Wait ’Til 2012… or 2013… or 2014…

By Jon Wells

The 2010 Mariners implored their fans to Believe Big, but after a miserable season highlighted by the worst offensive team of the last forty years, the sudden retirement of a future Hall of Famer, and the mid-season firing of yet another manager, the team’s management finally seems ready to admit that it’s time to rebuild.

Since the Mariners began their precipitous decline in 2004, the team’s CEO, How­ard Lincoln, has been ada­mant that the M’s would not do a Cleveland-style rebuild. So, for the last few years, the club has signed a plethora of stop-gap veterans (mostly of the medio­cre or aging variety), routinely traded away prospects without giving them a chance, and on two occasions foolishly bought into the notion that they were one player away from being able to seriously contend in the AL West (Erik Bedard in 2008, Cliff Lee in 2010).

While the Mariners managed to avoid the immediate exodus of their fans that occurred in Cleveland in 2002 when Indians management dismantled a team that had reached the playoffs six of the previous seven seasons, the M’s own plan hasn’t led to better results on the field.

The Mariners have finished in last place in five of the last seven years and failed to develop any decent position players from their farm system. Thanks to those results and some odd ticket price increases by the team, the M’s attendance slide is now nearly as significant as the Tribe’s—from a franchise record 3,542,938 in 2002 to a Safeco Field-low of 2,085,630 last season.

And it’s hard to get too excited about the team contending in 2011 when the club’s biggest move of the off-season was to bring back one of the worst players in team history, catcher Miguel Olivo. To top that off, little was done to increase the power output of a team that hit the fewest home runs in the Majors in a non-strike season since 1992.

Though the M’s are most likely looking at another 90-loss season, against that backdrop of doom and gloom there are reasons to be hopeful.

First off, it would be hard for any campaign to be as bad as the 2010 Mariners season, when more than half of the team’s players underachieved and several others missed significant time with injuries; just by the luck of the draw, the M’s are bound to be a little better this year. How much better they can be will depend on a few different things.

  1. Can oft-injured Erik Be­dard and 22-year-old rook­ie Michael Piñeda solidify the team’s starting rotation? If Bedard can remain healthy and the highly regarded Piñeda can deliver on his potential, the M’s starting rotation could be among the best in the league.
  2. Can first baseman Jus­tin Smoak shake off his disappointing rookie season and become the productive middle-of-the-order bat the M’s lineup so desperately needs? Smoak, 24, drafted by Texas with the eleventh overall pick in the 2008 draft, was rushed to the Majors by the Rangers after just one season in the minors and hit just .218 with a ton of strikeouts in 2010. The switch-hitter has the potential to be an impact bat; if he can have a decent season (something like .250, 23 HRs, 75 RBI) in his first full season in Seattle, the offense will definitely be improved.
  3. Will new manager Eric Wedge’s approach to developing young players work as well as it did in Cleveland, where he had his 2007 team one win away from reaching the World Series before they lost three straight to the Red Sox?
  4. Can Franklin Gutierrez bounce back from an off-year with the bat (.245, 12 HRs, 64 RBI) to help add punch to the offense? The M’s spent much of spring training trying to find a solution for the stomach ailment that contributed to Gutierrez’s poor numbers in ’10, but as opening day neared, they hadn’t succeeded and he was placed on the disabled list. Hopefully the doctors will find a solution and Guti can return to the lineup ASAP.
  5. Can the M’s bullpen rebound from a terrible season in 2010? Lost in the historic ineptitude of the team’s offense was the fact that last year’s bullpen was one of the worst in the Majors, pitching to a collective 4.23 ERA and posting the second-worst strikeout rate in the AL (just 6.57 Ks per nine innings). It’ll be a mostly new cast of characters in the Seattle ’pen this year as only David Aardsma and Brandon League return from last year’s relief corps (and Aardsma will begin the season on the DL).

The answers to these questions and more will help determine whether the M’s are in for another dismal season or whether they can surprise a few people.

One thing we’re hoping is that the 2011 Mariners will find a way to score more runs. Last year’s team was so bad offensively, their games were painful to watch. At least the bad Mariner teams of the ’80s and early ’90s were entertaining losers who always found a way to hit some balls out of the old Kingdome.

Here’s a position by position rundown on this year’s team entering the 2011 season:

STARTING ROTATION

Michael Pineda

Michael Piñeda

Any discussion of the M’s starting rotation has to begin with right-hander Felix Hernandez. Entering his sixth full season in the Majors, Felix turns 25 on April 8th, coincidentally the date of the M’s home opener this season.

After going 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA in 2009 and finishing second in Cy Young voting, Hernandez may have been a little better last year despite the fact that the M’s were much worse than they were in ’09. He finished just 13-12, but lowered his ERA to 2.27 and led the league in innings pitched for the second straight season. No pitcher had ever won a Cy Young Award with fewer than fifteen victories, but Felix captured the award easily, getting 21 of 28 first place votes to take home the hardware.

The M’s are looking for more of the same from The King in 2011, which they’ll need if the team is to succeed in climbing back over .500.

Left-hander Jason Vargas is perfectly suited to Safeco Field. He doesn’t throw hard, but in classic Jamie Moyer fashion, spots his mid-80s fastball well in tandem with his other pitches. The 28-year-old put up better number in the first half last year (6-4 with a 3.09 ERA in 17 starts) than in the second half (3-8 with a 4.66 ERA in 14 starts).

While 6’8” right-hander Doug Fister would likely be battling for the fifth spot in most team’s rotations, he’s number three in Seattle. A soft-tosser like Vargas, Fister did well as an innings-eater in the first half of 2010, but his second half was more of the mediocre variety.

After missing the last year and a half with a variety of injuries, lefty Erik Bedard appeared to be healthy during spring training, and a healthy Bedard would be huge for the team’s chances to compete in 2011.  And while he’s considered the team’s fourth starter, Bedard has the most experience of anyone in the rotation.

Most people expected that 22-year-old Michael Piñeda, who’s only pitched 62 innings above Double-A, to start the year in Tacoma, but Piñeda changed those expectations with an eye-opening spring. The 6’7” right-hander proved he could get out big-league hitters with a dazzling combination of a high-90s fastball, a devastating slider, and a changeup. Some were concerned that the M’s might keep him in the minors until June to delay starting his arbitration clock, but Piñeda easily beat out the competition from soft-tossers Luke French and David Pauley to win the fifth spot in the M’s rotation.

BULLPEN

Closer David Aardsma followed up his breakout ’09 season with another decent year in 2010 (31 saves) but the opportunities didn’t come along quite as often as they had the year before. It was expected the M’s would trade Aardsma in the off-season to free up funds to acquire a much-needed bat, but Aardsma required hip surgery over the winter, putting such a deal on hold. He’ll start the year on the DL, but is expected to be back on the mound sometime this month.

Right-hander Brandon League is expected to get most of the closing opportunities while Aardsma is sidelined. League, who’ll turn 28 next month, tied for second on the team in wins in 2010, with nine, but also had seven decisions on the “L” side of the register. He did a solid job setting up in ’09, but the M’s were a bit disappointed in the dip in his strikeout rate from ’09 (9.2 Ks per nine innings) to ’10 (6.4).

The remainder of the M’s bullpen will be a mix and match job from the candidates brought to this year’s spring training, as most of the members of last year’s ’pen are now gone. Mark Lowe, Sean White, and Garrett Olson are all with other organizations, while Shawn Kelley, who hasn’t pitched since last June due to elbow issues, starts 2011 on the 60-day disabled list and won’t return until June at the earliest.

Hard-throwing Josh Lueke, whose acquisition last July caused quite a bit of controversy within Seattle’s front office, is expected to be part of the late-inning mix for the Mariners. The 26-year-old right-hander features a mid-90s fastball and a nasty slider, so when he’s not striking batters out, he’s getting a lot of ground ball outs.

Other pitchers starting the season in Seattle’s bullpen are right-handers Chris Ray and Jamey Wright and left-hander Aaron Laffey. The 29-year-old Ray has closing experience, having saved 33 games for Baltimore in 2006 before missing significant time after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He spent the 2010 season with Texas and San Francisco, posting a 3.72 ERA in 55 innings. Wright, 36, has pitched 15 seasons in the Majors, including the second half of ’10 with the Mariners. A former starter, he’s a capable innings-eater. Laffey, acquired from the Indians this March, had been bouncing between Cleveland and their Triple-A club for much of the last four years. He’s not a hard thrower and struggles to throw strikes at times, but he’s left-handed…

27-year-old David Pauley also seemed to have won a bullpen spot with a solid spring. The right-hander put up a 4.07 ERA in 19 appearances for Seattle last year, 15 of them starts. The final spot came down to two pitchers—26-year-old left-hander Cesar Jime­nez and 27-year-old right-hander Tom Wilhelmsen. Jimenez had a terrible spring, but was out of options; Wilhelmsen is attempting a comeback after being out of baseball for six years from 2003 to 2009. Wilhelmsen’s fastball reaches 97mph, but he’s never pitched above Class-A ball.

CATCHER

The M’s catching tandem in 2010 of Rob Johnson and Adam Moore was a disaster. Neither hit higher than .205 and both had trouble catching the offerings of Seattle’s pitchers. After enduring such a debacle, the Mariners decided they weren’t going to rely on youth in 2011, signing free agent Miguel Olivo to a two-year, $7 million deal in December to be the team’s first-string catcher.

While bringing in a veteran catcher wasn’t a bad idea, the M’s have already been down this road with Olivo; he played parts 2004 and 2005 in Seattle, hitting .176 and committing 14 passed balls in 104 games.
While some say that he’s improved with age, a quick check of the statistics shows that Olivo, now 32, has led his league in passed balls in four of the last five seasons.

He’s also notorious for his lack of plate discipline, making him a terrible fit for a team that finally rid itself of free-swinging José Lopez over the winter. And while Olivo does have decent power, almost all his home runs have been  to left field and left-center, where fly balls go to die at Safeco Field.

Johnson was shipped off to San Diego over the winter, but Olivo’s signing would appear to block Moore from obtaining the starting job for the next couple of years. The 6’3” Texan, a .303 career hitter in his five minor league seasons, should get enough playing time to show that he still has a future in Seattle.

INFIELD

First baseman Justin Smoak struggled mightily in his first taste of the big leagues in 2010, but is still expected to be a top run producer going forward. The 24-year-old switch-hitter, the main piece Seattle acquired in the Cliff Lee trade last July, played for four clubs last year and managed to hit 22 HRs and 78 RBI between the minors and Majors despite all that moving around. Look for Smoak’s numbers to improve as he gets more comfortable in Seattle.

One of the strengths of this year’s Mari­ners team will be their defense up the middle. The club acquired 29-year-old Brendan Ryan, one of the top defensive shortstops in baseball, from St. Louis in the off-season; but with incumbent shortstop Jack Wilson healthy again, it was expected that Ryan would start the season at second base. But top prospect Dus­tin Ackley, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, is expected to come up this June to play second base, so the team instead decided to move Wilson to second and anoint Ryan the starter at shortstop. That move makes sense as Wilson, in the last year of his contract, is likely to be the odd man out when Ackley arrives. If Wilson has a decent first half, the M’s may be able to get a prospect back for him in a mid-season trade.

Ryan had a tough year with the bat last year in part due to wrist surgery he had prior to the season. He hit just .223, 69 points lower than his .292 average in 2009. Now healthy, it’s fair to expect that he’ll have a better year with the stick.

Ackley, 23, had a decent year in his first season in the minors last year, hitting .267 with a .368 on base percentage that was better than any player on the 2010 Mari­ners. It’s expected that Ackley will be a perennial .300 hitter with a .400 OBP once he makes it to Seattle. Last year was his first year playing second base, so while his bat is ready, he needs a little more time to feel comfortable at the position.

After shifting to second base in his first season in Seattle, Chone Figgins moves back to his more familiar third base spot in 2011. Figgins got off to a miserable start to the 2010 season, but hit 50 points higher in the second half of the year and still managed to steal 42 bases, tied for most on the team. Look for Figgins to provide more of a spark than he did a year ago.

Non-roster invites Adam Kennedy and Luis Rodriguez made the opening day roster as the team’s infield reserves. The 35-year-old Kennedy, who was the starting second baseman for the Angels from 2000 to 2006, hit .249 with 3 home runs for the Nationals last year. Rodriguez, 30, has four years of Major League experience with the Twins and Padres, but spent all of ’10 at Triple-A Charlotte, where his manager was the M’s new hitting coach, Chris Chambliss. While Rodriguez is a career .243 hitter in the Majors, he batted .293 with 16 home runs last year and walked more than he struck out.

OUTFIELD

Franklin Gutierrez

The Mariners have one of the top defensive outfields in the game, with right fielder Ichiro Suzuki and center fielder Frank­lin Gutierrez both picking up Gold Glove awards in 2010. Ichiro won the award for the 10th time, while Gutierrez won his first.

While solid defensively, the M’s outfield lacks the punch of other outfield trios (Ichi­ro and Gutierrez combined for just 18 longballs in ’10), especially when they don’t have a run-producer in left field.

Ichiro extended his streak of 200-hit seasons to 10 in 2010 and enters the 2011 season with 2,244 hits since coming to the Major Leagues in 2001. While he’ll certainly want to reach the 3,000 hit mark, it remains to be seen if that milestone will be accomplished with Seattle or with some other team—his contract expires at the end of the 2012 season.

Gutierrez had another fine season with the glove, but his offensive numbers fell from his breakout year in 2009, when he hit .283 and added 18 homers. A stomach ailment caused some of those problems, so getting to the root of the problem is critical. Unfortunately, doctors weren’t able to solve the problem this spring and Guti was placed on the DL to start the season.

After hitting just .205 in limited action in 2010, Milton Bradley had a great spring this year to beat out 24-year-old Michael Saunders for the starting left field job, but he’ll need to keep hitting to stay in the lineup.
Saunders was expected to start the season at Triple-A Tacoma, but with Gutierrez out, he’ll instead begin the year splitting time in center field with Ryan Langerhans, who made the team as a non-roster invitee for the second straight season. Saunders has struggled in extended trials with Seattle the last two seasons, but made some alterations to his swing in mid-March that has the M’s hoping he’ll stick this time.

DESIGNATED HITTER

32-year-old Jack Cust, signed as a free agent in December, supplies power and patience, two elements missing from the Mari­ners’ lineup a year ago. Cust averaged 24 home runs and 94 walks a year in his four seasons with Oakland, but he strikes out his fair share too—673 times since 2007.