Five Questions: Seattle Mariners

For all the good luck the Mariners received in 2007, and it was less than most people thought, they paid for it three-fold in reverse last year, dropping from 88 wins all the way down to 61. Laughably, or not, they couldn’t even succeed at failing as they finished with the second-worst record in Major League Baseball in time for perhaps the best college prospect of all time, Stephan Strasburg.

All that resulted in the firing of former general manager Bill Bavasi and the hiring of new general manager Jack Zduriencik, who has done a lot of house cleaning himself, both of personnel and of ideas. Most people are writing off the Mariners in 2009 due to their poor performance last year, but that may be too hasty of a judgment in a division that looks weak. Here now are five questions surrounding the 2009 Seattle Mariners.

1. Who will close?
Jack Zduriencik’s biggest move to date has to be the three-team, double-digit-player blockbuster trade with the Mets and Indians that netted the Mariners seven players including a pair of defensive whizzes in the outfield and cost them four players, namely J.J. Putz. Putz’s addition of a splitter to his arsenal in the winter of 2005 jettisoned him from typical reliever into superman, posting rate stats that put him amongst the game’s elite closers in 2006 and 2007. 2008, though, was a tougher year. Putz was injured in only the second game of the season and would battle injury problems the whole year. Still, Putz was effective as the closer when healthy.

The question for 2009 is who is going to assume the closing mantle. During last season when Putz was on the shelf, the bullpen went through many different options, including two members of the starting rotation: Miguel Batista and Jarrod Washburn. This season looks like it might be similar in that regard as Zduriencik has shown an affinity for signing cheap bullpen arms to minor league deals this winter. David Aardsma, Tyler Walker and Mark Lowe looked to be the leading candidates coming into spring training, but none has distinguished himself. Recently inked Chad Cordero is still recovering from shoulder surgery, but he has shown some prowess as a closer in the past.

It’s a competition totally up for grabs at the moment and is indicative of the Mariners bullpen as a whole unit. Not that there isn’t talent there, just that there are so many possible options and right now they all look vaguely similar. It should be an interesting first month of the season as the performers shake themselves out between Seattle and Triple-A affiliate Tacoma. Don’t be surprised if the Mariners’ closer at any given moment of the season is simply whoever has the hottest hand.

2. How many games will Ken Griffey Jr. play in the field? Zduriencik has shown a commitment to building up the defense of the Mariners in his moves so far this winter, and with the acquisitions of Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez to pair with Ichiro Suzuki, he has given new manager Don Wakamatsu the option to run out perhaps the best defensive outfield in the game when he wants to. The question then is how that will conflict with the signing of Ken Griffey Jr., a sentimental signing for the fans of Seattle, who fondly remember Griffey roaming center field back in the days of the Kingdome.

How much pressure then will Wakamatsu face to play Griffey in the outfield? Griffey is now one of the worst defensive gloves in the game today, and given how good the optimal defensive arrangement is, replacing one of them with Griffey results in an ever bigger drop off. However, it is not as simple as assuming Griffey will just reside in the DH role since the Mariners also have a position crunch at catcher with Kenji Johjima beginning year one of his three-year extension and Jeff Clement needing at-bats as well.

How Wakamatsu handles the situation will say a lot about how much the new regime values defense and player development and how well it balances the needs of the team with the needs of the clubhouse and the demands of the public at large.

3. Where will the offense come from?
Many people are going to focus on the departure of Raul Ibañez and ask where the Mariners will turn for offense. For one, they are ignoring the negative defensive impact that Ibañez had, which is now replaced, hopefully, by the complete opposite in Endy Chavez. A run saved is just as good as a run scored, and looking at only one side of the equation is not a good way to analyze a team.

That being said, looking at the offense, the focus on Ibañez’s departure also ignores who else is leaving the team, namely Jose Vidro and Richie Sexson. Coupled with expected improvements at catcher and a few other spots, the Mariners should be able to make up the lost offense in left field with some overall positive regression from other positions.

Granted, the Mariners are not going to set the world on fire with the bat unless they get more than a few breakout performances, but when you replace catastrophic failures at the plate with average performances, you can make up a lot of ground. Add in the improved defense and it’s suddenly not hard to see how this team has improved dramatically from the 2008 version.

4. Who finishes the season on the team?
An improved team and a weak division might provide the Mariners with an opportunity to compete for a playoff spot or at least hang around the division lead into the late summer. Such a situation could present an interesting dilemma for Zduriencik concerning two players, Adrian Beltre and Erik Bedard, both free agents at the end of the season.

Even with some improvement over last season, the Mariners are still the underdogs in the 2009 AL West, and another season of watching baseball in October instead of playing it could hinder their attempts to retain the services of the two. Represented by Scott Boras, it would be a shock to see Adrian Beltre sign an extension during the season, and rumors circulate that he’s not happy in Seattle anyways. Erik Bedard received an undeserving frosty treatment from the local media after his injury problems last season and could also prefer to leave.

Based on how negotiations with the two go during the season and the team’s fortunes behind Oakland and Anaheim, there’s a chance that they could be dealt come the July trade deadline. Or would Zduriencik pull a Billy Beane and trade away top talents regardless of where the Mariners are sitting in July in order to improve the future of the club despite being close in the win-loss race in the present? Neither player would be easy to replace for the Mariners and would likely doom whatever playoff chance exists at the time.

5. How do the young starters develop?
Felix Hernandez has seemed to be on the verge of breaking out since he burst on the scene in 2005, but he has yet to take the needed steps forward. In fact, 2008 represented a significant step back in his development as his once insane groundball ratio declined to merely above-average levels, and his over reliance on fastballs led to a dropoff in the amount of swings and misses that he recorded. If he stops trying to establish the fastball so much early on in games and mixes up his pitches better, Felix could see the swings and misses’ return, and a renewed faith in his offspeed pitches could increase his groundball percentage as well. Time will tell how new pitching coach Rick Adair handles mentoring perhaps the game’s best young pitching talent.

Brandon Morrow flashed a lot of promise once he moved to the Mariners rotation late in 2008, displaying secondary pitchers far beyond what most people thought he was capable of. He’s battled minor arm problems as he gets stretched out to handle 200 innings, and he still suffers from command issues at times, but his stuff is for real and his development into a full-fledged starting pitcher would be a boon to the Mariners rotation for the future.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

Beyond those two, the Mariners have a string of potentially useful back end starters like lefties Garrett Olson and Ryan Rowland-Smith. Their development isn’t critical in the sense of providing the Mariners with ace performances, but rather in providing Seattle with cheap inning fillers so that they can avoid paying pitchers like Jarrod Washburn and Carlos Silva.

Questions aside, the Mariners are a team on the rise. The new management is light years ahead of the previous incarnation, and may be one of the best in the game at statistical analysis based on their outside hires. Zduriencik is known for his scouting prowess, and he and his scouting department have an important draft this year with a chance to bolster what is already a rising farm system. This isn’t a team built for 2009, but it could find itself in an opportunistic situation. Even if not, the future is certainly bright again in Seattle.

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