2013 Mariners: questions that need answers

Felix danced after his perfect game, will he feel the same about his team as the season wears on?
Felix danced after his perfect game, will he feel the same about his team as the season wears on?

I’ve said before I’m excited about this season.  The Mariners should at least be fun to watch, regardless of how many games they win or lose.  This year they’ve got guys who can hit, guys who can mash.  They won’t appear to be as interesting as watching paint dry with the occasional Brendan Ryan defensive gem or Felix change-up breaking some poor bastard’s heart to liven things up. Nope, they’ll score plenty of runs and we can probably measure some Mike Morse shots in air miles. I can’t wait to see another year of Kyle Seager, or figure out whether Brandon Maurer is the real deal.  The M’s have a real bench with Raul v.3.0, Jason Bay (the return,) Robert Andino (man of a thousand positions,) and Kelly Shoppach (Iron Man 2.) Yes, everything’s looking up, but realistically this team’s got too many questions and would have to have too many things break right to believe they will contend.  Here are some questions I have.

Can this rotation work?  This will be the biggest factor the M’s will have to get right in order for this team to contend.  Felix is one of the best in the business and the M’s rewarded him for that with a big, fat contract.  There should be enough runs scored to make him look like the ace he is.  After the King, however there is little certainty.  Hisashi Iwakuma‘s entry into the major leagues last year had all the excitement of air escaping from a volleyball.  He pitched poorly in the bullpen, but was very good in his 16 starts that began on July 2nd.  The M’s were 10-6 in games Iwakuma started.  Though he is new to the major leagues, he is an 11-year veteran in Japan’s Pacific League.  So what do we have here?  A crafty veteran with good control that misses bats and induces ground balls?  Or is he just another Japanese starter who can fool ’em for a while but eventually the hitters figure him out? And can he do it for an entire season?  Last year Iwakuma was coming off major surgery, will he stay healthy?

Joe Saunders is a guy like Jason Vargas, a lefty slow-baller that usually keeps teams in games, but will, like Vargas, periodically vomit forth gopher balls. Saunders threw 174.2 innings last year for Arizona and Baltimore and allowed 21 homers.  He doesn’t walk a lot of guys.  Very much a 3-4 kind of guy in the rotation.  We know what we’ve got with Saunders, but it’s different with Brandon Maurer.  Brandon finished as the Mariners Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2012, though he never made it to Tacoma.  He had a very good spring, but not one that led anyone to think he was the second coming of, say, Michael Pineda.  He’s a young guy who throws strikes, seems to pitch smart when he really needs to, and could be good.  But we just don’t know.

Blake Beavan won the last position by default, and I don’t mean that in any sort of nasty, pejorative way.  Beavan is barely 24 and a former first round draft pick for the Texas Rangers, yet he’s spent parts of two years in the bigs.  He’s taken a load of shit from the seamheads, who have consigned him to the midden out back.  In his defense, Beavan improved considerably after a stint at Tacoma last year.  In the off-season and during the spring Beavan worked on using his 6’7″ height to get more of a downward plane on his pitches in order to induce ground balls.  At times it’s worked.  At other times he’s looked like a meatball-throwing machine.

Is this a terrible rotation? No.  But there are loads of question marks.  With the exception of Felix and Saunders, it is a staff with little major league experience, so they unknowns, nobody knows what to expect.  The reason there were nods of approval when the M’s signed Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman to minor league deals is despite their injury woes, at least they had a major league track record.  Eric Wedge and Jack Zdurencik made a gutsy call when they let Garland walk.  That left a few young guys to win spots.  Maurer won his outright and Beavan did through default: Erasmo Ramirez and Bonderman just weren’t ready.  This team will go as far as the rotation takes them.  The bullpen is solid and should help but they need starters that can consistently go at least six innings.  We just don’t know if these guys can do that.  If they don’t, this team is a 75 win team.  If they can, the M’s probably contend.  It’s that simple. The good news is if Beavan or Maurer falter, it won’t take that long for Ramirez and Bonderman to drive the 35 miles from Cheney Stadium to Safeco Field.  Believe me, Danny Hultzen has the route plotted into his GPS.

How many games can we coax out Franklin Gutierrez’s glass body? Franklin Gutierrez, outside of the rotation, is the most important person on this team.  He is a good hitter, can get on base, has some speed and power.  He’s the most likely guy to lead off against lefties.  When he is healthy Gutierrez is arguably the best center fielder in the game.  And that’s the problem.  Since 2009, he’s rarely been healthy.  Gutierrez has suffered through a stack of injuries and health problems.  Irritable bowel syndrome, torn pectoral muscle, concussion.  This spring he played little, nursing tight leg musckes.  He is written in tonight’s lineup as your starting center fielder.  If Franklin Gutierrez can stay healthy enough to play 130 games, this team is so much better.  He adds a solid bat in the top third of the order, and is without question the team’s best outfielder.  Without him the M’s will be playing outfield musical chairs with players who are better suited in different positions.  Unlike the infield and pitching, the M’s have little organizational depth in the outfield, and a healthy Guti buys time for those young guys to get a year closer to the bigs while he puts on his show in Safeco’s less spacious cow pasture.

Is Justin Smoak fixed? If so, can he stay fixed?   What I can identify in a batter’s swing is worth less than a deep fried cowpie. Smothered in garlic. But it was evident to anyone who could see that Justin Smoak‘s 2012 swing  was nightmarishly long.  When the M’s sent him down to Tacoma, he came back with something new in September after working with hitting coach Jeff Pentland.  He had a great last four weeks of the season.  Even though Wedge said he looked much different, it was September and nobody was buying.  This spring Smoak continued his hot hitting, sprayed doubles to the opposite field and hit some towering home runs.  His spring line was .407/.455/.797.  Yes it’s just spring, but even observers suggest there is now a huge difference in Smoak’s approach to the ball.  His swing is much shorter and he now has much more time to recognize pitches.  Everyone knows this is a big year for Justin Smoak.  If he crashes and burns again he’s done with this team.  When Zdurencik DFA’d Casper Wells yesterday, he demonstrated that at some point the kids have to perform or they are history.  Just as importantly, the Mariners need Justin Smoak to be the mashing monster they thought he’d become when they picked him up in the Cliff Lee deal.  If he becomes a 30 homer switch hitting terror for the M’s rather than some other team he will become a foundational player for this team for a decade. He does, however, still strike out too much and walk too little but that’s another post.

Can the M’s  stop hitting stupid?  In 2012 the M’s, unlike other years, were not dead last in every offensive category.  But they were dead last in two important areas, on base percentage and runs scored.  Though they did not lead the league in strikeouts, finishing some 100 behind Oakland, they were way up near the top.  Somehow they Mariners have to be betterhitters.  The recently concluded spring training shows many hitters with strikeout percentages well over 25%: Justin Smoak, Mike Morse, the recently departed Casper Wells, Michael Saunders, Kelly Shoppach, Jason Bay, Justin Smoak.  These are buckets of strikeouts for guys who are going to play important roles in a team’s offense–no wait, MY team’s offense.  Only a few players had anything approaching reasonable walk rates.  A team can carry maybe one guy with strikeout rates approaching Mark Reynolds‘ (who also walks a fair amount), but a whole team of guys?  Noooooooo.   I think not.

There’s more I could add-the fences at Safeco coming in, outfield defense, what Tom Wilhelmson thinks of Washington’s pot legalization, but maybe later.  I firmly believe no team is going to run away with this division.  The top four teams will be good, but all  have flaws.  This opening series against the A’s should give us a good idea of what both teams are made of.

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