Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Seattle Mariners' 2009 Slightly Premature Season Preview

To date, I've previewed all 16 National League baseball teams and three American League clubs—the Texas Rangers, Oakland Athletics, and Cleveland Indians. So far, I have yet to run across a team with a wider spectrum of potential than the Seattle Mariners.

Having taken a closer look at Seattle's roster and considering the flawed nature of the other organizations in the AL West, the Ms could finish anywhere from first to last. They could tear off damn near 100 wins or lose that same number.

If the youth on offense and the unproven arms in the bullpen click, Seattle could be a player in 2009.

If that happens and the trouble spots for the other division contenders (i.e. all three teams) become serious issues, look out—the Mariners could be the surprise of Major League Baseball.

But if that youth hits some snags in its development? If the unproven arms out in the 'pen get lit up? If the starting pitching holds in Oakland and Texas? Uh oh.

Consequently, I have absolutely no idea what to make of this team. One thing is for certain, though—the starting pitching will be crazy good if it can stay healthy. Etch that in stone.

Take a gander at the rest of the personnel:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Jeff Clement
First base—Russell Branyan/Chris Shelton
Second base—Jose Lopez
Third base—Adrian Beltre
Shortstop—Yuniesky Betancourt
Left field—Wladimir Balentien
Center field—Franklin Gutierrez
Right field—Ichiro Suzuki
Designated hitter—Ken Griffey Jr.

The starters tell a bit of the story as far as the youth. Betancourt is 27, Gutierrez is 26, Clement will be 26 in August, Balentien will be 25 in July, and Lopez will be 25 for the duration. Only Lopez has a job set in stone since none of the other three has delivered (yet) to a substantial degree on his baseball promise.

The youth that makes Seattle such a wild card is found in guys like top prospect Greg Halman—a 21-year-old Dutch outfield phenom who is in camp this spring and holding his own. Or Carlos Triunfel—a 19-year-old middle infield wizard who's also in camp. Or Matt Tuiasosopo—who will be 23 in May, has athleticism for miles, and is torching Spring Training at the moment.

Guys like catchers Rob Johnson and Adam Moore also confound the picture. Johnson will be 26 in July and Moore will be 25 in May—both guys are having their way with spring pitching as well.

There's also a pair of Mikes. Morse will be 27 in a couple weeks and has shown some prowess in 300 MLB at-bats. Carp will be 23 in June and is promising enough for the Mariners to have traded for him in hopes that he might be the future at first base.

Endy Chavez, Mike Sweeney, and Kenji Johjima will probably make-up part of the bench.

Starting rotation

Ace—Felix Hernandez (R)
Second spot—Erik Bedard (L)
Third spot—Jarrod Washburn (L)
Fourth spot—Carlos Silva (R)
Fifth spot—Brandon Morrow (R)

Ahhh, now that's more like it. The Mariners' starting pitching situation is pretty much good to go. Ryan Rowland-Smith saw some starts last year to underwhelming reviews. Gaby Hernandez has gotten a spring start and will only be 23 in May. Garrett Olson got beat up in '08, but that was while facing the AL East on a regular basis. Miguel Batista still has a pulse.

All four guys figure to get a look for the back-end spots, but Silva is a Scott Boras special i.e he's pulling down $8+ mil in 2009 so his 6.46 earned run average and 4-15 record from '08 will probably not be enough to knock him out of the rotation.

And Morrow is the real deal. He might just be the second or third best starter on this team by the end of the year, depending on which Bedard toes the slab this year.


Closer—Randy Messenger (R)
Set-up—Roy Corcoran (R)
Set-up—Cesar Jimenez (L)
Set-up—Mark Lowe (R)
Set-up—Tyler Walker (R)

Alright, the offense has pretty much been covered.

There are numerous young kids with limitless potential, an empty/nonexistent track record in the Show, and who are terrifying Spring Training so far. I don't put a whole lotta stock in the exhibition season so the jury's still out on how those kids will fair in '09.

But at least they're not putting up donuts in March.

As far as proven commodities, the Mariners can turn to Adrian Beltre and the motivation of a contract push. I wouldn't expect the 48 home runs and .334 average of the Great Los Angeles Dodger Contract Year, but you might see a spike from his customary 25 bombs/.270 average.

Ken Griffy Jr.'s best days are obviously well behind him, but maybe a return to the playground of his early years will spark a return to his 30 homer/.260 days in Cincinnati.

Russell Branyan and Chris Shelton will give you three things—some power, NO average, and an obscene number/rate of strikeouts. Shelton is absolutely white-hot thus far in Spring Training.

But the two best options on offense for Seattle are Ichiro Suzuki and Jose Lopez.

Suzuki is a contact-hitting machine who will tear up the base paths—'08 saw him hit .310 with 20 doubles, six HRs, 103 runs scored, 42 runs batted in, 43 stolen bases (only caught four times), a .361 on-base percentage, and a .747 OPS. The man has perfected the slap-happy approach to getting on base, has speed to burn even in his mid-thirties, and knows the art of baserunning.

Lopez is perhaps the least appreciated player in MLB. His 2008 line has to be double-checked to make sure it's accurate—a .297 average, 41 doubles, 17 bombs, 80 runs, 89 RBI, a .322 OBP, and a .764. This from a 25-year-old second baseman.

How is he not a bigger name? Oh...right, he plays in Seattle.

As I said, if the youngsters can fill in the gaps (and there are several), the Mariner offense could be pretty slick. Even slick enough to slide Endy Chavez into the outfield rotation for extra defense and speed.

As slick as it may be, though, the offense will not be the strength of this club—the starting pitching is the obvious star.

King Felix seemed to figure out his control issues in '08 and that helped keep his ERA and WHIP down—175 Ks against 80 walks with only a 3.45 ERA in the AL, pretty nifty. The 17 bombs in 200+ innings were a tad too many considering his home field (Safeco) is cavernous. Still, the kids only gonna be 23 in April.

Erik Bedard's 2008 campaign was pretty much a total loss due to injury, but the guy's resume gets him a mulligan. His alleged demeanor makes me reluctant to do so, but his numbers are stellar even more so considering the regularity with which he faced the brutal lineups in the AL East.

Carlos Silva and Jarrod Washburn are mediocre at best, but Brandon Morrow has the potential to vault onto the same level as Hernandez and Bedard. Maybe even this year.

Unfortunately, the pitching security ends when the Mariners turn to the relievers. These guys are wobbly to say the least.

Many baseball observers expect Roy Corcoran, Mark Lowe, or even Miguel Batista to take the closer's rein. However, Randy Messenger's gotten the only saves thus far in Spring Training. That seems to indicate the job is at least his to lose at the moment.

Randy Messenger, Seattle Mariners closer—that's gotta put some fear in your heart if you follow the Rainy City Warriors. All the more so because Tyler Walker seems destined for a role in the 'pen.

Trust me. When, not one, but two ex-San Francisco Giant relievers figure prominently in your preseason blueprint, your hand should be inching towards the panic button.

That said, Corcoran is a talent, Cesar Jimenez looks like a sincerely-effective young lefty, and you never know when a fireman's gonna put it all together without warning. Maybe Messenger—only 28 in August and a physical beast—settles his wildness and becomes a reliable door-slammer.

Time will tell, but Seattle's gonna have some trouble if it doesn't and none of the other options pan out. That will leave the end of games wide open and nobody can thrive in that situation. Sooner or later, the psychological toll becomes too much for the rest of the staff and everything falls apart.

If it works and the young bats come alive, the Seattle Mariners will be in business. That's a whole bunch of 'if,' but that's what makes the wait for Opening Day worthwhile.

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