Loading the truck for Peoria

On Tuesday Mariners pitchers and catchers will report to Peoria for spring training with all the headaches, heartaches and expectations that entails.  The Hot Stove League is about to close and it’s time to assess what ended up being a pretty busy winter for Jackie Z and the boys in the front office. Though the M’s missed out on the big names in the free agent class like Josh Hamilton and Zach Greinke, they did make some deals to fill some important holes. The team didn’t stand pat and made some good short-term moves in anticipation of further additions from the farm system.   In this post I hope to raise some important questions about the M’s heading into spring and the regular season.

1. The Kids are Alright? Never miss the opportunity to use the title of a Who song in my writing. Last year Geoff Baker and others correctly criticized Mariners brass for leaving the first year players to figure out the game for themselves.  Without adding some veteran thunder to their lineup in 2012 kids like Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak were forced to bat in roles they weren’t ready to assume.  Boos, catcalls and further shrinking of the Mariners fanbase ensued.  This year Jackie Z took a different approach and brought in Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse to provide a proven veteran presence in the middle of the lineup.  It allows one more year to see what Montero, Ackley, Smoak, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders can do.  While Morales and Morse may be one year players, at least it allows the M’s to take a look at their youngsters in more favorable circumstances and provide a more accurate evaluation of what they have. However, make no doubt about it, the young guys on this team today must show progress this year for this team to continue on its upward arc.

2.  Long live the King!  Who knows, maybe before I’m finished typing this the ink will be dry on a contract that will reportedly pay Felix Hernandez $135 million over five years.  I’d sure like a piece of that.  Just a small piece of that mind you, because we are talking about the king.  Despite some of the naysayers, I believe it’s money well spent.  Felix is still young and well taken care of, has no history of health problems and should continue being one of the top pitchers in major league baseball. Again, this appeals to the Mariner fanbase which bears a frightening resemblance to the Greenland icepack, keeping a real Mariners hero with the team in contrast to those of yesterday like Griffey, Randy and A-Rod who, in the end, left. The big question, however, isn’t about the King, who is here, but more about his knights of the round table, i.e. his rotation-mates.  Hisashi Iwakuma signed on for two years after his major league debut last summer. It’s still not quite clear what the M’s have in Iwakuma.  Is he the the guy who seemed to excel in 18 starts in the second half of the season?  Will he be better after figuring out the American League a bit, or will the league be better against him?  The M’s also signed Joe Saunders who figures to be a bit like Jason Vargas, but not as good.  If he stays healthy, Saunders does add some experience and should provide some of the innings the Mariners lost by dealing Vargas.  He’s pitched well at Safeco, but with the new cozier stadium it remains to be seen if his stuff will still play well in Seattle.  The remaining two spots are still wide open to a huge cast of competitors.

Yesterday the M’s added veteran Jon Garland to their long list of spring invitees.  He joins Jeremy Bonderman as two of the walking wounded coming off injuries and surgeries hoping to resurrect careers.  The two most obvious candidates for the two remaining rotation spots are Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan.  They join the Gang of Four young guns, Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Brandon Maurer, plus maybe Andrew Carraway as outside shots to make the team.  The competition from spring training should show a lot.  Hopefully it will at least give a clue about how close the young pitchers are to the big club.  I want to know what we have.  It’s also important to see where Beavan and Ramirez are.  Lots of folks have trashed Beavan, a former first round draft pick for what he is not.  He doesn’t throw hard, doesn’t strike out a lot of guys.  He also doesn’t walk anybody, can throw a lot of innings and his numbers improved markedly in the second half of last year. He’s just 24.  I’d like to see what another year does for him, just like I want to see how Kyle Seager and Jesus Montero develop.  There’s a lot higher expectations for Erasmo Ramirez.  Certainly Ramirez pitched well as a starter and reliever before he was injured.  But he has only 59 major league innings and only eight major league starts, so I’m a little more cautious about the load that should be placed on him.

For me the question marks in the rotation-basically everyone after Felix-will determine how good or how bad this team is.

3.  Be Careful of the Statuary!  The M’s have had a history of good outfield defense. Griffey, Cameron, Guti, and others could run down a ball.   Well, except in left field where things could get a bit dicey.  This year the players they’ve added to the outfield mix scare me a bit.  This year the M’s have Guti, Saunders and a mix of guys that are simply not good outfielders.  Mike Morse, love his bat, but he’s really a DH.  All of the defensive metrics show him to be a sub-par fielder.  Raul Ibanez was a bit overmatched in left when he left the Mariners in 2008.  In the case of both players, I don’t doubt their commitment or physical conditioning, they’re just not suited to play the outfield at Safeco Field.  Though the ballpark has lost some of its vast grazing areas, there’s still plenty of room to cover.  I’m also concerned about some of the outfield depth.  Jason Bay is reporting to spring training as a reclamation project.  Casper Wells will complete for a major league job.  Marcus Thames will be in camp.  If  Franklin Gutierrez is again injured, the centerfield situation will get scary in a hurry.  Wells and Thames have not proven themselves to be long term solutions.  If Bay somehow makes the team instead of Wells, the outfield bench will have all the range of the standing pillars at Stonehenge. There are no up and coming outfielders in the high minor leagues.  The M’s cannot afford any serious outfield injuries to Gutierrez or Saundesrs. It’s one of the reasons I was disappointed the M’s didn’t sign Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher or Michael Bourne.

How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm? Jack Zdurencik was hired to rebuild the Mariners farm system as well as the major league team.  This year the M’s farm system was ranked 2nd by Baseball America.  In that respect Zdurencik has been a success.  Unfortunately, there seems to be waves of talent in the minors.  We’ve seen the first wave.  Seager, Saunders, Ackley and the guys Z got in trades and other acquistions: Smoak, Montero, Carp, et. al. They’re still struggling to make good.  The next wave is coming.  Mike Zunino will likely make it to the M’s some time this summer.  The young pitchers are on their way, but their arrival time is uncertain.  Nick Franklin got his first touch of AAA last summer and it left marks. The third wave is still down in the low minors, slowly making its way north. Pressure is on the M’s to win and win now, and the temptation is always to bring the kids up and force them to make huge adjustments to the majors before they’re ready.  If Zunino is rushed to the bigs by the trading deadline, will he be ready to catch for the Mariners?  We’ll see. Will manager Eric Wedge see something so good in the pitching prospects he’ll slot one into the rotation?  My hope is the kids get a chance to develop and learn the game at the level they should be, rather than rushing them up to do things they’re not prepared for. On the other hand, Alvin Davis and Mark Langston, both rookie award winners ins 1984, were promoted directly from double-A Chattanooga Lookouts. It’s often hard to know what is right.

So what do I think?  I think the Hot Stove League never kicked into high gear for the M’s until after the first of the year.  Since that time, Zdurencik and crew have made some sensible moves to improve the team.  The moves to pick up Morales, Morse and Ibanez add some veteran leadership and real heft to the batting lineup.  The additions of Andino and Ibanez provide the M’s with some real late game depth off the bench as well as providing some defensive depth.  With the Vargas trade and Millwood’s retirement, there are some real holes in the rotation.  With none of the kids seemingly ready to take the next big step to the majors, I believe this is the M’s biggest weakness.  Finally, the M’s big moves-the additions of Morse, Morales and Ibanez are one year deals.  They are short term.  The kids must improve if the team is to take the next big step into contention.

I give Jack Z a B- for his off-season moves.  I predict the M’s will win 75-80 games.  If the pitching staff comes together they could win more, maybe as many as 85.



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