It has been another miserable season for the Seattle Mariners baseball club, at least at first glance. When one looks at the standings, they will see the M's in last place in the American League West Division with a record of 49-63.
But it hasn't really been all that bad a year, considering the team was 43-43 and nearly at the top of the division before embarking on a disastrous club-record 17-game losing streak. Since the losing streak ended? They have gone 6-3.
So, what happened during that horrific three weeks or so in July? Well... everything that could go wrong did go wrong. It was a combination of bad hitting, bad fielding, average-to-poor pitching, and bad luck. Some baseball statistician declared the odds of this year's Mariners losing 17 in a row would be about 10,000:1.
But it happened, and it caused the ball club to become "sellers" rather than "buyers" at the July 31 trading deadline. General Manager Jack Zduriencik made two deals. In the first one, he sent two decent to fairly-good pitchers, starter Doug Fister and reliever David Pauley to the Detroit Tigers. In exchange, Seattle got third base prospect Francisco Martinez (now playing for the Mariners' AA affiliate), Tigers' outfielder Casper Wells, and starter/reliever Charlie Furbush. There will also be a "player to be named later", whom we will know the identity of in a week or so, if not sooner; he will reportedly be one of the Tigers' top three draft picks from 2010.
Wells is now a regular in the Mariners lineup, and for now Furbush is in the starting rotation. Both have had good debuts for Seattle. Martinez is a work in progress, and the PTBNL (probably reliever Chance Ruffin, starting pitcher Drew Smyly or third baseman Nick Castellanos) will be a good player in time.
The second deal sent the frequently-injured starting pitcher Erik Bedard to the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox sent one prospect, outfield Chih-Hsien Chiang, to Seattle and two other prospects to the Los Angeles Dodgers. L.A. then sent Seattle outfielder Trayvon Robinson, who had been playing for their AAA team in Albequerque. Chiang is with the Mariners' AA affiliate and already playing well, and Robinson is with the Mariners and hit his first major league home run last night in his second major league game (in his first game, he made a spectacular catch in left field).
The Mariners are definitely better than they were in 2010, but they still have a long ways to go. What will happen next?
For the rest of this season, they will use a starting rotation of Felix Hernandez, rookie Michael Pineda, rookie Blake Beavan, rookie Furbush, and veteran Jason Vargas. In September when it is time to expand major league rosters and call up some players from the minors, a few more of their young starting pitchers will probably get a look. Pineda has had a great rookie season, and Beavan is off to a great start. Furbush looks like he could be pretty useful as well. Vargas is probably destined to be about average as a major league starting pitcher... but all in all, given that they have some very good young arms in the minors in Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker (to name a few), when it comes to starters they look pretty well loaded.
In the bullpen, Brandon League will probably continue as the closer. He was pressed into the job when last year's closer David Aardsma had a couple of surgeries that put him out for the season. Aside from an ugly four-game stretch about a third of the way through the season, League has been excellent. With Pauley gone to Detroit, veterans Aaron Laffey, Jeff Gray and Jamey Wright have had to take up some of that slack... but there have also been some innings for youngsters Josh Lueke and Dan Cortes. There is a chance League may be traded during the offseason in an attempt to bring some hitting for the offense, but for now he will finish games for the M's. The bullpen looks like it might be pretty decent next year. If Chance Ruffin is the PTBNL in the Detroit deal, he could be their closer in 2012.
Hitting is where the team needs the most help. The offense was historically bad in 2010. The Mariners had the worst offense in the American League since the advent of the DH... what was that, something like 40 years ago? Ugh.
Young Dustin Ackley was called up in June and has done amazing well at second base for the Mariners. Their first draft pick in 2009, he advanced rapidly through the minors and is showing Seattle fans he is capable of being an offensive force and an adequate second baseman for years to come. Designated hitter has been a problem for Seattle for a while, and they finally parted ways with Jack Cust after signing him as a free agent during the off-season in hopes he would add some power to the lineup. Now Mike Carp will get the bulk of the time at DH, and although it's a small data sample, his batting average is .300 so far... and that is encouraging.
Casper Wells is an instant upgrade over everyone the Mariners have been trotting out in left field this year. Shortstop Brendan Ryan anchors the infield, making some amazing plays and getting a timely hit here and there.
Justin Smoak has struggled at first base this season, dealing in part with the death of his father, some thumb injuries, and generally adjusting to the majors. The team still has high hopes for him. Likewise, outfielder Michael Saunders recently lost his mother to cancer and has struggled so far in the majors. He has good skills, and like Smoak, is still in his early-mid twenties. Let's hope that next season these two will blossom.
Right fielder Ichiro Suzuki is not necessarily a black hole in the lineup, but he does not appear to be seeing the ball as well as he has in the past, both in the outfield and at the plate. He will be 38 in October, and he has one year remaining on his large ($19M a year) contract. Will he retire? Or will he come back next year and give it another go? It's hard to say, but without him playing at the levels to which the M's are accustomed, he has not been as valuable this season as in years past.
Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez continues to battle irritable bowel syndrome, and he has never really been able to get started this season. His batting average is still below .200, and to me, he just looks tired. I don't know that he will be able to continue in the majors and have value as a hitter. His fielding is still very good, but his bat is not. It could be fortunate for the team if the newly-acquired Robinson does well over the next couple of months; he is a center fielder by trade.
Catcher Miguel Olivo is an erratic hitter, and while he has a good arm for throwing out baserunners, he lets a lot of balls get past him. He was signed as a free-agent last winter to a two-year contract, and I suspect they will still have him next year.
At the end of the season, the Mariners will have a much better idea of which kids will stick, and which aren't as likely to. During the winter, Jack Zduriencik will have the task of making some deals, either by trading players or signing free agents, for the purpose of adding offense to the lineup so the team can be more fun for fans to watch next year. While the team is devoted to a rebuilding process that emphasizes the drafting and development of young players, the Mariners also know they need to try and field a competitive product. Thus, I look for them to acquire a couple of players this winter who will have some degree of name recognition for fans.
Next year? .500 ball or better. But that's not guaranteed, and I can tell you, being a Mariners fan can be a really long slog sometimes.