Five questions: Seattle Mariners

Who is going to do the catching?

Kenji Johjima had been the incumbent starter heading into the 2009 season, but a prolonged absence for the World Baseball Classic opened the door for Rob Johnson to gain a lot of valuable time working with the Mariners pitching staff. The increased trust he developed contributed to Johnson eventually winning the starting role from Johjima. Johjima departed this past offseason, so the job would appear to have been handed to Johnson, but it may not work out that way.

Johnson is coming back from a multitude of injuries suffered during the 2009 season and may begin the 2010 season on the disabled list. Meanwhile, Adam Moore has stepped up and might usurp the starting role from Johnson much as Johnson did from Johjima. The Mariners organization loves Moore, but also loves defense (at least publicly) from the position, something that has held Moore back a bit. This spring has seen Moore look a lot more comfortable behind the plate however and with Johnson’s ailments, he has been getting in quality time with the staff, becoming more comfortable.

The organization seems to favor Moore over Johnson long term anyway, thanks to Moore’s higher ceiling with the stick. No matter how much they like Moore’s improvements thus far, the Mariners are certainly going to be wary about anointing him the starting catcher with Johnson as the backup. That is a lot of inexperience at a position deemed crucial for its leadership. A more veteran catcher on the active roster seems likely.

The Mariners brought in Josh Bard this winter in the hopes that he would fill that exact role but according to scouts, he has looked terrible and rumors are that he is not long for the team. With little else in the way of veteran presence at backstop—Guillermo Quiroz isn’t impressing anyone, either—a minor trade seems likely to fill that backup position at least at the beginning of the season. After that, who knows? It is likely that no true starting catcher emerges at all this season and instead the Mariners spend the year figuring out what they have in Moore and Johnson.

Will the hitters score runs?

It’s a simple enough question and easy to understand why it gets asked so often. The Mariners were a dismal hitting team in 2009 and lost Adrian Beltre and Russell Branyan. At best, some would say, the additions of Milton Bradley and Chone Figgins might cancel out those departures, but that would still leave the Mariners as one of the worst offenses in the game, maybe even the worst. It’s an understandable concern, but it’s wrong.

There’s also the urge to project the coming year by comparing the roster turnover to the 2009 stats. That’s a poor way of projecting and the main reason is that it treats last season’s numbers as sacrosanct. They aren’t and they ultimately serve no good purpose on a team level. In 2009, the Mariners batted .258 as a team but just .235 with runners in scoring position. The average team sees a rise in batting average under those scenarios and the difference there explains a lot of why the Mariners only managed to plate 640 runs.

BaseRuns says the Mariners should have scored about 675 times in 2009, wOBA says around 700. Either way, the picture that luck-neutral metrics paint is vastly different from the one most people have hanging in their mental gallery. Furthermore, the Mariners got almost nothing offensively out of catcher, shortstop, third base or left field. Projection-wise, Figgins might be roughly equal to Adrian Beltre, but Beltre was awful in 2009 and Figgins in a better fit for Safeco Field anyway.

What matters is building up a projection of runs scored based on the team as it is now, not what it was before. Going via that route gives an expected amount of runs scored by the Mariners in the low 700s. That’s not earth-shattering by any means, but it is a far sight better than the previous year and far enough removed from the dregs of the AL to allow them to be competitive.

Will the hitters prevent runs?

Last season the Mariners’ fielders combined to save 86 runs according to UZR and about 61 runs by Plus/Minus. No matter how you sliced it, unless you used a stupid way like fielding percentage, the Mariners were among the league’s best in defense in 2009. That went a long way toward preventing runs from scoring and keeping them in ballgames that their offense had no right to be in. Will that continue into 2010?

Projecting defense is difficult since it is so unstable and hard to measure, but going position by position reveals a lot of hope for the Mariner pitchers this coming season. Russell Branyan was the primary first baseman last season and though he did a lot of work to become an adequate fielder, Casey Kotchman assumes the role this year and is renowned for his defensive prowess. Suffice to say that will likely be an upgrade.

Jose Lopez is a perfectly adequate second baseman but it appears that he is losing that position to Figgins, a well above average fielder at third base with some prior experience at second base and the natural gifts to be a better fit at the keystone. Likewise, Lopez is a better fit at third base. Positional adjustments rate the two positions as equally demanding, so balancing the possible benefits (tailoring the player more to the particular rigors of each position) and pitfalls (learning a new, or nearly new, position) of the switch leads me to call it a wash.

Jack Wilson gets the nod at shortstop for the full season, or at least as long as he’s healthy, as opposed to taking over midstream from the awful Yuniesky Betancourt as he did last year. In the outfield, Bradley, Eric Byrnes and Ryan Langerhans will rotate through left field and all three are average to slightly above at the position. Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro Suzuki return in their starring roles.

Without having a good grasp on rating catcher’s defense, the seven other positional spots on the field all look at have at worst a league average fielder in place and in many cases such as Gutierrez, Ichiro, Wilson and possibly Figgins, there is a certifiably good glove. You also expect league leaders to regress the next season, but the Mariners have built themselves a potentially powerful defensive force. Don’t be caught off guard if they not only repeat at the top, but even exceed last season’s rank.

Will the top of the rotation stay healthy?

Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee are the dominant storyline for the Mariners in 2010—one a former Cy Young winner, the other seemingly destined to be a future winner. A whole lot of the Mariners fate rides on those two arms. The last time such an arrangement was in place, 2008, it went disastrously as Erik Bedard never proved to be the answer because of injuries and the rest of the team was never in the sort of shape that then-GM Bill Bavasi thought. Is there better luck on the horizon this time around?

Though neither Hernandez nor Lee has gone through any extensive injuries in the past, the concerns are there this season because of their respective workloads from the past couple seasons. Hernandez threw more than 190 innings each of the past four seasons, but jumped nearly 40 innings in 2009 to 238.2. He faced 120 more batters than he ever had previously and tossed about 450 more pitches than ever before.

Lee posted his second straight season at more than 220 innings and has already suffered a minor strain in his abdomen, the same type of injury that he’s faced twice before. Waiting behind them are Ryan Rowland-Smith who suffered an arm injury last season that kept him out a decent amount of time and the always fragile Bedard, who is returning from a torn labrum. There is clearly no certain bet at the top of the Mariners rotation this year. but then again, when is there ever with pitchers?

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

When will Dustin Ackley show up in Seattle?

Drafted with the second overall pick last June, Dustin Ackley was considered one of the most accomplished and polished college hitters of recent memory. There have been few questions that his bat wlll play in the major leagues, and soon. What has been tough to figure out, however, has been where on the field that bat will be playing.

As is true of most great baseball athletes, Ackley spent time at shortstop and pitcher in high school, but moved to the outfield upon reaching college. Regarded as a guy with the tools to eventually handle center field, Ackley seemed destined to retain a high value spot on the defensive spectrum. An arm injury put a damper on that destiny, as Tommy John surgery necessitated a move to first base to avoid putting too much stress on the arm.

All that time at first base left scouts with an unsatisfactory amount of games in which to scout Ackley’s defense. He appeared to be too talented to waste at first base and most people assumed that he would move back to the outfield as a pro. The Mariners had a different idea, and began giving him reps at second base last fall. With Suzuki and Gutierrez plugging up two-thirds of the outfield for the foreseeable future and prospect Michael Saunders the de facto next in line at left field, second base presented perhaps the quickest path to the majors for Ackley. The only question would be how well he could make the transition and what kind of delay that it would cause.

Any fears about retarding his development due to the position switch appear to have been assuaged quickly, though. Snippets coming out of Mariners spring training have been nothing but raves for Ackley’s performance thus far. My own short scouting trip down to Arizona involved watching Ackley make a decently difficult over the shoulder catch at second and he showed no flaws in limited action.

Ackley will start the season at Double-A almost certainly, but if he continues to draw these kinds of reviews on the defensive end, and his bat progresses as expected for a hitter with his track record, Ackley, who wasn’t expected to be on the scene until 2011 at the earliest, might be forcing the Mariners hand as early as this summer. In fact, his promotion might hinge equally on how quickly the Mariners can find a taker for Lopez as on Ackley’s performance in isolation.

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Nice write up, Matthew.

(I think question 3 is supposed to be “Will the Fielders Prevent Runs?” instead of “Will the Hitters Prevent Runs?”)

I’ll be very curious to see if Ackley can stick at second.

With King Felix and Cliff Lee at the top of the rotation the M’s are going to be a tough series for most teams.

There are so many questions about the AL West this year with most teams likely to be within five games +/- of .500.