Looking at the M’s with a critical eye

The bandwagon for the Mariners is growing more and more crowded as SI put Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano on one of its regional covers.  I’m hoping for the best as M’s steam into the closing weeks of the Cactus League schedule.

Events seem to be pointing toward a good year ahead, but it’s hard to tell how much is hype and punditry, and how much is reliable.  Lloyd McLendon predicted the team should score 700 runs.  Jim Moore on ESPN 710 suggested the M’s would hit 200 home runs. In these offense-starved times, that’s quite a prescription for famished Mariners hitters.  The M’s scored only 634 runs in 2014, and only five teams in the American League plated 700 or more scores last year, down from ten in 2013.  200 home run seasons are mostly a vestige of the steroids era and not the present pitching-dominant present. Only Baltimore in the AL hit over 200 home runs as a team in 2014, the same as in 2013.  But Kansas City went to the World Series last year with only 95 dingers, the fewest in the major leagues.

Despite the predictions, the hope, and the crowding of the upper deck on the bandwagon, I continue to have nagging concerns about this team’s ability to put it all together.  So I’ve avoided anointing the 2015 Mariners as anything more than hopefuls.  Here are the alarms that continue going off in my head:

Shortstop: When Chris Taylor went down with a broken wrist ten days ago, the shortstop job went to Brad Miller by default.  Miller is a wonderful athlete,  with a strong arm, powerful bat and speed, long on potential, but not quite able to put it all together for 2014.  The competition between Taylor and Miller pitted two players, both with potential and short of major league success in competition for the same job.  Taylor was the better defender, and an unproven hitter at the major league hitter.  Miller, capable of making the spectacular play in the field was plagued with defensive inconsistency.  With Miller installed as the de facto Mariner shortstop, the weight of expectations now falls firmly on his shoulders.  Though improved offensive production will make the Mariners better, run prevention is what got them where they were last year, and will fuel their success this year.  A shortstop who can’t make the plays makes the pitching staff worse.  Miller must be at least league average defensively for the Mariners to win.  Improved offensive production is icing on the cake.

Closer: Fernando Rodney is the Mariners closer and that is etched in stone, according to McClendon. It cannot be denied the Mariners bullpen was much improved, in no small part because the veteran Rodney was the leader who helped establish roles everyone easily could slot into. As a result, Rodney saved 48 games and blew only three saves.  But that doesn’t mean everything was rosy. The Fernando Rodney Flying Circus and High Wire Act grew wearisome as the year went on.  Rodney always seemed to be in trouble of his own making, walking guys and giving up hits instead of getting outs. Fangraphs shows Rodney with an unacceptably high walk rate of 3.8 BB/9 and a ridiculously high .330 BABIP.  David Schoenfeld at ESPN, rating all closers in the majors, rated Rodney at 24th and “Cover Your Eyes and Keep the Kids Away.”  Rodney is only three seasons removed from a historically dominant season with the Rays, so it’s likely the 38 year old still has it, but he’s got to get it done for the Mariners to succeed.  Putting men on base puts too much pressure on the defense, and every ninth inning becomes an unnecessary trip to ulcer gulch–or disaster.  The M’s were only one win away from he playoffs last year. Blown saves are part of the game, but let’s not be ridiculous.

Platoons and Parts: I like the roster flexibility the platoons give McClendon.  The Mariners will finally be able to mix and match the strengths of their roster against opposing teams.  Whenever critics carp about platoons I always remind them of Baltimore’s lefty/righty combo of John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke in the early 80’s. Together they combined for 36 homers in 1979, 45 in 1982 and 34 in 1983.  The problem in depending on platoons, as the M’s will be in both left and right field, is the team is depending on multiple parts to make one position work.  I’m not being critical of this effort to answer the needs at those positions, but it depends on two guys being successful at those positions instead of one. As long as Justin Ruggiano AND Seth Smith provide the expected production, all is well.  But if there is an injury, or if one of the two has a bad year, that’s a problem. The M’s can’t reach into the minors and reproduced Ackley and Weeks expected production.  In 1980 Lowenstein and Roenicke produced well below their career averages to hit only ten home runs.  Homers aren’t the end all be all, but if you’re depending on players for production, they need to produce.  Platoons double the chances a position won’t produce. My fingers are crossed.

The Mariners could be the big winners in the AL this year, but there are some key positions that are problematic.  My hope is that I’m needlessly worrying.  But to ignore them is simply whistling past the bandwagon graveyard.

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