2011 Record: 67-95, 4th AL West
2011 Prediction: 71-91, 4th AL West
Impact Player: 2B Dustin Ackley
Impact Pitcher: RHP Felix Hernandez
Best Reliever: RHP Brandon League
Top Prospect: C/DH Jesus Montero
The Seattle Mariners scored 43 more runs in 2011 than they did in 2010, but they still finished last in the AL, 63 runs back of the Minnesota Twins. They won their 67 games entirely on the merits of their pitching staff which finished fourth in the AL in runs allowed and surrendered the fewest walks of any team.
The mantra adopted by the front office of building entirely on pitching and defense seems to have failed miserably and the Michael Pineda/Jesus Montero trade seems to be an acknowledgment of that. As a result, the Mariners are now in a similar situation as the A’s; batten down the hatches and wait until the hurricane of Angels and Rangers subsides before making the big push with promising young talent. Either way, if a change in philosophy and a new, more successful direction isn’t established quickly, GM Jack Zduriencik and his regime could be searching the classifieds for new work.
The Mariners pitching staff will have a hard time replicating the success of 2011’s group. Felix Hernandez is still there and is still one of the best pitchers in baseball, but gone are Pineda and Doug Fister who have both been traded in the past year. Outside of Hernandez, Seattle will rely on the likes of Jason Vargas, Kevin Millwood, Hector Noesi and Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma.
A year after winning the AL Cy young Award, Hernandez posted a solid 3.47 ERA, but appeared to be fairly unlucky, pitching to a 3.15 xFIP and finishing seventh in the AL in fWAR. Since really breaking out in 2009, Hernandez trails only Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia in fWAR and since 1980, only Dwight Gooden and Fernando Valenzuela have tossed more innings that him before their age 26 season. Whether or not that’s a good thing is yet to be seen.
After Hernandez, things get dodgy. Vargas is a decent back-end option who has been an average pitcher over the last two seasons, but he’s also shown rather disturbing home/road splits, pitching to a miserable 4.76 xFIP away from the friendly confines of Safeco Field.
The final three spots will go to some combination of Millwood, Iwakuma, Noesi, Blake Beavan, and Charlie Furbush. At 37, Millwood probably shouldn’t be relied on for much although a move to Safeco should help him. Noesi was acquired along with Montero and could actually be a decent mid-rotation pitcher; he was better last year with the Yankees than his traditional stats let on and he’s still just 25. Finally, it’s hard to tell what to expect from Iwakuma; he put up great numbers in Japan, but as we’ve seen time and time again, that does not always translate to big-league success.
The Mariners have two excellent prospects that have the potential to see some time at the big-league level this year in 2011 second overall pick Danny Hultzen and 2010 fourth-round pick James Paxton. Top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker is likely still at least a year away.
When closer David Aardsma succumbed to Tommy John’s surgery last season, former Blue Jay Brandon League stepped in as the regular closer and he had a decent year there. He benefitted from a very low HR-rate and excellent command, neither of which appears overly sustainable which could mean a regression from his 2.79 ERA. He’s scheduled to hit the free agent market at season’s end so expect the Mariners to deal him at the deadline if they’re out of it (which they will be).
28-year-old Shawn Kelley didn’t give up a run in 12.2 innings last season after two stints on the DL and some time in the minors, but he could end up being League’s primary setup man. Tom Wilhelmsen seems to have cleaned up his off-the-field issues and was solid in a 32.2-inning cameo last year. He was out of baseball for several years after being drafted by the Brewers in the early aughts.
The two lefties expected to make the big-league bullpen are 35-year-old George Sherrill and former Dodger Hong-Chih Kuo. Sherrill was a Mariner from 2004 to 2007 and returns one of the most extreme LOOGYs in the game. Last season, he posted a 1.04 xFIP against lefties and a 5.73 xFIP against righties while with Atlanta. Kuo, meanwhile, was one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball from 2008-2010 but battled elbow troubles and social anxiety disorder last season. If he’s healthy, he could get back to where he was; he’s only 30.
23-year-old righty Chance Ruffin and 36-year-old former Jay Shawn Camp should round out the ‘pen. Ruffin is a former first-round pick of the Tigers who was acquired in the Fister trade last July, while Camp struggled in 2011 with Toronto but was able to keep the ball in the ballpark, which helped his overall numbers. A move to Safeco and out of the AL East should help. Pitchers like Beavan, Matt Fox, Jeff Marquez, Steve Delabar, Aaron Heilman, Josh Kinney, and lefties Steve Garrison, Cesar Jimenez, Oliver Perez and Philippe Valiquette are also in the mix and will provide injury depth.
Seattle’s offense should continue to get better in 2012 with the addition on Montero and the continued development of second baseman Dustin Ackley and first baseman Justin Smoak. Montero will be given every opportunity to stick at catcher, but not many scouts think he can hack it. He has more than enough bat to be an everyday DH and he has the type of all-field power that should translate decently to Safeco even if his expected power drops off a little.
Ackley, meanwhile, accumulated a 2.7 fWAR in just 90 games. Concerns about his defense at second appear to have been overblown and his patient approach and excellent contact ability make him a safe bet to be a well-above-average player. Smoak, on the other hand, struggled immensely last season dealing with a nagging thumb injury and the death of his father. Pundits are probably too quick to write him off and there’s still a chance he becomes an above average regular with decent power. In Seattle, a player like that is a star.
Rightfielder Ichiro! Suzuki appears to be declining rapidly. He had by far and away his worst professional season in 2011 finishing with an uninspiring .272/.310/.335 slash line and a wRC+ of just 82. The Mariners will experiment with moving him down in the order to number three from his traditional leadoff spot. His replacement will be third baseman Chone Figgins who is entering the third year of his four-year, $36-million deal. The Mariners are hoping a move to the leadoff spot will reenergize his career, but putting a player with a .241 on-base percentage that high in the order is more than a little questionable.
The Mariners will also experiment with Mike Carp in leftfield. Carp is traditionally thought of as a first baseman, but the 26-year-old had a 117 wRC+ in limited time last season. The Mariners need offense any way they can get it and they believe Carp to be an above-average hitter; something that is doubtful in the minds of most. The final outfield spot will go to Franklin Gutierrez in center, who may not be ready for Opening Day because of a pectoral injury. When healthy, he’s probably the best defensive outfielder in baseball, but a bout with an intestinal problem ruined his 2011. Even when healthy, however, he’s no more than average offensively.
Shortstop Brendan Ryan is another classic Mariners player. He’s very good with the glove, an important thing to be at a premium position like short, but won’t hit enough to be considered any more than second-division starter.
The catcher will be Miguel Olivo unless Montero proves he can stick there full time. Last season, Olivo had a painful .273 wOBA and he has never had a season with even an average wRC+. If he continues to be terrible at the plate, the Mariners traded for John Jaso from the Rays to provide some insurance.
Jaso will likely start the year as at least the backup catcher and could work his way into the lineup more regularly if he rediscovers his patient approach, while Kyle Seager and Japanese import Munenori Kawasaki will provide depth and Figgins-insurance in the infield. The fourth outfielder will probably be Casper Wells, Mike Wilson or Michael Saunders. There are several other outfielders such as Chih-Hsien Chiang, Carlos Peguero, and Trayvon Robinson that could provide depth if Gutierrez isn’t ready by opening day.
The Mariners should hit more in 2012 than they did last season, but they still won’t be anywhere near what might resemble a decent offense, while their pitching staff will likely take step back unless Hultzen and Paxton can step in and reach their ceiling earlier than expected. There’s clearly a class-divide in the AL West at the moment and the Mariners are on the wrong side of it. Until they can figure out a way to get more offense and some of their young pitchers develop, they will not be a very good team.
2012 Prediction: 65-97, 4th AL West