Since General Manager Jack Zduriencik took the reins in October 2008, a certain philosophy has been dominant in Seattle. Big Jack Z has been focused on acquiring players with a defense-first skill-set along with high-ceiling pitchers. Any offensive contribution, it would seem, was a bonus in Zduriencik’s eyes. The philosophy has worked insofar as the Mariners are routinely among the best run prevention teams in the AL—the problem is, they can’t score runs.
2012 was no exception. Seattle finished third in the AL in runs allowed, but were dead-last in runs scored, hits, and all three slash categories. As a result, the Mariners posted their third straight losing season and it would seem that the current front office is on the hot seat—which of course tends to lead to questionable decision-making.
Rather than try to approach the problem with some semblance of nuance, Jack Z went full-bore in the opposite direction acquiring a stable full of DH-types who can loosely be described as “bat-first” players. The problem is, only one player can play DH at a time and they already had one of those in high-ceiling former/current catcher Jesus Montero. But hey, at least they still have Felix Hernandez, you guys.
For all of Zduriencik’s seeming failures at building a Major League team, he’s done a fantastic job rebuilding the farm system since outgoing GM Bill Bavasi left it barren. Seattle ranks among the very best in prospect wealth with the likes of Mike Zunino, Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen at the top of a terrific system. But as fans of the Royals will attest that only counts for so much if wins at the big league level remain stagnant.
King Felix will be a Mariner for the next seven years after signing the largest contract ever given to a pitcher this winter—and that’s a great thing for Mariners fans. Hernandez doesn’t blow you away in any particular statistical category, but his broad impressive skill set combined with his endless durability make him one of the very best in baseball—and he’s not even 27 years old yet (!!). Of course, innings count more than years and Hernandez’s arm is a lot older than 27. Still, he’s a pitcher the team can build around for the next window of contention.
Outside of Hernandez, the rotation is quite thin. Gone are innings eaters Jason Vargas and Kevin Millwood and in their place are Joe Saunders and a full season of starting from Hisashi Iwakuma. This isn’t really an upgrade, but it’s not really a step back either. Saunders has been surprisingly dependable over the last couple seasons with Arizona and Baltimore. The last two spots in the rotation will probably be filled by some combination of Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi, although there’s a decent chance either Walker or Hultzen make the trip north to start the year. At the very least, one or both should eventually see Major League time in 2013.
Getting the chance to close for the first time will be 29-year-old Tom Wilhemlsen who has gone from out of baseball, to elite setup man to closer in the space of two years. His former off-the-field issues seem to be behind him and the Mariners look to trust him to take over the role. Setting him up will be 22-year-old Carter Capps who could easily step in if Wilhelmsen struggles. Capps put up solid numbers in 25 big league innings in 2012.
The Mariners could break camp with three lefties in the bullpen in Charlie Furbush, the re-emergent Oliver Perez and Lucas Luetge. Perez could be in for some serious regression after a middling K/BB ratio, but Furbush was terrific striking out almost 30% of the batters he faced while keeping his walk-rate respectable. Stephen Pryor will fill out the bullpen with Josh Kinney, Danny Farquhar or Steven Hensley among others.
Seattle finished last season with a slash line of .234/.296/.369 finishing dead last in the American League in all three categories and to solve that problem, Zduriencik has brought in several “bat-first” players including Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay and most recently Michael Morse. The problem is, none of them should bother bring a glove to the park. Of course, a few of them will have to especially considering Jesus Montero, himself ostensibly a DH and one of the most promising young hitters in the game, was already on the team.
Montero will probably see some significant time at catcher until Zunino is ready—which could be very soon—but he’s so terrible that he might end up costing the Mariners more than his upside-heavy bat can provide. Morales will probably see a lot of time at first base especially since it looks as though Seattle has all but given up on formerly highly-touted prospect Justin Smoak. Morse, meanwhile, will play mostly left field which has serious comic potential considering the vast expanse he’ll be expected to cover in Safeco. Ibanez and Smoak could find themselves in a fringe-average platoon as both have heavy splits.
Kyle Seager was impressive in his first year as the everyday third baseman, leading the team in home runs with 20 and posting a solid 108 wRC+. Only Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre had a higher WAR than Seager among AL third baggers according to FanGraphs last year. Joining him in the infield will be Dustin Ackley at second who is coming off a terrible offensive showing. If he can bounce back and become what some thought he would previous to last season, it will go a long way to making Seattle a winning ballclub. At short will be Brendan Ryan who may be the best defensive player in baseball, but won’t provide much with the bat.
Although defense will be in issue in left field, the rest of the outfield should be fine in that regard with Franklin Gutierrez in center and Michael Saunders in right. Gutierrez is an average offensive player with superb defense, but he is rarely healthy. Saunders, meanwhile had a nice season last year hitting 19 home runs and posting a team-best .185 isolated power, but he is a regression candidate considering he’d never put up those kind of numbers before.
Outfielder Casper Wells, infielder Robert Andino and catcher Ronny Paulino provide depth off the bench, but don’t expect Bay to make it out of spring training on the team given the glut of positionless players already on the roster.
The Mariners project to be at least an above average defensive team in 2013, but won’t be as good as previous years with the likes of Montero, Morse, Morales and Ibanez seeing significant time with gloves on their hands and that could be a problem. With a shallow starting rotation, the Mariners could take a big step back in run prevention if their defense falls back even a little. Still, Ryan, Gutierrez (when healthy), Ackley and Saunders are all perceived to be solid defenders.
There’s a lot of help on the way with a stacked farm system that’s not all that far from providing serious dividends for the Major League team, but it may not help too much in 2013. Zduriencik and his crew seem like a front office lacking a direction and that could hurt them in the short term and could end up costing him his job if the Mariners aren’t at least in the conversation for a wild card spot.
The rotation lacks depth outside of Hernandez and the lineup—although not as bad as last season—doesn’t appear to have the talent to push the Mariners over .500. If Walker, Hultzen and Zunino get called up and make an immediate impact, there’s a chance the Mariners battle the A’s for third place, but a lot would have to go right for that to happen.
2013 Prediction: 76-86, 4th AL West