Monday, March 23, 2009

Seattle Mariners Preview

Overview: The 2008 Seattle Mariners were one of the most disappointing teams in baseball history. Coming off a season in which they won 87 games and with a team payroll at $117 million, this was a team that was supposed to win, yet they finished a terrible 61-101. In the process of this historical failure, the Mariners dropped GM Bill Bavasi after numerous big number free agent signings that will haunt the club for years to come. Now under the leadership of GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu, the Mariners look to turn the page slowly on the mess that is the Seattle Mariners. They brought back Ken Griffey Jr. for marketing purposes, because even if this is Griffey from the late 1990's, this is still not a contender. 2009 will also see the Mariners giving some long looks to prospects Jeff Clement, Mike Karp, Wladimir Balentin and Matt Tuiasosopo. None of whom appear to have big impact potential this season. They do have Felix Herandez and Erik Bedard atop their rotation, which should strike fear into opponents, but after that their pitching is very thin with a collection of well traveled veterans. Things in 2009 will not be as bad for the Mariners, but there is nothing to get excited about with this team besides Ken Griffey Jr. finishing off his hall of fame career in the city where it all began.

Starting Pitching:
The rotation for the Seattle Mariners is led off by an excellent righty-lefty tandem. On their best days, there may be no one better than Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard. Each does carry a good amount of baggage with them. Hernandez has been the victim of poor run support throughout his career and does seem to struggle with consistency. Fortunately, he is turning 23 this April and has plenty of learning to come. Bedard was given the opportunity to be an ace last season for the Mariners and really struggled mightily after a fantastic 2007 season with Baltimore, he has never pitched more than 196.1 innings in his career and is a injury concern as well. I expect both pitchers to post better win totals in their 2009 seasons, but it won't be enough to carry the group that follows.

As mentioned earlier, Bavasi was prone to signing veterans to long and big contracts. Jarrod Washburn and Carlos Silva absolutely fit into that category. Washburn was not horrible last season, though he is no better than a 5th starter and Silva was absolutely terrible. Just a note to show how bad Silva was in 2008, he allowed 213 hits in 153.1 innings pitched. He found far too many bats and there is no reason to expect that he will bounce back in 2009, though the Mariners will give him a chance because of the 4 yr/48M contract that Silva signed prior to last season. There is one glimmer of hope in Brandon Morrow. Morrow showed excellent stuff and closers potential before the Mariners decided to move him to the starting rotation last season. If Morrow can improve his durability as injuries were a concern last season, he would be a valuable 3rd starter. While he is probably best suited for a spot in the bullpen because of injury concern, he is a guy to keep a close eye on.

Mark Lowe, a guy with a 5.37 ERA in 2008 is slated to close. Miguel Batista is the set-up guy. Tyler Walker will be the next guy in line. All that tells me is yikes, this bullpen is bad. Batista and Walker have closing experience for losing teams and certainly will get looks as closer if Lowe loses his job. David Aardsma, Roy Corcoran and Cesar Jimenez fill out the rest of the bullpen. Again, that is bad news, however I will salvage some hope for the Mariners in that Aardsma has decent stuff and could develop into a solid reliever with the right mentoring. Also, Chad Cordero was signed by the Mariners to an incentive laden deal. This was a wise move and could certainly help the Mariners by the mid-season as he returns from injury. If he gets the ball in the 9th, he would be in a very similar situation to that of his time in Washington, a great reliever in a bad bullpen on a bad team. The situation in the bullpen is not good for the Mariners any way that you look at it. Fortunately, the Mariners can look to manufacture some quality arms this season to prepare them better for the future. Ryan Rowland-Smith and Brandon Morrow could both be quality relievers with the right teacher.

Ichiro Suzuki is the only all-star candidate in a lineup that will be very weak. Suzuki, is one of the greatest contact hitters in baseball still, and he may eclipse 2000 hits this season for his MLB career. Suzuki still has great speed and plays a fantastic right field. It really disappointed me that Ichiro did not want to play centerfield for the Mariners last season because he makes that team so much better in centerfield with plus range and arm speed. That job belongs to Franklin Gutierrez this season, acquired from Cleveland. Gutierrez does not project to be a big impact player, but he does play solid defense and might quietly be a .260/20/70 guy if everything works out for him. In left-field the Mariners will start with Wladimir Balentin, but after a .202 batting average in 2008, I don't like his chances to develop into much more than a power bat off the bench beyond this season.

On the infield, the Mariners look a bit better than they do elsewhere. Russell Branyan, Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt and Adrian Beltre compose a defensively challenged but decent offensive infield. Branyan never managed to control his strikeouts enough to be a starter at the Major League level, but will be given the opportunity once more at first-base. He is not a good defensive player and has very poor range. He makes a great power bat off the bench, but will start until Mike Karp is given the job at first. Jeff Clement will also be given looks at first-base and Chris Shelton is hanging around as well. Jose Lopez is another defensively challenged player that could work out best playing first-base. He hit .297 with 17 homers and 89 RBI's, which are great numbers for a second-baseman. The Mariners do have Ronny Cedeno backing him up, who is a defensive whiz without a stick. Adrian Beltre has proven now that his one 50HR season in Los Angeles was a fluke, but he still has above average power for his position and will be an above average player for third-base. He has another large contract and if the Mariners find any takers, he will be gone, but for now he is the second strongest bat on this team, behind Ichiro. Finally, Yuniesky Betancourt is a defensive whiz, following the Cristian Guzman career path. He has played at least 153 games in each of his three full big league seasons, so he will be around. Do not expect much power, but .280 is probably reasonable to expect, but he will not get on base (career OBP is .023 higher than career BA). He is not a long term solution, but he will play until the Mariners can develop or acquire a better option.

Behind the plate, the Mariners have a lot of questions. Another poor move by the previous regime was to re-sign Kenji Johjima through 2011 with their top prospect, Jeff Clement coming up. Johjima was terrible last season and Clement had a slow start to his big league career. This will be an interesting situation to follow because of injuries to Clement and declining production of Johjima. I would like to see Clement get as many opportunities as possible in the lineup. Unfortunately for the Mariners, I see that at first-base, which leaves a gaping hole at catcher because Johjima's bat speed is way down and is likely not coming back.

Ken Griffey Jr. will be the DH for most games. That is where he belongs now with his defense decling, though he will probably get some repetitions in Left-Field from time to time. It is nice to see him back in Seattle, but he will not be an impact DH. This is another weakness for the Mariners, but at least it'll be fun to watch.

Projections: It is pretty easy to see that this is a team that is in disarray. The Mariners have made the right first-steps to rebuilding with hiring Jack Zduriencik. He is known for his ability to build a farm system, which is exactly what the Mariners need. They have plenty of resources and with the right player development plan, this team could contend in 2011 at the earliest. This will be one of the worst teams in baseball again this season and at the bottom of the AL West. If you can bare the rest of the team, keep an eye on Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard and Brandon Morrow. If they are healthy, they will be a solid 1-3. Jeff Clement could break onto the scene this year as well.

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