Saturday, March 10, 2007

Preseason Preview: Mariners

(It's later in the night, but I'm sure you can all pretend it's March 9. In which case, I'd be leaving for spring break tomorrow, instead of finishing up the second week of it).

The Seattle Mariners are the prime example of how unpredictable a game baseball is, especially when you overspend on mediocrity and hire Mike Hargrove as your manager. The Mariners were a perennial power in the AL West in the early going of the 21st century. In 2000, they finished 91-71, half a game behind the Athletics for the division, and in 2001, they had arguably one of the greatest regular seasons in baseball history, going an unworldly 116-46. So dominant were the Mariners that year that the A's won 102 games and still finished 14 games back. However, they couldn't replicate that mojo in the postseason, getting whacked in five games by the Yankees in the championship series - despite winning eleven fewer regular season games, the Yankees took the AL flag. It seemed as if that crushing defeat took the wind out of Seattle's sails - they posted records of 93-69 in both 2002 and 2003 before performing an absolutely meteoric nosedive in 2004, where they stumbled to a horrific 63-99 finish before following that up with an equally bad 2005, where they improved only six games for a 69-93 final. In contrast, 2006 looked almost good (78-84). The Mariners are desperately looking for a return to respectability in '07, but do they have the pieces to do it?

The Seattle Mariners

1. Felix Hernandez, RHP
2. Jarrod Washburn, RHP
3. Miguel Batista, RHP
4. Jeff Weaver, RHP
5. Horacio Ramirez, RHP


1. J.J. Putz, RHP
2. George Sherrill, LHP
3. Jake Woods, RHP
4. Mark Lowe, RHP
5. Chris Reitsma, RHP
6. Sean Green, RHP
7. Julio Mateo, RHP

1B Richie Sexson
2B Jose Lopez
SS Yuniesky Betancourt
3B Adrian Beltre
RF Jose Guillen
CF Ichiro Suzuki
LF Raul Ibanez
C Kenji Johjima
DH Jose Vidro

The (900, actually) Word Rundown
At this point, the Mariners would just accept a .500 season, even if they can't get over the hump to a winning one just yet. As noted, they took a dramatic fall in between 2003 and 2004, and they continued to muddle along at the bottom of the West for the past few seasons. They have a young flamethrower in Felix Hernandez, who they hope will develop into a bona fide ace, and the most famous Japanese player in the game, the man who only needs one name and now plays center field - Ichiro. Ichiro possesses an uncannily accurate cannon for an arm, can throw out runners at the plate without a cutoff man, and is one of the most consistent producers in the game. He doesn't hit for power - he's only twice topped 10 HR in six MLB seasons - but he's never hit below .300 in a full season and, as everyone knows, broke George Sisler's single-season hits record in 2004 with 262. But he's in his walk year, and it increasingly appears that if the Mariners are collapsing at the break again, they'll trade their most recognizable player. If Ichiro did go on the market, it's likely that almost every team would at least try to establish themselves as suitors - those who can afford the stiff price that the Mariners are likely to demand for their cornerstone.

The rest of the Mariners' offense is still questionable. Seattle signed third baseman Adrian Beltre based on the strength of his MVP-caliber 2004 season with the Dodgers, but he hasn't shown that up north, batting .255 and .268 in his two years with the Mariners. 6-foot-8 first baseman Richie Sexson, appropriately known as "Big Richie," hits well for power, as might be expected with his size, and has put up gaudy numbers of 39 HR/121 RBI and 34/107 in his two years, but his on-base percentage was a disproportionately low .338, his average was .264, and he struck out 154 times in 591 at-bats - or roughly once every 3.8 trips to the plate. Sexson's closest comparison is Cincinnati's Adam Dunn - both have high power numbers but equally high strikeout totals, and because of that, are looked to as good players but not superstars. For the Mariners to get it together and compete in a tight division, they're going to need steady, constant, clutch production from both Beltre and Sexson. Raul Ibanez is also an underrated hitter - he went .289/33/123 last year and had a slugging percentage of .516. Which begs the question: How do the Mariners lose so much with such a power-centric core? (And no, the answer's not Willie Bloomquist, although if you asked Mariners fans, they'd tell you differently).

Usually, it has to do with the pitching. Felix Hernandez will probably win a Cy Young or two in the future, providing he puts an erratic first season behind him and returns to form, but his backup corps are a bit less than stellar. Jarrod Washburn, imported from the Angels for the start of the 2006 season, didn't do much impressing in his first campaign with the Mariners - an 8-14 record, a 4.67 ERA, and only 103 strikeouts. His last, and only, good season was in 2002, so the Mariners' hopes may be waning if they're expecting a rebound. The Mariners are also hoping they signed the postseason-with-St. Louis, and not the rest-of-his-career, model of Jeff Weaver. He also went 8-14/5.76 in regular season play after a terrible start with the Angels, but turned it around in the '06 postseason, pitched the deciding game of the World Series, and won a ring with the Cardinals, which may push his stock the highest it will ever be. My personal suspicion is that Weaver will play out a one-year contract with the Mariners, try to polish his stats, and then bolt for a bigger contract elsewhere. The Devil Scott Boras is his agent, so you can bet he'll be commanding top dollar even if he doesn't precisely deserve it. Inning-eater Miguel Batista will be likely taking the third spot ahead of him. 11-8/4.58 isn't ace material by any means, and almost exactly equals what Gil Meche put up in this slot last year, so there's no real reason to expect Batista to improve it.

The Mariners made one of the more mind-boggling deals of recent memory when they traded fireballing young setup man Rafael Soriano to the Braves for Horacio Ramirez, who will also provide about identical production to Batista. The rotation hasn't been improved, just replaced, but they did dump Achilles-heel Joel Pineiro, so perhaps that has to count for something. As for the bullpen, it's also questionable behind J.J. Putz, who established himself without a doubt as the Mariners' closer with a 4-1 record, 2.30 ERA, and 36 saves. He wasn't entirely untouchable, as he did blow seven of them, but the role is unquestionably his. His bullpen mates are a bit more questionable, and in fact, the Mariners could have one of the poorest relief corps in baseball if the young kids and questionable veterans don't step up and make a solid bridge from the starters to Putz. The Mariners might break even this year, but there's not much of a chance they'll do more than that. Then again, they might have contended if they hadn't lost 16 straight games to Oakland, so who knows?

Projected Finish: 82-80, fourth place, AL West

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