I’ve been pretty negative this spring. I’ve pointed out failings in the front office, as well as what I believe are realistic missed opportunities to put players on the field that could make this team a contender this year in what looks to be a weakened, injury-plagued division. And in the end, the Mariners still might contend. They simply have so many unknowns and question marks that if they all break the right way they could win 90 games. Do I think that will happen? No, but certainly isn’t impossible. But win 90 or lose 90, here are some reasons the M’s should be more interesting.
Interesting article the other day by Jeff Lindholm at Beyond the Box Score on rating managerial effectiveness. I think it’s way too early to determine whether Lloyd McClendon is an effective manager on the order of Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, or Bobby Cox. But I’ve been impressed with his candor. The man does not live in Jack Zdurencik’s world of lollipops and rainbows, constantly selling something that isn’t there. When spring training began he pointed out the team’s execrable outfield defense, and by god he did something about it. He insisted on competition for roster spots, and there’s been some. It remains to be seen if McClendon is able to hold players accountable for their poor performance, but he will be tested and by July I’m sure we’ll have our answer. More than that, this feels more like a team that a rational, logical person with baseball knowledge would assemble rather than a collection of bits conveniently categorized by wishful thinking. The outfield is composed of guys who can play the outfield. Infielders are playing in positions they should be playing. The rotation and bullpen, well, we’ll see about that, but when you’ve got guys hurt that’s always a challenge. That doesn’t mean they are the most talented players at their positions in the major leagues, but they are the best guys in this organization at those spots. That’s McClendon’s doing, and he doesn’t make excuses for management or the players. McClendon was a refreshing hire, and so far I’m a fan.
If you love the Seattle Mariners, and despite my grumpy old man posts I really do, you have to like the Robinson Cano signing. I won’t discuss the costs in years 6-10, but this year he will make this team better. Look what he’s done since his signing. Cano is relentlessly positive. Despite his occasional breakdowns when he plays general manager and urges a signing on the team, he seems committed to making Seattle a winner. All accounts suggest he’s happy to be in Seattle, and he’s taken a leadership role this team hasn’t seen since the days of Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner. He is the opposite bookend to Felix Hernandez, a guy who can lead the guys on the diamond every day, as Felix leads the pitching staff. Set aside all the past losing and think for just a minute. Good teams, great teams start with a Robinson Cano and the M’s haven’t had a guy like him in a long time. The dollars will sort themselves out later, it’s not your money. These are intangibles, aside from the fact that he brings a proven middle of the order bat for the first time in ages.
In 2013 these are the guys the M’s ran out to play outfield together with their UZR/150 ratings
Michael Saunders CF/-19.7 LF/-0.8 RF/26.9
Raul Ibanez LF/-26.9
Michael Morse RF/-33.1
Endy Chavez CF/-37.1 RF/-9.2
Jason Bay LF/4.6 RF/-35.8
Dustin Ackley CF/-21.3 LF/-10.3
This netted out for all innings played to 58 runs allowed above an average outfield, the worst in baseball. The net effect is it makes pitching staffs worse, prolongs innings and rallies, and loses baseball games.
The outfield defense should be better, the question is how much? The decision to move Corey Hart to DH and minimizing Logan Morrison’s presence in the outfield is key to their success. Both are coming off major knee surgeries and before their injuries were not very good defenders. Abraham Almonte is a key to determining how how much better they will be. Almonte was a decent minor league center fielder, if he can hit well enough to keep himself in the lineup. Reports are that Ackley has improved his play in the outfield, looks less lost and is taking better routes to the ball. If Almonte can handle centerfield, it keeps Michael Saunders in right, which is his strongest position. Is this outfield going to take us back to 2003 with Mike Cameron, Ichiro and Randy Winn? Don’t be silly. But it may get the team closer to league average and that would be a vast improvement over last summer’s Outfield of Broken Toys.
Youth movement phase two
The Mariners continue to experience their first youth movement. Michael Saunders, Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak are those I include in this group. Unfortunately it hasn’t turned out so great. With the exception of Seager, the other three have been disappointments and I would suggest they are on the hot seat for this year. Either they produce or places will be found for them elsewhere. This year is the full expression of another wave of young players on to the big club. Brad Miller, Abraham Almonte, Mike Zunino and Stefan Romero will all play prominent roles on this team–with the exception of Romero, all Opening Day starters in key positions for their first full year in the majors. These are all players who can make this team better and have the potential to supply meet needs this team has really lacked. Miller is an exciting young player who has looked good in the field and at bat. He brings speed to a team that’s largely lacked it. Almonte could be at least a stop-gap in centerfield. He’s probably better suited to the corner, but he hustles, can hit with a little power, and has a strong arm. Zunino is simply the best defensive catcher the Mariners have had since Dan Wilson retired. He also has considerable promise at the plate, but has little minor league experience to hone his offensive skills. Romero brings a much needed right handed bat with the athletic skill to fill in several positions. Each one of these players has the potential to upgrade the Mariners at all of the positions they play, but potential is just another word for keeping one’s fingers crossed. Hopefully we can check their boxes off at the end of the season by mission accomplished.
The kids don’t stop on the field however. The Mariners have entrusted James Paxton and Roenis Elias with two fifths of the April’s starts. Paxton had a superb September with the big club, changing his delivery to approximate Clayton Kershaw’s and really surprised critics who noted his inconsistent year in Tacoma. Elias skipped AAA altogether based on a strong spring performance, despite some inconsistency with his command. One or the other is likely to be displaced when Taijuan Walker comes off the DL to be anointed as ace in waiting. Erasmo Ramirez, with very limited major league innings, is another young starter slotted into a starting role
The reliance on so much youth make betting on the Mariners extremely exciting as one gets a potential glimpse at the future, but betting on their success seems like one big crapshoot. It’s difficult to see this turning out real well in the short term, especially based on the performance of the first youth movement, but I am anxious to be surprised. This team has tons of potential and now it’s time to see if it pays off.