Mariners on the hot seat

It’s difficult to discern whether this will be a big year or not for the Mariners.  They’ll be better than last year’s 71 wins in their first year of Robinson Cano’s 240 million dollar contract, but so many players are new and unproven it’s difficult to know whether it’s just a few games better, or whether they can leap into contention.  I’m not prepared to be too exacting in my prediction, but I would guess the ceiling is about .500 or 81 wins. And they could be much worse. They are depending on a lot of young guys, the rotation, even with the return of Iwakuma and the addition of Chris Young is pretty unproven and depth everywhere is a concern if there is a significant injury. It is extremely unlikely the Mariners will be able to contend with the Oakland A’s or Texas Rangers, despite their injury woes and what is predicted to be a weak division race this year.  If that is the case heads should roll.  Who are the ones on the Howard Lincoln self-described “hot seat?”

General Manager Jack Zdurencik

This is year six of Jack Zdurencik’s rebuild.  In year one the Mariners won 85 games using pitching and defense to catch the baseball world by surprise.  Last year they won 71 games using solo homers and bad defense and lost in ways     easily predictable.  Zdurencik  had six years to return this team to respectability, yet it seems no closer to winning than it did at any point under Bill Bavasi.  He had some success with a flurry of trades in his first season, netting Mike Carp, Jason Vargas and Franklin Gutierrez.  Unfortunately none of them play here anymore, though we could use any and all of them.  He’s had some major clunkers, notably the Doug Fister for a bag of magic beans deal, and the Michael Pineda for fat farm inmate Jesus Montero. Free agent signings have been more about quantity than quality, relying on dustbin bargains, rather than signing proven players who can help now.  This year it was Scott Baker, Randy Wolf and Chris Young to fill out the rotation for Felix Hernadez and the various babes in the woods who will begin play next week instead of Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana or Matt Garza.  What is most maddening about Zdurencik is his inability to articulate a vision of what a team looks like beyond a wall of component parts–a right handed bat here, a switch hitter there, a middle of the order bat somewhere in the back room.  He’s failed to take advantage of Safeco field by building a team around pitching, defense and speed, and has instead focused on power hitters-a view at odds with Safeco’s most obvious challenges-its dimensions and power dampening climate. Finally, Zdurencik came to Seattle as a proven scout and talent evaluator promising to rebuild the team around a collection of talented youngsters that would remind  those Mariners teams of the 90’s with emerging stars like Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez.  Yet all of the young players, except Kyle Seager, he brought up have failed to live up to expectations.  This is the last year for him to show he can assemble an improving roster, with a cast of developing youngsters offering a glimpse of a bright future instead of a seemingly unbreakable cycle of losing, boring, inept baseball.

Kevin Mathers President and Chief Operating Officer

On January 31 Kevin Mathers replaced Chuck Armstrong as President and Chief Operating Officer.  At about the same time, the media began counting the Mariners pennies, learned the team would receive considerably more money from its national television deal and it’s decision to invest in Roots Sports.  When he spoke to the public January 23rd Mathers promised things would be different, that money would be available for players the team needed to be a winner.

Liar! Liar!

Robinson Cano and Corey Hart signed with the M’s in December.  The same day Hart signed the M’s made the trade for Logan Morrison.  Since December the Mariners have done remarkably little.  Despite committing two rotation spots to rookies, whether they are James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Erasmo Ramirez, Roenis Elias or some lefty yet unborn, this team needed a number three starter.  Though proven, healthy players were available who make this team better, and the markets for their services virtually collapsed, they went cheap for reclamation projects Scott Baker and Randy Wolf.  Baker pitched pitifully and was released and in a bout of needless penny pinching Wolf was not included on the Opening Day roster. It is only by dumb luck that Chris Young, coming off thoracic outlet surgery, was available, but his signing was a panic move not the planful acquisition for a team that wants to win. The Mariners needed a right handed bat, yet didn’t acquire one through trade or free agency.  While I  was never a fan of a Nelson Cruz pick-up, the team is now depending on rookie, make that cheap rookie, Stefan Romero, to become the fourth right handed hitter on the team after Hart, Mike Zunino, and John Buck.

The Mariners had one of the most explosive bullpens in the major leagues last year.  Bolstering that bullpen was critical.  They did sign closer Fernando Rodney to a two year deal for a great of money.  But they let effective lefty Oliver Perez get away to the Diamondbacks for a two year $4 million deal, pennies on a major league roster and about one third Rodney’s salary.  It is not bolstering to add with one hand while taking away with the other. The bullpen remains composed of last year’s Gas Can Gang, with the volatile Rodney as its ringleader.

The M’s backed up the Brinks truck for Cano, did well by Hart and Rodney, but if a signing is to be more than show, more than bread and circuses, the stars have to have a supporting cast. It is possible all the kids who will take the field will shock us all and be the 2013 Red Sox.  But we’ve done kids and it hasn’t turned out very well.

Rumors abounded in January, February and March the Mariners were tapped out and couldn’t add the pieces they need despite the new revenue.  Which is it a new day, or the same ol’ same ol.  Kevin Mathers, Pete Towshend wrote: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.  Won’t get fooled again.” Now we know you.

King Felix

I love Felix Hernandez.  He is a great pitcher. named him the the number one right-hander in the majors in their review of the top 100 players in the game.  When he is on his game, he is the best.  And he needs to be, especially to start the season.  The M’s rotation will be something like Felix, Erasmo Ramirez, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, and Chris Young.  That’s the former Cy Young Award winner, three rookies, and a guy coming off a serious surgery who didn’t throw many innings in spring training.  Until reinforcements arrive in the form of Hisashi Iwakuma and rookie ace-in-waiting Taijuan Walker return from injury, Felix will need to win virtually every time out or it could be a very long, unpleasant April.  I’m not saying the kids can’t do it, but when they stumble it will eat up a fragile bullpen causing further problems down the road. Most of the April games are also against division rivals so if the M’s want to keep their fan base interested, they’ll need to win and the King is a key part of that. It would be nice to see him win in August and September too.

Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley

Outfielder Michael Saunder is 27 years old, has played parts of five seasons with the Mariners and has 1656 plate appearances.  “The Condor” is big, fast and athletic; he is touted as a toolsy kind of players.  He was a Bavasi holdover and the Mariners have had high hopes for him.  Yet Saunders has a career slash line of .224/.295/.374, and a career OPS+ of 89.  His fortunes ticked up in 2012 with improvements he made at the plate, but an injury plagued 2013, set him back.  This is a make or break year for Michael Saunders.  In this, his first year of arbitration eligibility Saunders is making $2.3 million, not chump change. Fangraphs shows him worth 1.1 WAR in 2013.  Steamer and Oliver projection systems show him as being somewhat improved this year to 1.7 and 3.2 WAR respectively.  I’m not a big believer in projections; I like to count the numbers I see.  If Saunders can stay healthy and improve at the plate, and if the Mariners are able to keep him in right field rather than center, Saunders can be a useful outfielder, if not he’s  bench material.

Justin Smoak was a number one draft pick for the Texas Rangers in 2008 and was the centerpiece of a 2010 trade deal that sent Cliff Lee to the Rangers, and the Rangers to the World Series. Smoak is 27, has 1,942 major league plate appearances and a career slash line of .227/.314/.386, a career OPS+ of 97.  In major league baseball much is expected of first basemen.  They need to hit for average, produce with power, and play a little defense.  Much was expected of Justin Smoak and honestly the big switch-hitter hasn’t come through.  We get snippets, glimpses of the player we want him to be but there’s been no consistency.  For many fans, Justin Smoak is the poster boy for what is wrong with the Mariners–trading a star for a future star who flames out.  Smoak showed signs last season.  His OBP went up 40 points, batting average up 20 points, he hit 20 home runs for the first time, his OPS+ went up to 113.  But it’s clear there are holes in his game.  He doesn’t hit lefties, he’s slow, and while he catches what he can get to, and can turn the double play, he doesn’t have much range. Going into spring training, manager Lloyd McClendon ratcheted down expectations for Smoak and advised him not to try to be the 35 homer masher we all hoped he would be, to concentrate on being a good hitter, and hope for a higher doubles rate than the measly 19 he produced last year.  I want to believe, I really do, but if Smoak can’t finish the year with something like a .260/.350/.450 slash line with 20ish home runs and 30ish doubles, rapidly advancing 2013 first round draft pick D.J. Peterson may be breathing down his neck next year and the Smoak era will end.  The stats don’t like Smoak much.  He is credited with .4 WAR in 2013, and projected for .4 and 1.0 by Steamer and Oliver respectively.  Sigh.

Dustin Ackley was the second player taken in the 2009 draft, was and still is regarded as the best hitter available in that draft. After an impressive debut in 2011, Ackley seemed to lose confidence in his hitting ability and has really struggled. Ackley is the youngest, at 26, of the three players on the hot seat, has the fewest major league plate appearances with 1,471.  After a promising 2011 debut, Ackley disappointed in 2012 and seemed so lost at the plate, he was sent to AAA and moved from 2B where he was a Gold Glove candidate, to the outfield. On his return Ackley was a completely different hitter.  His first half slash line was .205/.267/.255 but when he returned from Tacoma he was .304/.374/.435, though his outfield defense could charitably be called shaky. By all accounts he’s had a very good spring, hitting the ball hard with a .394/.420/.621 slash,  and appearing more confident with the glove. Ackley offers doubles power and speed to a thin outfield mix. So which is it, the struggling clueless player or the new improved version. His play must improve if the Mariners are to improve.

These three players are now veterans.  Despite their shortcomings, the M’s lost offensive production by Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales, and Michael Morse.  These guys will have to provide offensive leadership by taking the next step forward in their development and providing some support around Cano and Hart.  If they fail to do so I can see some or all of them gone.

This is an important year for the Mariners.  Their investment in a ten year deal for Robinso Cano is hopefully a down-payment on a better future.  However the playoffs are an unlikely outcome for 2014 as it seems this is another year to examine and evaluate the talent we have.






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