SEATTLE MARINERS OUTLOOK FOR 2011
The Seattle Mariners were a horrific 61-101 last season, and their offense was historically bad. They scored the fewest runs of any major league baseball team since the advent of the designated hitter! Can things be worse in 2011? Maybe... but I don't believe the Mariners can be that bad again.
As usual, they have some new faces on their roster. None are household names, but the newcomers could be helpful.
Seattle signed Jack Cust to be their designated hitter. He has been in the Oakland organization for a while, and he is known primarily for hitting home runs and for striking out. But despite the strikeouts, Cust had an on-base percentage of nearly .400 in 2010, so while he fans a lot he also knows how to take a walk. Look for 20-30 homers from Cust, with about 180 strikeouts and about 90-100 walks.
Miguel Olivo was signed to be the M's catcher for the next couple of years, and while he is a fairly bad hitter he does have a bit of power. Most of all, he will provide lots more offense than the M's got from youngsters Adam Moore and Rob Johnson last season. Look for 15-20 homers from Olivo.
Infielder Brendan Ryan was acquired from the Cardinals in a trade, and although he is known as one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, he will likely begin the season as the Mariners' second baseman. His hitting was off last year, but in 2009 he hit pretty well. Look for a rebound from Ryan at the plate in 2011. Seattle also signed veteran utility man Adam Kennedy to provide some backup, and Josh Wilson (who saw extended time with the M's last season) is also around. Veteran Jack Wilson will probably be the starting shortstop, although he is injury-prone and it would not suprise me to see Ryan slide over to play short when Wilson inevitably gets hurt.
Chone Figgins was a bust at the plate last season, and he played out of position at second base. Now that the Mariners have traded the disappointing Jose Lopez (last year's Mariner third baseman) to the Colorado Rockies, Figgins will head back to play his natural position, third base. He is good defensively. Look for his bat to rebound this year, too. He will bat second in the order behind leadoff hitter Ichiro, and he will steal quite a few bases.
Franklin Gutierrez will be in center field, and his glove is one of the best in the game. His hitting was off last year too, but he ought to be able to hit 15-20 homers and bat around .275 this season while playing stellar defense. Ichiro is back in right field, of course. Look for him to get his usual 200 hits, bat over .300, and steal 30-40 bases. He is aging, but his skills have not diminished.
Other than Ichiro, the aforementioned veterans will all need to have comeback years in 2011, in part because the Mariners will be relying on youth at a few positions. Their regular first baseman will be young Justin Smoak, who came to Seattle in last year's Cliff Lee trade. Smoak will have growing pains, but he still ought to be able to hit 20-30 homers this season. Young left fielder Michael Saunders might be able to hit about that many home runs too, although he has had trouble hitting left-handed pitching during his first couple of stints in Seattle. (Erstwhile problem child Milton Bradley, if the Mariners have him back, will probably see some time in left field too.)
In the pitching department, Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award last season with only a 13-12 record... but yes, he was the best pitcher in baseball. With some better offense behind him this year, Felix ought to win 15-20 games. The rest of the Mariners starting rotation is questionable, though. The number two starting pitcher is probably lefthander Jason Vargas, acquired from the Mets a couple of years ago when General Manager Jack Zduriencik traded reliever J.J. Putz to New York. Vargas was 9-12 with a 3.78 earned run average last season. Look for him to have a good year in 2011.
Who will fill the #3 through #5 slots in the rotation? It's a big concern for the ball club. Since his arrival in a trade from Baltimore a few years ago, lefty Erik Bedard has been injured just about all of the time he has been with Seattle. He has battled through arm, hip and shoulder problems, but he is supposedly healthy now. If this is true, and if he can still pitch well, he could be a good #3 starter. After that, it's a crap shoot. Doug Fister, Luke French and rookie Michael Pineda will battle it out in Spring Training. Look for Pineda to become the #4 starter. Fister was decent in 2010, so I would expect him to round out the rotation for 2011. A young starting pitcher with an outside shot to contribute is Mauricio Robles, although it appears the team may be grooming him to be a relief pitcher.
The bullpen will not be great, but the Mariners could do far worse. David Aardmsa has been the Mariners' stopper for the last two seasons, and after an offseason hip surgery it appears the righthander will be ready to go for Opening Day; if he is healthy, he is very good. Brandon League, also a righthander, will appear in a lot of games for Seattle; when his sinker gets going, he is very hard to hit. Seattle signed veteran righthander Chris Ray during this offseason, and if the former closer is healthy he should prove valuable. Some kids may figure into the bullpen mix this year, too. Josh Lueke and Dan Cortes are hard throwers who have the potential to be closers in the future. Brian Moran is a lefty who has made a rapid ascent through the minor leagues and who could be in Seattle soon. And if Shawn Kelley can come back from injury, the bullpen looks like it could be useful in 2011.
While Mariners will not be great in 2011, they won't be as horrible as they were in 2010. This year I look for them to win around 75 games. If they fire on all cylinders, they might win as many as 80.
It will be 2012 and 2013 when they will be closer to contending for the American League West Division title; Jack Zduriencik is drafting and stockpiling good young players, and soon the Mariners' minor league system will be the envy of all the other major league teams. Building strong minors means the team will have talented kids coming up to Seattle every year for a while, and that there will be enough good talent that Seattle can use some of it in trades for acquring the needed veteran players who can help solve trouble spots in the lineup.