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2012 Seattle Mariners: Go East - Life Is Peaceful There

BaseballEvolution.com Spring Preview
by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
March 27, 2012

The Seattle Mariners have been horrid the past two years, but their future appeared promising with Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda, Mike Carp, Dustin Ackley, and Justin Smoak comprising some of the League's best 25-and-under talent.  Then one day this winter, the Mariners woke up and found themselves in the AL East, panicked, and traded Pineda for an over-hyped Yankees prospect.  Or so it seemed...

2011 Standings - AL West
West W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Texas Rangers 96 66 .593 0 52-29 44-37 855 677 .605 70-45 26-21
Los Angeles Angels 86 76 .531 10 45-36 41-40 667 633 .524 54-48 32-28
Oakland Athletics 74 88 .457 22 43-38 31-50 645 679 .477 49-59 25-29
Seattle Mariners 67 95 .414 29 39-45 28-50 556 675 .412 54-67 13-28

The AL West figured to be a two-headed race even before the LA Angels and Texas Rangers began spending money like the NY Yankees and Boston Red Sox, with the Mariners needing to have an awful lot go right to even enter into the conversation.  Then the Halos threw nearly $320 million at Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson and the Badges spent about $108 million for Yu Darvish, making the Mariners less than an afterthought.  A blockbuster trade with the Eastern Yankees then generated some winter buzz for a Seattle team that has won fewer than 70 games in three of the last four seasons.
Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Jesus Montero C/DH
John Jaso C
Kevin Millwood SP
Hector Noesi SP
Hisashi Iwakuma RP
Hong-Chih Kuo RP
George Sherrill RP
   
Departed Pos.
Michael Pineda SP
Adam Kennedy IF
Jamey Wright RP
Chris Ray RP

In addition to their promising youngsters with big-league experience, the Mariners boast three of the top 40 pitching prospects in the minors in Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton, plus the 40th-best overall prospect in shortstop Nick Franklin (rankings by Scout.com).  It is this wealth of pitching on the horizon that many believe precipitated the trade of Michael Pineda for the slugging Jesus Montero, but the real reason is a little more obvious.  Excluding the strike-shortened 1994 season, the only AL teams to score fewer runs than the 2011 Mariners' woeful mark of 556 over the past 30 years were the 1988 Orioles (550) and... the 2010 Mariners (513).

Their historically inept offense isn't 100% the fault of the players; Safeco Field has depressed run production by 13% as compared to other AL ballparks over the past three seasons, according to the 2012 Bill James Handbook.  Indeed, that brings us to a blemish on Pineda's otherwise superlative rookie campaign: his 4.40 road ERA does not impress as much as his 2.92 mark at Safeco.  The other trip to Splitsville that the Yankees brass failed to make obscured Pineda's 5.12 second half ERA, which might be indicative of an inability to handle a full-season's workload, the league adjusting to his two-pitch arsenal, or even an undisclosed injury.       

In any case, suddenly trading a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate for a catching prospect who cannot catch suddenly makes a little more sense with those statistics in mind.  Montero has allowed 363 stolen bases in 346 minor league games, only nabbing base thieves 21% of the time.  The Mariners are so tentative about Montero's defensive prowess that they have two middling catchers ahead of him on their depth chart in Miguel Olivo and John Jaso.  While Montero's .867 career minor league OPS looks stellar for a catcher, it's a little less impressive for a designated hitter.  In fact, it's about the same as the .859 mark of Justin Smoak, the team's poor-fielding first baseman.

All this is to say that neither prospect quite lives up to their hype until you consider their supposed ages.  Pineda just turned 23, while Montero will do so in November.  Since Montero appears to be younger, has less service time, and fills more of a need for Seattle than Pineda did, this trade probably works for them.


Felix Hernandez
 
Speaking of impossibly young, uber-ace Felix Hernandez doesn't turn 26 until April.  That's not too shabby for someone with 86 major league wins and 1,264 career strikeouts.  It would be a huge upset for him not to rank among the top five pitchers ever in strikeouts by the end of his career.  After two straight seasons with sub-2.50 earned run averages, his ERA was merely good at 3.47 last season.  His fielding independent ERA, however, has been remarkably consistent over that time, ranging from 3.04 to 3.13.  The Fielding Bible III projects the Mariners defense to improve by 31 runs from its league-average performance last year, so expect King Felix to regain his Cy Young-caliber stat line. 

Mariners Fun Fact
The Mariners used 26 position players in 2011, and only six of them hit .235 or better.

Because he strikes out nearly a batter per inning, Hernandez can be effective without a top-notch defense behind him,  Among the rest of the staff, only Tom Wilhelmsen averaged even seven strikeouts per nine innings last year, and he's a guy who got suspended for marijuana use in 2004 and was working as a bartender as recently as 2009.  This group of pitchers can be successful in Safeco with a good defense behind them, but if the D isn't as good as advertised, the M's will yearn for the bat-missing abilities of the now-departed Pineda and Erik Bedard.

More than anything, the Mariners yearn for a pre-Seattle Chone Figgins.  Figgins has made $18 million over the past two seasons and has arguably been the worst player in Major League Baseball over that span.  He batted .173 on the road last season, so he can hardly blame Safeco for his troubles.  No, his excuse is that he hasn't been batting leadoff, where he is most comfortable.  Fortunately, the Mariners have a player named Ichiro Suzuki who has been miscast as a leadoff hitter his entire career.  So manager Eric Wedge has put Figgins as his leadoff man and Ichiro batting third, which figures to help both veterans have resurgent seasons a and give the team's #2 hitter - likely Dustin Ackley -a ton of hittable fastballs. 

Ichiro miscast as a leadoff batter?  Believe it.  He only has a .351 career OBP leading off an inning, or .344 as the first batter in the game.  As rarely as he draws walks, more than a third of his career bases on balls have been intentional.  This is because he has consistently been one of the game's premier clutch hitters, batting a clean .333 with runners in scoring position for his career.  His low strikeout totals work better in the three hole, since his outs that are put into play will stand a better chance of being productive outs, and he's still not much of a double-play candidate.  With his 2011 BABIP having been an unthinkable 56 points below his career average and with pitchers less-inclined to pitch around him with Smoak and Montero hitting behind him than they were with a sub-.200 hitter, you can expect a big year from this 38-year-old legend.

Cy Young Candidate
Felix Hernandez
But you probably knew that
Comeback Candidate
Ichiro Suzuki
People began doubting him after the 2008 season, too

Between resurgent seasons from Ichiro and Figgins, the addition of Montero, natural progression from Smoak, and full seasons from Carp and Ackley, the Mariners' offense will not only break 600 runs scored for the first time since their 85-win 2009 season, but they could threaten to plate 700.  That may not sound like much, but seeing as how they've allowed fewer than 700 runs in each of the past three seasons, it would translate to around a .500 record, which is far better than what most people predict from this squad. 

Ichiro Suzuki
 

Even though the composition of the staff is slightly weaker, the defensive improvement should compensate for it.  In a best-case scenario, Hector Noesi, the solid pitching prospect acquired along with Montero, will thrive in a far better environment for pitchers than Yankee Stadium was.  Hisashi Iwakuma will come close to his career 2.67 ERA from Japan.  Control artist Blake Beavan (90 walks in 546 minor league innings) will benefit more than anyone from a stalwart defense and stingy ballpark.  Their success will make Jason Vargas a valuable innings-eater at the back of the rotation rather than an embarrassing #2 starter.

Yes, if things had gone reasonably well for the Mariners, they could have surprised a lot of people in the AL West.  But as it stands after that wild, wild west offseason, the best they can hope for is a .500 season and third place.  The Mariners can't compete with the depth of the Texas Rangers nor the star power of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Final Word

I haven't even mentioned Brendan Ryan and Franklin Gutierrez, two of the most valuable defensive players in baseball.  Nor have I expounded upon Michael Saunders, a former top prospect who could conceivably figure things out at age 25, or Brandon League, the 29-year old closer who fanned 4.5 batters for every walk he issued last year.  There really is a lot of young talent in this organization.  While they won't compete in 2012, in a couple of seasons the Angels and Rangers could be a lot more vulnerable, and Seattle should be poised to take advantage of both them, as well as the new whipping boys of the AL West: The Houston Astros.


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