Can the Mariners Contend? It’s All About the Kids.

Last spring at this time, while having a beer with friends, we were uniformly in agreement the Red Sox would be terrible.  Shows what we knew.  I split with the same group of friends over the Mariners and suggested they should win 81 games.  I was painfully optimistic in my outlook, swept off my feet by the offseason acquistions of Morse, Ibanez, and Morales, and naively believed the reclaimed broken parts that were Jon Garland, Jeremy Bonderman and the youthful enthusiasm of Brandon Maurer could make it okay. Of course I was disabused of these happy thoughts by the end of May when the M’s bullpen did a quadruple implosion, were swept by Cleveland, the losses spiraled out of control and the season was, for all intents and purposes, over.

It’s been a painful ten months since then, and I’ve become much more cynical in my judgments of Mariner management, and what they did and did not do this offseason.  With three games under their belt in the Cactus League, and another thirty to go, it’s probably safe to begin asking the questions that will safely allow us to make predictions about the coming season.  The problem with  Mariners predictions is that so few positions are settled with proven producers that the questions are many and the answers are few.  Robinson Cano, a truly remarkable player and pick up for this team is settled at second base and should be an offensive force.  Kyle Seager has had two productive years at third base.  Felix Hernandez will lead this pitching staff.  Fernando Rodney will be the closer. That’s what we know, everything else is a blank space waiting to be filled in.

Outfield

Can Corey Hart play 130-145 games in the outfield?  Hart’s ability to go out and play the outfield most days is a key to the success of the team.  If Hart can play a below average right field (as opposed to truly wretched) and provide some right-handed offensive support to Robinson Cano in the batting order it would make a significant difference.  It will unscramble the 1B/DH picture and clarify the outfield mix.  Will this happen?  No idea, and we’re not likely to have a clear picture until we get well into the season.

How bad will the outfield defense be?  Last year the M’s had the worst outfield defense in the majors, and nobody else was close. This year’s defense is likely to be bad, but not as truly vile as last year’s.  Hart was a minus defender before his knee surgeries.  What balls will he get to after his surgeries? The team has no true center fielder.  Michael Saunders is playing out of position in center, and it’s clear he is being challenged by Abe Almonte, Xavier Avery and perhaps others.  Can whoever wins the job net out an average center field?  With the off season to prepare, will Dustin Ackley be a more effective left fielder than he was with last year’s -10.3 UZR/150 rating? If he can get closer to a zero, if the Mariners outfield defense can be closer to average, it provides a huge boost to the pitching staff.  Can this happen?  Errr . . . .

Rotation

With the M’s injuries to Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma, the M’s are flat out in a hard way.  Iwakuma’s finger injury seems to just need time, but will put him into the rotation late for the start of the season.  Walker’s shoulder discomfort is disconcerting, and reminiscent of Danny Hultzen’s problem last year.  Hultzen’s injury cost him most of last year, all of this year and threatens his career.  Is this the case with Walker?  Who knows? But this rotation looks scary thin with Felix, maybe Scott Baker, and three very young players right now.  Randy Wolf, age 37 and coming off Tommy John surgery is scheduled to start today’s Cactus League game.  Hello Jeremy Bonderman.

Will the M’s make a move to shore up what was already a thin rotation before the injuries?  Not many options left on the free agent market.  Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders and dreck. Possibility of a trade with the loser of the shortstop battle.  It’s hard to imagine the M’s won’t do something whether it’s a grab for Santana, or a grab from the junk pile, but Zdurencik ain’t talking.

Will James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, Blake Beavan or others seize the opportunity to provide effective performance at the back end of the rotation?  Isn’t this the question every team has each year?  It might be the key question to the success of the season.  Despite what they accomplish in Spring Training, we can’t know the answer until the season starts.

Bullpen

The bullpen went from being a strength in 2012 to being a serious weakness in 2013.  Same guys, how did it happen? Was it Wilhelmson’s lack of confidence?  Was it the outfield defense?

Will Rodney be the astonishing pitcher of 2012, or merely the pretty good pitcher of 2013?  Or something else? 

How will Danny Farquhar fit in as a set up man?

Who will join Rodney and Farquhar in the bullpen? What leads us to be they’ll be any better than last year?  What about Oliver Perez?

It’s the kids, stupid.

While Robinson Cano was a wonderful signing, Corey Hart merely replaces Kendrys Morales’ bat and Michael Morse’s glove.  Logan Morrison is Raul Ibanez.  Zdurencik merely replaced missing pieces, and it remains to be seen whether they are better or not.  Cano is the real improvement on the team.  If the M’s are going to take the next step, it’s the young guys that will take them to .500 and beyond.  At the plate I’m talking about Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders.

Justin Smoak was .238/.334/.412 in 2013.  What if Smoak could raise his batting average to .265 to a slash line that looked more like .265/.360/.460.  with 20-25 home runs? Smoak made some improvements in his game last year, but what he lacked was consistency.  If that begins to come around, how much more valuable is he to this team, and how much brighter will his future be?  He signed a pretty risky extension with the Mariners this year, he needs to produce to have a future.  2013 first round draft choice D.J. Peterson is knocking on the door

Dustin Ackley has 1,471 major league at bats, and so far has been a disappointment.  Sent to the minors to find his swing and his confidence, he returned to the M’s in the second half of the season with a solid performance.  Ackley finished the season in the outfield with a .253/.319/.341 slash.  But during his return from Tacoma he was .285/.354/.404.  Which player is he?  If he is the first guy, he probably doesn’t have a future as a major league starter.  If he is the  second guy, maybe he hits near the top of the order.

Michael Saunders is a whole pile of unfulfilled promise. After seeming to advance his career in 2012, his 2013 season was derailed when he injured his shoulder chasing a ball into a wall on April 11th.  He never really seemed to recover after missing 15 games. Off to a promising start, Saunders finished the season at .236/.323./.397, down from his 2012 stats.  It is clear Saunders’ position is under fire from younger players.  This is likely his last shot to take this job and make it his.  If not Almonte and Avery will be waiting in the wings.

And then there is the pitching.  The M’s resisted the temptation to dive into the Tanaka bidfest, or take on the other available pitchers-Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, Santana, Ricky Nolasco, Chris Capuano, though they did take a flyer on Scott Baker recovering from Tommy John surgery.  With Iwakuma starting behind schedule to make at least the first couple of times through the rotation when the regular season starts, it looks like Felix, Baker and a bunch of kids, maybe Wolf.  Last year the M’s were completely undone by lack of production in the 3-5 slots in their rotation.  For the M’s to have any hope of .500, let alone contention, Baker and the young pitchers will have to produce.  We don’t have any idea how they will fare because they have no major league record.

Can this team contend?

I think it’s unlikely.  They should improve but I don’t see them as much more than an 81 win team, and honestly they could easily be a 75 win team.  If they go all Boston Red Sox, then anything is possible.  I believe the real key to the season is whether those young players we’ve been waiting for-Smoak, Ackley, and Saunders are able to up their game and show us they belong, combined with the young starters being decent.  This team is thin and can’t afford injuries, and they’re counting on players like Hart, Morrison, Baker, and Iwakuma who have had a history of injury.  Right now, they look like they’ll beat Houston, but the Angels, Rangers and A’s look out of reach.

 

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