name, spent much of the ’11 season in the minors, but pitched well for Colorado (4-3, 3.98) in nine late-season starts. Brought to spring training on a non-guaranteed contract, Millwood has pitched for M’s manager Eric Wedge before—in Cleveland in 2005, he won the A.L. ERA title and was a mentor to the Indians’ young pitchers. Millwood is now 37, but if he can get hitters out, he’ll fit nicely in Seattle’s rotation. Noesi spent 2011 in the Yankees’ bullpen, but was a starter in the minors.

The M’s made a surprising move right at the start of this year’s spring training, moving Ichiro, who had his first bad season last year (.272 BA, .310 OBP), out of his customary leadoff spot and replacing him with Chone Figgins, who had a much worse year in 2011 (.188 BA, .241 OBP). Those who have clamored for years for Ichiro to be moved to the No. 3 spot have finally gotten their wish, but the move comes after a season where Ichiro hit just five home runs. The switch is more about trying to put Figgins back in his comfort zone; he had his best years while batting leadoff for the Angels. Ichiro is a career .333 hitter with runners in scoring position (.302 last year) so the move could contribute to the M’s scoring more runs.

There’s certainly reason to be optimistic about the future of the Mariners franchise, but it’s hard to look at 2012 as anything but another rebuilding season. The M’s sat on the sidelines over the winter while the Angels and Rangers added talent to rosters that were already strong, and with another payroll cut it almost seems like M’s management has already conceded the season (and perhaps 2013 as well), delaying “going for it” until the team’s top prospects are ready to contribute at the Major League level.

That said, there will be reasons to come out to Safeco this season. As Montero, Smoak, and Dustin Ackley continue to develop as hitters, they’ll help the M’s score more runs than they have in recent seasons. One or more of the pitching pros­pects could arrive at some point this season and there’s always Felix Hernandez on the mound every fifth day.

Here’s a position by position rundown as the Mariners begin the 2012 season:

STARTING ROTATION

Hisashi Iwakuma

Hisashi Iwakuma won the Sawamura award as Japan’s best pitcher in 2008

The Seattle rotation will once again be led by Felix Hernandez. He turned 27 earlier this month, but already has six full Major League seasons under his belt. The King turned in his third consecutive 230+ inning season in 2011 and won 14 games, one more than he had in 2010, when he won the A.L. Cy Young Award, but he also lost 14. While Hernandez is signed through the 2014 season and has been saying all the right things about wanting to play his whole career in Seattle, it’s hard to imagine he won’t get frustrated if the M’s don’t get back to contention soon.

29-year-old Jason Vargas has been a solid, underappreciated starter for the M’s the last two seasons; he doesn’t get the credit he deserves because he doesn’t throw hard and he hasn’t yet put up big win totals. The southpaw won a career-high 10 games in 2011 and would have won several more with decent run support—the Seattle offense scored just 3.4 runs per nine innings in his 32 starts last year, second-worst in the league. When the M’s scored at least three runs for Vargas in ’11 he went 9-2.

It was expected that 30-year-old Hisashi Iwakuma would be in Seattle’s starting rotation to begin the season, but he struggled in spring training and started the year in the M’s bullpen. When he’s going well, Iwakuma keeps the ball down and doesn’t walk many batters—in seventeen starts in Japan in ’11, he issued just 19 free passes. Iwakuma has a track record of success as a starter, so we expect he’ll be in the rotation before too long.

The final three rotation spots went to a trio of right-handers: Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi, and Kevin Millwood. Beavan, who went 5-6 with a 4.27 ERA in fifteen starts for the M’s in the second half of 2011, is a league-average starter who relies on his defense to get outs. Millwood is well past his prime at 37, but he’s a competitor who knows how to pitch. The 25-year-old Noesi throws in the mid-90s with four above-average pitches.

BULLPEN

Outside of one particularly miserable week last May, Brandon League was one of the top closers in baseball in 2011 and made the A.L. All-Star team for the first time. Owner of a 95mph fastball, League has had more success with Seattle than he did in Toronto despite his strikeout rate declining significantly (9.2 per nine innings in 2010 with the Blue Jays, 6.4 and 6.6 in his two years with the Mariners). League is in the last year of his contract, so if he can stay healthy and productive, perhaps the M’s can get a bidding war going for him before the July trade deadline.

Tom Wilhelmsen

Tom Wilhelmsen

28-year-old Tom Wilhelmsen will be the main setup man for League to begin the 2012 season. Wilhelmsen did a superb job the last two months of 2011 in a setup role; he throws in the mid-90s with good secondary pitches. He’s probably the best candidate to take over closing duties in the event of a midseason trade of League. Right-hander Shawn Kelley was a surprise cut right before Opening Day, as he paid the price for giving up a game-losing home run during the M’s trip to Japan. He’s likely to be back in Seattle’s ’pen before long.

A familiar face returns to Seattle this year in left-hander George Sherrill. Traded to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard deal in February 2008, he’s spent the last four seasons with the Dodgers, Braves, and Orioles. He’ll turn 35 this month, but Sherrill can still get left-handed hitters out. Last year he struck out 32 lefty swingers while walking just one for Atlanta. Another southpaw, 25-year-old Charlie Furbush, was competing for a bullpen spot after struggling in 10 second-half starts (3-7, 6.62 ERA) for the M’s in 2011. Furbush was stung by the long ball in ’11, surrendering 16 home runs in 85 innings.

The final two spots in the opening day bullpen went to 21-year-old Erasmo Ramirez and 25-year-old Lucas Luetge, who was picked in the Rule 5 draft in December from the Milwaukee organization. Ramirez, a short right-hander with good command, was a starter in the minors, but the M’s believe he can get Major League hitters out now, so he’ll get his feet wet out of the ’pen to start the year. It’s expected that the left-handed Luetge will see most of his action in middle relief, but could get some situational work against left-handed hitters. Two right-handers who spent time with the M’s late last year, Chance Ruffin and Steve Dela­bar, are expected to start the season at Triple-A Tacoma, but will be the first call-ups in the event of injuries or poor performance from members of the big-league ’pen.

CATCHER

Miguel Olivo led the Mariners in home runs (19) and RBI (62) in 2011, but also posted a .253 on-base percentage, one of the lowest OBPs among regular players in the last hundred years. The hacktastic Olivo isn’t much better on defense—just as he did in his first stint with the M’s in 2004-05, Olivo had problems catching the ball, making eleven errors and adding eleven passed balls. Thanks to the offseason acquisition of John Jaso from Tampa Bay, Olivo isn’t likely to start 120 games behind the dish as he did in ’11. Jaso, a rare left-hand-hitting catcher, is almost the polar opposite of Olivo. He has good on-base skills, but hasn’t shown much power in his two full seasons in the bigs. The big debate regarding 22-year-old Jesus Montero isn’t whether he’ll be a good hitter, it’s whether he’ll stick as a catcher or be shifted to DH or first base. Some baseball experts are certain he won’t pan out behind the plate, while others point to Mike Piazza as a good-hitting backstop who made himself an adequate catcher with lots of hard work. For now, the M’s are claiming that Mon­tero will get every chance to develop as a catcher. If that should happen, look for the M’s to trade the 33-year-old Olivo in midseason.

INFIELD

Justin Smoak’s 2011 season was a struggle—he hit just .234 with 15 home runs and 55 RBI in his first full Major League season. While some point to the death of his father in April as a turning point in his season, it’s more likely that a thumb injury suffered in June was the cause of his hitting woes; after missing a week to attend the funeral and spend time with family, he hit home runs in his first two games back with the team and batted .351 in his first ten games back. The Mariners admitted later that they covered up the thumb injury so opposing pitchers wouldn’t take advantage, but the team would have been wise to keep Smoak out of the lineup and let the injury heal. The injury sapped his power—he didn’t hit a single home run for a period of two months—and he batted .130 from June to August. Healthy now and with better lineup protection from Montero and Mike Carp, look for Smoak to put up the numbers that were expected of him when he was acquired from Texas in mid-2010.

Dustin Ackley

Dustin Ackley

Second baseman Dustin Ackley instantly became the best hitter in a sad Mariners lineup when he was recalled from Tacoma last June. His overall numbers (.273 with 6 HRs and 36 RBI) would have been better if not for a September slump where he hit .219. It’s likely the late-season slump was a product of being tired from playing in many more games (156) than he had in any previous season (134). Ackley’s seven triples in 90 games were more than twice as many as any other Mariner, he was successful on all six of his stolen base attempts, and he turned the double play like a ten-year veteran in just his second season playing second base.

In his first season in Seattle in 2011, Brendan Ryan gave the M’s the best shortstop defense the team has had since Omar Vizquel was patrolling the Kingdome’s middle infield in the early ’90s. The M’s would like Ryan to hit more like he did in May (.384) than he did the rest of the year—he finished the season at .248 with 3 home runs and 39 RBI. They also want him to be able to stay on the field the whole season; he lost time to a shoulder injury the final two months of the ’11 campaign. The M’s brought in some insurance in Japanese import Munenori Kawasaki, a career .294 hitter in nine-plus seasons with the defending Japan Series champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. Kawa­sa­ki is capable of playing all over the infield and is an accomplished basestealer. He also adds a lot of energy to a Seattle clubhouse in need of it.

Third base was up for grabs during spring training, with Chone Figgins and Kyle Seager splitting time at the position. After watching Figgins fail miserably last year, the M’s are anxious to get some value from the 34-year-old who has two years and $17 million left on his contract. Most expected that Figgins would get the Jeff Cirillo treatment, traded out of town with the M’s paying most of the freight on the final two years of his contract, but apparently a decent deal didn’t present itself and Figgins is back for at least the start of a third season in Seattle. The M’s have done their part in trying to make him comfortable, moving Ichiro out of the leadoff spot to see if that can revitalize Figgins’ career. It certainly can’t hurt; if he’s terrible again, he’ll be released and if he performs well, the club may be able to find a taker for him in a midseason trade.

With the M’s trying to fill the hole left by Gutierrez’s injury, Figgins spent time during spring training in center field. It’s a position the speedster played adequately in Anaheim, so his versatility gives manager Eric Wedge some flexibility with his daily lineup. Seager hit .312 in the first half of 2011 at Double-A Jackson, earning a promotion to Tacoma, where he battled a sizzling .387 in 24 games to force a call-up to the bigs. A .328 career hitter in the minors who doesn’t possess a whole lot of power, Seager’s skills are better suited to his original position, second base, but he’s blocked there by Ackley. Down the line the M’s may consider shifting Ackley to the outfield and moving Seager to second, but that isn’t likely to happen this year.

OUTFIELD

After riding the Tacoma shuttle for much of the last three years, Mike Carp finally got a chance to play regularly in the second half of 2011. He hit for average (.276) and power (12 HRs in 290 at-bats, a 25 home run pace over a full season) and even had a 20-game hitting streak. With Montero expected to get most of the DH at-bats, Carp was named the starting left fielder before spring training started. It’s not his best defensive position by a longshot, but it offers the best opportunity to get his bat in the lineup.

Ichiro saw several of his streaks broken in 2011—for the first time in his eleven-year career in Seattle the right fielder didn’t hit .300, didn’t collect 200 hits (he had 184), didn’t win a Gold Glove, and wasn’t named to the All-Star team. Having turned 38 in October, there have been whispers that his poor ’11 season was the beginning of an age-based decline. We’ll see whether that’s the case in the months ahead as he faces the challenge of having a rebound season while batting in a more demanding spot in the batting order. This is the final season of the contract extension Ichiro signed in mid-2007; if he has a stellar season, he wouldn’t be the first player motivated to perform well in a contract year.

25-year-old Michael Saunders appeared to have run out of chances, having failed in extended trials in Seattle in each of the last three years, including a 2011 season when he hit just .149 in 161 at-bats. But with Gutierrez unavailable for at least the first month of the season, Saunders has one more opportunity. He was almost certainly ticketed for the minor leagues before Guti’s injury, with the likelihood that this would be his last year in the organization, but he made the most of his chance in spring training, hitting the ball to all fields, flashing some power, and playing solid defense. Saunders will need to carry this new success into the regular season or it won’t be long before he’s an ex-Mariner.

Casper Wells got off to a great start to his Mariner career, belting home runs in four straight games at Safeco shortly after arriving from Detroit in a late-July trade. But a bout with vertigo in late August led to him being uncomfortable at the plate and he finished the season with just three hits in his last 45 at-bats, which dropped his average with the M’s from .333 to .237. The 27-year-old would probably be the M’s starting left fielder this year if not for the late-season falloff, but for now he’ll see occasional action in left and center and will be a candidate to DH when Montero catches.

DESIGNATED HITTER

Jesus Montero will get most of the DH at-bats this year as the M’s need his top-rated bat in their lineup. He hits for average, gets on base, and has power to all fields, which should help the right-handed hitter have success at Safeco. While some say a team can’t make a 22-year-old their DH, those people probably haven’t noticed how poorly Seattle has fared at the position since Edgar Marti­nez retired; in the last seven years, the Mariners have had exactly one season when their DH hit 20 or more home runs and just one when their DH had more than 60 RBI. The question most are asking is whether Montero can improve enough defensively to become the M’s regular catcher, but for now it seems the M’s are going to do the smart thing and let him hit while breaking him in behind the plate once or twice a week.