2009 Seattle Mariners: Waiting Until Next Year.

BaseballEvolution.com 2009 Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
March 24, 2009

How do we know the Seattle Mariners are not serious about contending in 2009?

First, they have signed Ken Griffey, Jr., and they intend to play him. You get nine spots in a batting order – you don’t give one of them up unless you have to in order to get a defender's glove out on the field.
Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Endy Chavez OF
Ken Griffey, Jr. DH
Franklin Gutierrez CF
Miguel Cairo INF
Russell Branyan Util
Mike Sweeney 1B
Ronny Cedeno SS
David Aardsma RP
Garrett Olson RP
Departed Pos.
Raul Ibanez LF
J.J. Putz RP
Jose Vidro DH
Jeremy Reed CF
Miguel Cairo INF
Willie Bloomquist Util
Brad Wilkerson OF
Such is not the case with Griffey. Mariners fans have to be asking, "Gee whiz, this guy couldn’t hit in hitter’s parks in 2008. How is he supposed to be a productive player in a pitcher’s park like Safeco Field in 2009?" This is a move designed to bring fans to the park to watch a losing team. Watch for Griffey as an early season Craig Biggio Award candidate.

Second, they have traded away their big name closer and have Miguel Batista inked to fill that role this season. The last time this guy was a closer, it was with Toronto in 2005, and it was one of those “high-save/mediocre-performance” seasons. You don’t want a closer giving up over a hit per inning, period. The Mariners are not going to commit to a closer long term until next season.

Third, the Mariners have been ridding themselves, and will continue to rid themselves, of several big diastrous contracts. Unless my math is off, J.J. Putz and Jose Vidro are off the books as of the end of last season, Raul Ibanez is gone, Griffey is only around for one year, Richie Sexson’s disastrous deal ended last year, Adrian Beltre will be in the fifth year of his disastrous five year deal, Jarrod Washburn is in the fourth year of his disastrous four year deal, Miguel Batista will be in the third year of his disastrous three year deal, and Erik Bedard is currently signed for only this year. This leaves only Ichiro Suzuki, Kenji Johjima, and Carlos Silva (you'd think former GM Bill Bavasi had been hired by the CIA to destroy the Mariners) signed to big contracts after this season, which represents an enormous reduction in payroll as of October 2009.

Thus, after the 2009 season, the new Mariners front office can completely remake this franchise, so there is no point in wasting money on the team in 2008. These guys are making a run at next season.

I think there are things to like about this team this season, but not enough to inspire confidence. At the end of the day, these guys are not much to brag about.

How daft was Bill Bavasi, anyway? With one of the best and brightest Catcher prospects around in his minor league system, the guy extends – not re-signs, but extends - the aging, light-hitting Kenji Johjima!

At this point, the Mariners' eight million dollar catcher can handle pitchers, and Jeff Clement can handle a bat, but never the two shall meet. In 2008, Jeff Clement’s catcher’s ERA was 5.14, while Kenji Johjima’s was 4.58; Seattle’s team ERA was 4.73 so they would seem to need Johjima behind the plate. However, even though he didn’t show it in the majors last season, Clement has the makings of an excellent hitter, while Johjima has demonstrated rather adequately that he is not an excellent hitter and given the right circumstances can be quite terrible.

In an ideal world, Johjima gets his on-base percentage back above the Feliz-line, Clement settles in with his staff, and the two platoon very successfully in 2009 on the way to Clement taking over full time in 2010.

Could Jeff Clement play First Base for the Mariners? If he could, that would make him a rare commodity – not since John Olerud in 2003 have the Mariners had a legitimate first bagger, and they don’t look to this year either with Russ Branyan topping the depth chart in spring training. Branyan has been lighting it up
Hoping for More
Ichiro Suzuki
So much fun to watch him tally stats. All we’ll have this season.
AIG Ain’t Got Nuthin’ On Me!
Carlos Silva
Should be hauled before Congress to explain his compensation given his performance.
this spring, all but guaranteeing himself the starting spot, but he has Mike Sweeney behind him (no, really) and hasn’t played over 100 games since 2002, and has never had over 400 at-bats in a season.

I’m sure Russ Branyan is a swell guy. You just don’t want him slated to start at first base when you break camp. And the first person that says KGJ at this position gets slapped.

The Mariners actually had a real live player at Second Base last season – 17 HR, 89 RBI, 191 hits, 80 runs, 41 doubles, and a .297 average for 24-year old Jose Lopez. Plus, he fielded his position. It was almost like they had Junior Spivey, 2002 Edition. Of course, Mariners fans need to hope that Lopez lasts longer than Spivey, who was out of baseball three years later. For what it's worth, he has always had doubles power at every level, but Lopez' numbers were oddly distorted in favor of his home ballpark, which makes no sense unless you are a doubles hitter.

Defensively, Adrian Beltre has been very good at Third base. Offensively, though victimized by his home park, Beltre has only overrated power and can’t get on base or hit his way out of a wet paper bag. The Giants and Phillies have paid Pedro Feliz less over the entirety of the last four years (roughly $11 million) than Beltre made in just last season (roughly $13 million) to do basically the same tricks.

But at least Beltre can play defense, an ability that has eluded Shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt for three years in Seattle. It is actually hard to comprehend – this guy hits like an excellent defensive shortstop in the Adam Everett, Omar Vizquel, Jason Bartlett mode, but he fields like an excellent hitting shortstop in the Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, J.J. Hardy mode. How can he be the worst side of both? How have the Mariners put up with it for three seasons? How can he have cost the M's 13 runs with his defensive ineptitude last year according to The Fielding Bilble II?

Humorously, the Mariners had an excellent hitting infielder at Triple-A last season (Tim Hulett’s kid “Tug”), but somehow managed to release him this spring to make room for a mediocre no-name pitcher they got from Milwaukee. Ah, well, what use is a 26-year old infielder with a .394 career on-base percentage in the minors anyway? Especially when you have Yuniesky Betancourt.
Mariners Team Capsule

Seattle’s Outfield in 2009 will feature Ichiro Suzuki and two other guys whose names you will not remember by year’s end. Franklin Gutierrez (the son of Franklin Stubbs and Ricky Gutierrez) comes over from the Indians as part of the J.J. Putz deal and will be plugged in at centerfield, officially
Mariners Fun Fact
In 2009, the Mariners signed Ken Griffey, Jr. He was originally drafted by Seattle, and played the first ten years of his career there, becoming a fan favorite and compiling some impressive stats along the way.
ending the Ichiro experiment there. Gutierrez must be one of those players that you have to see to love, because his numbers at all levels of baseball leave a lot to be desired. For what it's worth, he had the highest range factor of all right fielders with 95 or more games played last season, but does that translate to centerfield. In Cleveland, I thought Gutierrez had “Jody Gerut” written all over him. In Seattle, I’ll settle for Randy Winn.

All of this is nicer than anything I have to say about Wladimir Balentien, whose red-hot spring is making the Mariners forget about his ice-cold 2008. Actually, there is plenty nice to say about Balentin – his strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors in 2005 was 160:33 (in 123 games, no less), but he has improved upon both sides of that number every year since. Last year, in just 62 Triple-A games, he hit 18 homeruns and got his OPS over .900 before being called up and sucking.

Pos '08 '09
C Johjima Johjima
1B Sexson Branyan
2B J Lopez J Lopez
3B Beltre Beltre
SS Betancourt Betancourt
IF Cairo R Cedeno
LF Ibanez Balentien
CF Ichiro Gutierrez
RF Balentien Ichiro
OF J Reed E Chavez
DH Vidro Griffey
The problem with Balentien is that this isn’t the type of guy who is going to succeed in Seattle in the Safeco Era. He struck out 79 times in 71 games last season – the grip and rip it approach won’t work in a stadium where “ripping it” usually means long fly-ball outs. Just ask Richie Sexson. This stadium demands contact hitters, and doubles/gap power. Balentin would hit 50 homeruns in Texas; he’ll be lucky to have 30 in Seattle.

By all SABRmetic measures, 2008 was Ichiro Suzuki’s worst in the majors – funny thing to say about a guy who hit .300 with 200 hits and 100 runs scored. To Ichiro’s doubters, I would point out that two of his three best seasons in baseball have come immediately after his worst two seasons in baseball, indicating that Ichiro rebounds like Horace Grant. To Ichiro’s touters, I’d say Ichiro is 35 this year, and that is a rough year for anyone, let alone a guy who lives to be nimble and quick. To people who are neutral on Ichiro, I’d say Ichiro is amazing; keep your eyes open because you never know what you’re going to see.

Which brings us to Ken Griffey, Jr. and the Designated Hitter position. Ah, Ken. KGJ. Ken Griffey, Jogger. Ken Griffey, Overrated. Poor Ken.

For those who don’t believe in fate, it can be difficult to stare directly into the Griffey. In 1999, at the age of 29, he scored 123 runs, hit 48 homeruns, drove in 134, posted a 139 OPS+ to go with his 35.2 adjusted batting runs, and was voted an All-Star, a Silver Slugger, and a Gold Glove. And it was a down year.

Hank Aaron said Ken Griffey, Jr. would be the one the break his record, but not in that “and I’ll be on the golf course that day so leave me alone” way that he would say it about Barry Bonds. Bill James had him ranked among his top 100 players of all time, and he was only 29 years old. A generation of children in the Seattle area found themselves in school with two, three, or even four Kens in each class. Israel and Palestine dropped their centuries old conflict out of mutual admiration for “the Kid.”

Ken Griffey Underweighted

But all the fandom and adoration and stardom was not enough for the Griff. The Kid wanted to move on, in search of greener pastures in Cincinnati, where he’d watched his dad star on the Big Red Machine when he was a kid. And so the move was made. For the record: Ken Griffey, Jr. to the Cincinnati Reds for Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, Antonio Perez, and Jake Meyer. It was generally accepted at the time, and probably still is, that if Griffey would not have let it be known that he was demanding a trade and he would only accept a trade to Cincinnati, the Mariners could have gotten a lot more in return. But that didn’t matter to the Kid – the team he was leaving after a decade in the sun wasn’t his concern.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Reds paid the Kid over $100 million for a decade worth of work, and will continue paying as part of a deferred payment plan. And in return, the Reds got exactly 845 games – out of a possible 1458 games – and exactly 210 homeruns. He hit exactly one more homerun in nine years after joining the Reds than he had in the four years before. And there were no Gold Gloves. No Silver Sluggers. And only three All-Star Games, and even then only for comeback style performances, not because he was a dominant slugger in the league.

Hard to feel sorry for Seattle, of course. Cincinnati finished second in Ken’s first year there, but then never higher than third the rest of the way. Seattle went to the playoffs in each of the first two years after Griffey left, and tied the major league record for most wins in a season with 116 in 2001. By watching Mike Cameron, Seattle fans realized that Griffey had been the Derek Jeter of centerfielders, and was making routine plays look spectacular and failing to make plays that other centerfielders could. The ultimate downfall of the Mariners in this decade stemmed not from Griffey’s departure, but rather from horrendous front office management in the later years, including the signings of Beltre and Sexson. For the most part, assuming the injuries were coming no matter what, the Mariners dodged a bullet when Griffey left town.

But now all of that is over, and Griffey is back. From the looks of things, both sides are willing to left bygones be bygones. This isn’t Shaq returning to L.A. after leading another team to the NBA Championship. This isn’t Adam Vinatieri returning to New England after leading Indianapolis to a Super Bowl title. This isn’t even A-Rod returning to Texas (or Seattle) after taking the money and running. This is Hall and Oates getting back together because no one wants to see Hall or Oates solo, but will tell their kids about seeing Hall and Oates together one last time.

Hell, I think I may even drive down to Baltimore or up to New York if it means getting to see Griffey in a Mariners uniform one last time. And that, I suspect, is what this is all about.

Fortunately for the Seattle Mariners' Starting Rotation, it does not appear as though the Mariners intend to use Griffey in the field, because that would take us from sentimental to embarassed for everyone involved.

The first thing you need to know about the Mariners' rotation is that they are completely undermined day in and day out by their defense – the horrible shortstop, average second baseman, and centerfielder who seems amazing but whose numbers are too inconsistent with what we consider “good.”

The second thing you need to know about the Mariners rotation is that it is comprised of pitchers that only Bill Bavasi could love.
Pos '08 '09
SP King Felix King Felix
SP Bedard Bedard
SP Silva Silva
SP Washburn Washburn
SP M Batista Morrow
SP RR-Smith RR-Smith
SP RA Dickey G Olson
CL JJ Putz M Batista
RP M Lowe M Lowe
RP Corcoran Corcoran
RP Morrow Aardsma
RP S Green T Walker

You can’t argue with what Felix Hernandez has done to this point, because sending him to the majors full time at the age of 19 was ridiculous. In 2008, at the age of 22, he finally put together 200 innings of work, with a respectable 3.45 ERA, but his strikeouts were down and his walks were up. Now that he has gone 200, maybe now he can refine himself.

Erik Bedard, in many ways, is the quintessential Mariners acquisition, the pitching version of Adrian Beltre. The M’s looked solely at Bedard’s one year of performance, which was out of sync with the rest his career, and decided that the he was worth a huge investment. In the case of Adrian Beltre, it meant millions upon millions of dollars wasted. In Bedard’s case, it meant several prospects, including Adam Jones, one of the best centerfield defenders in baseball, and Chris Tillman, who simply wrecked Double-A last year at the age of twenty. Bedard missed most of last season, which could be considered predictable since he’d never pitched a complete season before they acquired him. The only good news is that he’s not signed long-term.

If the Mariners “rushed into” acquiring Bedard and gave up too much to do it, then they simple put on a blindfold and threw a dart at a list of pitchers in acquiring Carlos Silva. Seriously, have these guys ever met someone they wouldn’t give ten million dollars to? The Mariners gave Silva a four year deal for roughly $45 million dollars before last season. Never mind the fact that he can’t strike guys out. Never mind the fact that he was a terrible pitcher away from the Metrodome. Never mind the fact the guy has one of the worst hits allowed per nine innings numbers of all time.

Silva had the worst season of his career for the M’s last season. And he won’t get any better from here.

Let’s pause here for a Seattle Mariners Quiz:

Pitcher X consistently posted an ERA+ over 100 for the beginning of his career. Then, for two years in a row, he posted an ERA+ of 99 and 97 in 207.1 innings and 149.1 innings, respectively. His H/9IP during this time was over 1:1, and K:BB hovered in the 2:1 range.

Then, the following season, a contract year, he pitched 177.1 innings, and while his H/9IP stayed bad and his K:BB dipped below 2:1, his ERA plummeted to 3.20, good for a 132 ERA+.

Given this pitcher’s contract year season which was out of sync with what he’d done the two years before, and knowing that this pitcher was turning 31, the Seattle Mariners:

a) Took a pass, avoiding a trap;

b) Signed Pitcher X to a short term, low money deal with incentives for reaching certain levels in innings, wins, etc.

c) Offered Pitcher X a one year, high money deal with a club and a player option, realizing that he would be worth the risk if he suddenly rebounded and pitched the way he had prior to 2004; or

d) Ran headlong into Pitcher X, signing him to a 4-year, $37.5 million deal, under which they have been trying to climb out ever since.

Here’s a hint: Pitcher X was Jarrod Washburn. Now, I’ll give you three guesses, but you’ll only need one.

The Mariners will round out the rotation with either Ryan Rowland-Smith or Brandon Morrow. The former walks way too many batters. The latter appears to be genuinely talented but also has a combination of issues - not the least of which is Type 1 Diabetes - to contend with this spring and may not be set to go full time this season, pitching instead out of the bullpen. To give you an idea of this guy, though, Bill James compares his batting average against to Randy Johnson, and thinks that ultimately the Mariners won’t regret taking him ahead of Tim Lincecum. High praise.

All this talk about the rotation leaves me little space to discuss the Mariners’ Bullpen, where J.J. Putz has been replaced by Miguel Batista, or possibly Mark Lowe (potato-potahto). Don’t expect much performance out of this pen in 2009 and you won't be disappointed.

Outlook for the season

The Seattle Mariners are coming in from a long, dark winter. One year from now, the Mariners will feature Felix Hernandez, Ichiro Suzuki, Brandon Morrow, Jeff Clement and a fleet of new players at every other position. Whether Erik Bedard, Franklin Gutierrez, Jose Lopez, Wladimir Balentien, and a few choice others wish to join the Mariners core is up to them. But for this year, I would enjoy Ken Griffey, Jr.'s return and not expect much else.

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