Five questions: Seattle Mariners

The 2011 Seattle Mariners were much like the 2009 and 2010 versions—pitching was their forte but scoring enough runs was always the issue. In those three years, the Mariners have finished second to last or last in runs scored in the American League.

GM Jack Zduriencik addressed the gaping hole in the offense this offseason by trading away one of the M’s young rising stars, Michael Pineda, in exchange for Jesus Montero. The risks both sides are taking in swapping young talent are refreshing for fans—you just do not see these types of deals being done these days. The deal also makes sense for both teams, filling needs that give short- and long-term rewards in areas of previous concern. The question now is whether Montero will be able to grow into the prolific hitter we expect of him and if (and when) he can carry the Seattle offense back to relevance in the AL West race.

Is Montero the M’s long-term answer?

Montero has not yet had an official at-bat for the Mariners and he’s already considered to be the anchor for the Mariners’ offense for years to come. Montero can likely live up to the hype—even as a rookie. ZiPS projects him to hit over 20 homers with a .257/.322/.438 slash line. He projects to be a clean-up hitter in his career, but the Mariners would be smart not to place so much pressure on him during his first full big-league season.

Even so he doesn’t have huge shoes to fill, as the Mariners’ 2011 catchers and designated hitters hit .220/.259/.369 and .212/.331/.332 respectively. He should fit in as the starting DH and progressively increase his starts at catcher once acclimated with the rotation and bullpen.

As a full-time DH though, his value is limited, which is why the Mariners are so adamant in developing him into an on-par defensive catcher—which will take patience and time. They may even view defensive inabilities to be balanced by having such an offense-minded catcher. This only applies if the Mariners actually have a decent option at DH though (which isn’t the case in 2012).

His ability to hit should help the Mariners score more runs from the get go—but don’t forget about the transition from Yankee Stadium III to Safeco Field. The Mariners sacrificed in an area where they are strong in depth, but that does not lessen the blow if Montero fails expectations. So far he’s been wowing the crowds at spring camp. Videos of batting practice give fans promise of better years to come.

How much will losing Pineda hurt the rotation?

Pineda was slotted to be the number two ace for the Mariners behind King Felix for over the next half decade. That all changed with the Pineda-Montero trade. The short-term pipeline of starters for the Mariners is a bit short-handed, but GM Jack made the deal knowing his top pitching prospects are not too far away from the big leagues. They could even surprise us all by making the big league club—Zduriencik has shown he isn’t afraid to start the clock early on young talent.

For 2012, Jason Vargas looks to be slotted as the M’s number two starter. Hisashi Iwakuma was brought to the Pacific Northwest on a one-year deal. A combination of Blake Beaven, Charlie Furbush and Hector Noesi (also part of the Yankee trade) will likely round out the back end of the rotation. The 2012 rotation will see a dip in production, but the Mariners have plenty of talent in their pipeline of starters – the question is how soon the Mariners would like for their clocks to start.

Their dark horse candidates come from top prospects in James Paxton, Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker. As mentioned, these three are long shots to make the big league club out of spring training—Paxton is the only one to have reached Double-A. More than likely we’ll see them get more time in the minors, with a possible September call up.

Can Ichiro bounce back?

Maybe age really has hit the ageless wonder. At 37, Ichiro Suzuki had the worst season of his career. No longer was he able to outrun groundballs for infield hits like he used to (he had 36 compared to topping 50 in 2009 and 2010). His BABIP was over 50 points below his career average (.351 compared to .295). For the first time in his career, Ichiro did not reach the 200-hit mark, finishing with 184.

Most projection systems view Ichiro to have a 2012 season somewhere in between 2011 and his career averages. Ichiro’s 2011 season is likely a culmination of poor luck and age affecting his game. The former is unpredictable, and even when you factor his continued decline due to age, it is still unlikely we will see the same poor performance from Ichiro. The likeliest outcome is a 2012 season somewhere in the middle between his poor 2011 showing and his career numbers.

Ichiro will also be mainly batting third for the first time in his career. He says it will not affect his mindset of getting on-base. Still, there are people who believe the shift in batting order will give Ichiro the opportunity to hit more home runs. There’s even mention of a wider, open stance Ichiro has debuted at spring training.

The more realistic reasoning from Manager Eric Wedge is that Ichiro will have more opportunities bringing home Chone Figgins and Dustin Ackley on singles and doubles. Of course, this all hedges on a huge assumption that Figgins can actually having a productive year as a Mariner. Wedge would rather sandwich Ichiro between the on-base hitters and the sluggers, rather than last year’s option, which didn’t work out so well.

How will the other young hitters develop?

Over the course of 2011, the Mariners called up a few of their top hitting prospects. Mike Carp showed promise in the second half of the season and hopes to continue his progress this year as the starting left fielder. In 2011, Carp hit well in his first meaningful stretch in the majors with a .276/.326/.466 slash line. He has power upside, and projects to be a decent option as a corner outfielder for 2012. With the same underlying theme as Montero—Carp only has to match a 2011 left field Mariners group that hit a combined .228/.290/.390. Carp’s main concern so far in the majors is his high BB/K ratio of 0.23. Pitchers will dare Carp to stay patient at the plate.

Justin Smoak, the guy Seattle liked more than Montero a year ago, got off to a quick 2011 start, but injuries to his thumbs mid-season limited his swing. Smoak’s season was cut short in September when he was hit in the face with a groundball. It’s looking more of a valid storyline that the Mariners made the wrong choice in prospect picking—imagine still having both Pineda and Montero on the team. Nonetheless, Smoak still has time to prove he is a capable first basemen for the Mariners—there’s no reason to believe Zduriencik has a short leash on him.

Barring any injuries, we should expect a full season from him. Most projection systems have Smoak producing a same extrapolated full season line as 2011. The Mariners are hopeful the only reason Smoak underperformed in 2011 was because of his thumb injuries—he hit just .130/.213/.176 during that time period.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

Can the Mariners compete this year?

It may be a year or two early, but the trade of Pineda for Montero sets up the Mariners’ offense to be not horrible to watch. Montero and Ackley will be the core of the offense. With the pitching prospects in the pipeline, the Mariners don’t have to be an offensive juggernaut to compete—an average offense would suffice. That is if everything goes their way.

What’s unclear is whether or not the M’s believe Felix will be around for the competing years. With only two more years left on his contract, the reality is that the window of opportunity that best fits the young core of the Mariners is too far out in the future. Walker, Hultzen and Paxton are the likely pitching core Zduriencik is dreaming about to take down AL West nemeses Albert Pujols and Nelson Cruz.

References & Resources
Statistics from Baseball Reference and Fangraphs.

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Gary York
Gary York

Millwood’s the fifth starter to begin the season, according to manager Eric Wedge.