Five questions: Seattle Mariners

The Mariners seem to be one of those teams that starts every year with more questions—serious questions—than there possibly can be adequate answers. But every year, it seems, some team just like that—the A’s in 2012, the Diamondbacks in 2011, the Padres in 2010 and so on—puts it all together.

Why not the Mariners? Well, that depends on the answers to these questions.

Did the Mariners add enough hitting?

Well, they certainly tried, but free agents Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher and Mike Napoli—most notably Hamilton—turned them down. Then there was Justin Upton, who had the Mariners as one of only four teams on his no-trade list. That allowed him to do the Mariners a favor, preventing them from shipping away more in prospects than Upton—at least the 2012 version—was worth.

Despite those swings and misses (sound familiar?), the Mariners still managed to pick up four proven hitters: Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay. Unfortunately, they all play essentially the same positions—left field, first base and designated hitter—so they won’t be in the lineup at the same time. Then there’s this: Ibanez may be past his days as an impact hitter, and Bay isn’t really all that proven anymore.

But you’ve got to remember where the Mariners finished 2012: last in the league—by more than 50—in runs scored, which is not surprising since they also were last in hits, last in walks, last in slugging percentage, next-to-last in home runs and doubles. Heck, the Mariners were the only team in either league to have a team OBP (.296) below .300 and a slugging percentage (.369) below .370. With that kind of background, a guy like Bay, even after three worthless years with the Mets, is worth a shot.

The Mariners aren’t counting on Bay or Ibanez to be regulars, but they do expect everyday production from the other two additions. Morse takes over in left from a bunch of guys, the best of whom was Casper Wells and he hit .228 with little power. Morse hit .291 with 18 homers for the Nationals, but he spent the first two months of last season on the disabled list. He also was hurt in 2010, but in a full 2011 season, Morse hit .303 with 31 homers. Obviously, that’s what the Mariners hope they traded for.

The Mariners also believe/hope Morales can be close to the hitter he was before a broken leg cost him all of 2011 and all but 51 games in 2010, when he was near the pace of his breakout 2009 season: .924 OPS, 34 homers, 108 RBIs. In last year’s comeback season he hit only .273 with 22 homers.

Bottom line: The Mariners hope they’ve got enough offense at eight positions so it works to keep slick-fielding shortstop Brendan Ryan in the lineup. Whether adding Morse and Morales—okay, Ibanez and Bay, too—is enough depends on the answer to the next question.

Can the Mariners count on their young core: Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, Kyle Seager and Justin Smoak?

None of these guys has put 27 candles on a birthday cake, and the Mariners believe they’re the future. However, you can’t exactly pencil them in and have a pretty good idea what you’re going to get. Well, maybe you can with Smoak, which is the problem, but more on that in a minute.

Ackley will be the Mariners second baseman. At least to start the season. But which version of Ackley will the Mariners get? The scrappy 2011 rookie with a .348 OBP or last season’s model, still scrappy but a black-hole .294 OBP with 124 strikeouts at the top of the lineup. The Mariners even considered sending him back to Triple-A for some remedial work. Ackley had his troublesome ankle surgically cleaned up during the offseason, but if he starts this season like 2012 was the real deal, the hook looms. The Mariners signed utility infielder Robert Andino, a better replacement option than Munenori Kawasaki and wasted-money Chone Figgins were in 2012. Of course, the Mariners prefer to keep Andino where he is on the depth chart, the No. 1 backup at every infield position except first base.

Third baseman Seager and outfielder Saunders put up their first solid seasons in 2012, but will they fall off as Ackley did or become guys the Mariners count on? Of the players returning from last year’s team, Seager and Saunders, had the highest OPS, both .738, and Seager drove in 86 runs, by far the most on the team. The best part was his finish: .298/.336/.496 with five homers over his last 120 at-bats.

The Mariners would love to have Saunders match his season—well, maybe 30 fewer strikeouts and a higher OBP—as the everyday right fielder. Of course, that supposes that Franklin Gutierrez spends more time in center field and less time on the DL. Last season, Gutierrez found his way into 40 games, down from 92 in 2011, which left Saunders as the center fielder. With Morse as the primary left fielder and Ibanez as the next guy up in right, that’s not an outfield defense the Mariners want to see, even with shorter fences.

Now let’s talk about Smoak. Whereas Ackley, Saunders and Seager each has put together a productive season, Smoak has put together a productive month. After last year’s mid-season demotion to Tacoma, Smoak maybe figured something out: .341/.424/.571 over the last 27 games. Of course, that only got him over the Mendoza Line for the season. Mariners manager Eric Wedge has said the first base job is Smoak’s to lose. That’s been said other seasons, and Smoak has lost it every time, even when the Mariners had less accomplished hitters than Morales, Ibanez and Bay ready to divvy up the first base and DH at-bats. Smoak was an OPS stud in the Rangers system, but he hasn’t reached .325 in OBP or .400 in slugging in three big-league seasons. Smoak showed up at spring training looking as if he had paid attention when Wedge told him to get in better shape. Now, can he hit better, too—at least when the season starts?

Jesus Montero?

To get Morse, the Mariners gave up John Jaso, last year’s leading hitter (.850 OPS in 108 games). They also made no effort to stop Miguel Olivo from walking away as a free agent. That left Jesus Montero, last year’s primary DH, as the only catcher on the major-league depth chart. Let’s think about that: Montero was mostly a DH last year, but in 56 games as a catcher, he still managed to finish in the Top 10 in the league in passed balls with seven. Give him another 40 starts, and he’d have chased more balls to the backstop than anyone.

The Mariners have catching prospect Mike Zunino with “can’t miss” all but tattooed on his forearms, but he’s in a major-league camp for the first time this spring. He’s been mighty impressive so far, but it’s doubtful he’ll play his way on to the roster—yet. But when he arrives, Montero can go back to DH.

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For now, DH is crowded, and all the Mariners came up with as backstop backups were Kelly Shoppach and Ronny Paullino (look for both under “journeyman”). So the M’s need Montero to get about 120 starts behind the plate.

Before spring training even started, Montero’s name came up in reports about the Florida anti-aging clinic that allegedly provided steroids to players. Montero says he had nothing to do with the clinic, but he clearly doesn’t need to be dealing with something like that as he tries to figure out how to catch— and throw; he wasn’t too good at that either, although he got Mike Trout twice. The Mariners also hope he steps closer to becoming the hitter they had in mind when they traded pitcher Michael Pineda to pry Montero from the Yankees. All that’s probably too much to ask, but maybe Montero—with Shoppach as a late-inning defensive replacement—can keep the spot from becoming too much of a mess while Zunino gets ready. Maybe as early as next season we can talk about Montero reclaiming the DH spot.

Can the Mariners patch together an adequate starting rotation for the start of the season?

The Mariners have everything in place for a powerhouse starting rotation.

Maybe even by next year.

That’s about the earliest you can expect to see 20-year-old Taijuan Walker in the majors. He’s the most highly regarded of the Mariners’ four talented young pitchers who consistently show up high—really high—on those best prospect lists.

Walker likely will start this season in Double-A. Brendan Maurer, the newest name among the guys-to-get-excited-about, and lefties Danny Hultzen and James Paxton almost certainly will start the season at Triple-A Tacoma.

But instead of drooling about the future, let’s sweat out this season.

The Mariners recently signed up for $175 million to get seven more years—through 2019—of Felix Hernandez. That’s the good news. But as part of that deal, the Mariners sent King Felix out for a physical. And that’s maybe the bad news. Apparently, the elbow part of the physical—when was the last time your physical included a concentrated elbow exam?—resulted in enough concern that some injury-protection language was added to the contract.

Hernandez won the Cy Young Award in 2010, and probably should have won it in 2009, too. In 141 of 238 career starts, he has allowed two or fewer earned runs, and only a couple of teams would hesitate more than three seconds to trade their No. 1 starters for Hernandez. But pair the elbow concerns with his last six starts: 0-4 with a 6.62 ERA. With all the maybes in the rest of the rotation, the last thing the Mariners need is one at the top.

There’s a lot to like about Hisashi Iwakuma in the middle of a rotation, but for the Mariners the middle starts at No. 2. At least, that’s where Iwakuma stands, and his 1.83 ERA over his last nine starts says he’ll be just fine in that spot.

However, the Mariners must replace the rest of the rotation’s center. Justin Vargas went to the Angels in the Morales deal and Kevin Millwood left as a free agent, then retired. That’s 61 starts and 378 innings … poof! Unless one of the phenoms shows he’s ready, the 3-4-5 guys will be lefty Joe Saunders, most likely followed by Blake Beavan and Erasmo Ramirez or longshot Hector Noesi.

Oh, the Mariners signed veterans Jeremy Bonderman and Jon Garland to minor-league deals, but Garland hasn’t pitched an inning since midseason surgery in 2011, and Bonderman has been out since 2010. Garland looks like he’ll start the season in the rotation.

Saunders started last season with the Diamondbacks, but he finished it with a 3.63 ERA in seven starts after the Orioles got him to fortify their push to the playoffs. Neat stat: Saunders, who pitched six seasons for the Angels, has never lost at Safeco Field—6-0 with a 2.14 ERA in nine starts and 55 innings. (Of course, that was against the Mariners offense; think of how Hernandez would do in such a situation.)

Ramirez had a couple of sparkling starts last season, but he started only eight games with a bunch of DL time in between. That’s not enough evidence to make much of a case one way or another. Beavan had 12 starts with the Mariners before he went back to Tacoma for a tune-up. When he returned for 14 starts, he was 8-5 with a 3.54 ERA. He walked only 24 in 152 innings, which could have been the basis for a great strikeout-to-walk ratio, except he struck out just 67.

Beavan and Ramirez should be serviceable at the back of the rotation, and if not, surely one or two of the prospects will be ready to provide a midseason shot in the arm. Remember, the A’s finished last season with a wad of rookies in their rotation, and look how that worked out.

Will moving in the fences help?

Well, let’s go to that ol’ hardball philosopher Lou Piniella, who presided over the Mariners’ only stretch above mediocrity, including the 116-wins in 2001, the team’s second full season at Safeco Field. Piniella logged on for an online chat with Seattle Times readers and this very question came up.

“This park here played very big,” Lou chatted. “And the air here in Seattle is a little heavier … so it’s a little bit more of a pitcher’s ballpark. By bringing the fences in, it’s going to give the hitters a better chance to hit the ball out of the ballpark. I think it’s something that will help the Mariners.”

Now, let’s go to the stats. According to ESPN’s Park Factor, Safeco Field was the most pitching-friendly park in the majors last season. With 1.000 being a neutral park, Safeco finished with a 0.687 ranking, well ahead of (behind?) San Francisco’s AT&T Park (0.737). Incidentally, Coors Field in Denver was the hitters’ best friend, rated at 1.579.

The changes mainly will affect the left-field power alley, where the home run distance changed from 390 feet to 378. The deepest part of the park shortened from 409 feet to 405, straightaway center moved from 405 to 401 and the right-field power alley also dropped by four feet from 385 to 381. The distance down the lines stayed the same: 331 in left and 326 in right.

“Our goal was to create an environment that was fair for both hitters and pitchers,” Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said.

But it will be more fair for the Mariners’ new right-handed punch, Morse and Bay, as well as switch-hitters Smoak and Morales when they face lefties. On the other hand, Saunders is a fly-ball pitcher, and maybe the shortened left field won’t be quite so friendly for him as Safeco Field has been in the past.

Bonus question: Will the Mariners again finish last in the division?

No. Hello, Astros. Welcome to the AL West.

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Word is the Mariners are considering signing Willie Mays, another proven hitter, to bolster that right-handed punch.

Paul G.
Paul G.

“Jason Bay: Really?” would have been a good question.  Hard to imagine that moving to a good pitcher’s park, even somewhat improved, is going to cure his ills especially after Citi “Who Needs Home Runs?” Field laid him low.  Do not be surprised if the glut of LF/1B/DH resolves itself at the expense of Jason either through benching, DL stint, or release.

I think the M’s are poised for a mini breakout. Not a playoff team but an 85-88 win season due to the increased depth of the overall roster coupled with high upside youngsters. A breakout from two of ackley, smoak, montero, Saunders or seager seems possible (though not highly probable). The X factor for me is guti.. When healthy he’s a slightly above avg bat with elite defense. I tend to think most people underestimate erasmo, he throws a 93ish mph heater with a change up that flashes as plus at times and his control is above average as well.… Read more »