The Mariners could be the surprise team of the year: but I doubt it.

The M’s have appeared on two national blogs and suggested to be the American League surprise team of the year, as the Orioles and A’s were last year.

Dave Fleming, writing for Bill James Online, uses data to make his point and determines that among the teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year the M’s have the best shot to surprise the field.  Fleming suggests that because of their relative youth, strong farm system, and their second half finish, the Mariners could be in the playoffs. Today, ESPN writer Eric Karabell wrote with even greater certainty the M’s would be this year’s surprise team. Karabell focuses on the teams increased power production from Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse combined with the natural progression of the M’s young players, the undervalued addition of Hisashi Iwakuma and Erasmo Ramirez to the rotation, and the multitude of power arms in the Mariners rotation.

As a life long Mariners fan, I would love to believe the M’s are going to be this year’s surprise team and speed past the A’s, Rangers, and Angels into the playoffs.  Unfortunately, I think it’s all a lot of hokum.  It’s always a lot of fun to speculate and hope.  If these things break right the M’s could win 100 games and get to the World Series.  But it’s all based on hope.  Eric Karabell writes a column on fantasy baseball for ESPN.  His prediction is based on the rapid maturation of the M’s the young Mariner hitters, such as Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders.  This is distinctly possible, and indeed a requirement if the M’s are going to make substantial improvement over last year’s performance. However his real offensive focus is power.  That also seemed to be Jack Zdurencik’s focus during the off-season.  Get dingers.  Karabell loses his credibility with me when he says OBP doesn’t matter.   He cites the A’s loss of 20 points on the OBP on the way to their AL West division championship. Let’s be clear, the M’s OBP in 2012 was .296.  They can’t lose anything  and better  improve if this team has any hope of offensive progress.   The suggestion  that the rotation is vastly improved by the presence of Iwakuma and Ramirez is silly.  Between the two of them they have exactly 26 big league starts.  Ramirez has only 59 major league innings. We still know little about these guys based on their small body of major league work.  It’s pretty difficult to do anything more than hope they can fill in the rotation rather than overpower, baffle or otherwise dance on the defeated souls of the American League.  Karabell’s other hope is the M’s will quickly promote elements of the Gang of Four (plus one or more) to the major leagues.  Of course, none of those guys made it to AAA last year except Andrew Carraway (injured) and Danny Hultzen (who sucked.) We’re much more likely to be seeing Blake Beavan or (god help us) Hector Noesi. Karabell is right about the bullpen being a strength, though it is young and lacks a lot of experience.  Karabell’s exercise is great for fantasy baseball fans, but is not based in reality.

The Fleming article is interesting but is so general as to be pointless. He establishes statistical ratings based mostly on organizational and historical qualities rather than taking a look at the merits of the team.  Though this system has predicted past surprises, I have a hard time believing this is it.

I am pretty resistant to making wild predictions about the M’s success.  I have ridden this horse before and been thrown, stomped, and humiliated.  I remember 2010.  I bought the Maple Street Press guide and devoured it.  I believed in Jack Zdurencik and watched him bring in Chone Figgins, re-sign Junior, and publicly behead Don Wakamatsu.  101 losses later, I learned my lesson.  Of course 2010  was round two after Bill Bavasi’s Last Stand of 2008 the M’s former GM traded Adam Jones and a great deal of the Mariners farm system to the Baltimore Orioles for 89 innings of Eric Bedard.  That team also imploded for 101 losses after being highly touted for big improvement.

I’ve made my own predictions about the M’s this year.  I don’t claim to have any special insight, but the M’s have some specific limitations:

1.  The M’s have improved their power potential, but this team struck out way too much and walked way too little last year.  They must continue to mature as hitters, including being more selective at the plate.

2.  The M’s need Felix to continue to live up to his big contract.  However the rest of the rotation will have to pretend Safeco Field didn’t shrink in size.  Iwakuma will need to pitch like he did the second half of the summer.  Saunders will need to pitch with a Jason Vargas mask on.  Ramirez has to live up to the hype.  Blake Beaven will have to show improvement.

3.  The M’s have to stay healthy, especially in the outfield where they are quite thin.

4.  Somehow Eric Wedge has to manage at-bats for guys like Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez, Mike Morse and potentially Jason Bay in a way that doesn’t absolutely blow up the Mariners’ defense.

This team has too many challenges for me to agree they are somehow special.  At best I think it’s a .500 team, and probably less.  This is a year for incremental improvement.  I am reminded, however, I saw the A’s play early in the year and they were ghastly, so I suppose anything is possible.

It’s fun to project, to predict and to hope as a fan.  However when the media projects, whether it’s Karabell or Fleming, or ZIPS or even Pythagorean projections I get damned irritated.  These are folks with an audience that have an agenda to get you to buy into their expertise.  Their projections are no more valid than mine.  Either they’re taking their limited knowledge or understanding of a team, or their own limited algorithms to put into peoples’ heads.  My projections these days are based on a simple truth.  If you want to see how a team will finish, watch the fucking games and figure it out.

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