WELL... THIS ISN'T GOING AS WELL AS I THOUGHT IT MIGHT
I had expectations that this season might at least yield mediocrity, like an 81-81 record... but given how things are going, I'm not sure that is too likely to happen.
Prior to the 2010 season the Mariners had traded three young prospect players they didn't figure into their future to the Philadelphia Phillies for All-Star pitcher Cliff Lee, one of the best in the game. They never got around to negotiating a contract with Lee, and ended up trading him to the Texas Rangers at mid-season for four players. Josh Lueke, a relief pitcher, struggled and has since been traded to Tampa Bay for catcher John Jaso. Another player whose name I don't recall ended up with Cleveland, I think. Blake Beavan is a promising young starting pitcher, and could have a pretty decent major league career ahead of him; he's still young, still developing his skills, and at age 23 he is on pace to throw over 200 innings for the Mariners this season.
While Beavan looks like he might end being a contributor, the centerpiece of the Lee trade was first baseman Justin Smoak, who is not living up to his expectations so far. In 868 major league at bats with the Rangers and Mariners, Smoak is batting a lowly .222. Last season was difficult for him as he dealt with some nagging injuries, as well as the death of his father. He hit .234 and struck out a lot, but got on base 32% of the time as opposed to 29% in 2010.
This year, however, he is batting .183 through his first 93 at bats and his on-base rate has dipped to 24%. He appears to be regressing rather than making progress. For a team that his hitched a good deal of their wagon to Smoak this seems ominous.
Dustin Ackley was the first round draft pick by the Mariners in June of 2009. People have anticipated him to be a hitter of the caliber of beloved ex-Mariner Edgar Martinez. So far he has shown a mature attitude, and flashes of great skill as a hitter. But in 112 at bats so far this season, Ackley is hitting .232 and getting on base less than 30% of the time. Did the Mariners rush him to the majors? It doesn't appear so, as he advanced quickly through the minor leagues and made his debut about 70 games into last season, when he hit .273 in 333 at bats and looked like he was headed for stardom. He probably still is headed that direction. He's just 24 and has a good set of skills, but he's having a rough stretch at the moment... and again, for a team that was depending on him to progress more rapidly and improve on what he did last season, it raises concerns.
Adding the underperforming youngsters on whom the team was depending for some offense this season to the underperforming veterans manager Eric Wedge currently uses as regulars and it's a recipe for a lousy offense. Chone Figgins, signed as a free agent prior to the 2010 season, is only hitting .189. Wedge moved Ichiro Suzuki out of the leadoff spot and inserted Figgins this season, thinking it would rejuvenate Figgins' career... Figgins has been awful since the Mariners signed him. Slick-fielding shortstop Brendan Ryan is in a horrible slump, and until he got two hits last night he was batting a microscopic .125 in his first 64 at bats. Catcher Miguel Olivo, who has his problems both with the bat and behind the plate, was only batting .125 at one point but had hit in eight consecutive games prior to a groin injury that landed him on the disabled list.
Speaking of Ichiro, he still looks like he has lost a step when one considers his great hitting from 2001 through 2012. He is performing at a better clip than last year at the plate, though. And he can still make great plays in the outfield and steal a base once in a while. He has been hitting third in the lineup most of this season, as the M's want him to drive in some runs rather than emphasize getting on base. He hasn't shown any power to speak of, and my guess is that as the Chone Figgins experiment continues to fail, Ichiro will eventually find himself batting leadoff again.
Figgins, Olivo, Ryan and Smoak have been awful. Ackley is struggling, and Ichiro is gradually becoming a more average player. But there is still cause for optimism with some of the other players on the team.
Kyle Seager has been the regular third baseman, and so far he's hitting well. The 24-year-old, a teammate of Ackley's at the University of North Carolina and drafted in the third round in 2009, has been up to bat 89 times and sports a batting average of .287. He is on pace to hit over 50 doubles this year, and he shows a great deal of savvy for someone with such limited experience as a professional. Jesus Montero, acquired over the winter from the Yankees for prized pitcher Michael Pineda (who has since been sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury) was expected to hit well, and so far he has done a nice job. Through 95 at bats he has four home runs and a .296 batting average. Like Seager, Montero has only two walks this year, suggesting he needs a more patient approach at the plate... but both players have a chance to develop in that area and become very good hitters. While Seager (like Ackley) has more "gap power", meaning he's more likely to hit doubles than home runs, Montero is projected to be a player capable of 30 to 40 home runs a season. He is getting time as catcher now due to Olivo's injury, but is not a great catcher. On the other hand, with Olivo out for a bit Montero gets some needed experience.
Alex Liddi and Michael Saunders are a couple of other young player who show some promise. He is a third baseman by trade, but is also getting some time at first base and may get to play in left field once in a while. He hasn't been up to bat very much this year, but is hitting .292 and showing some power. He has tended to strike out a lot during his minor league career, but so far this season his rate of contact at the plate has increased. Liddi could be one to watch. Michael Saunders has improved his hitting in a noticeable way so far this year, even though his batting average is only .221 and he is still getting on base less than 30% of the time. The improvements are showing in how he already has eight doubles and four home runs. Where he still needs work is on his strikeouts.
Mike Carp could develop into a pretty good hitter. He was injured in the M's home opener, but is now back in action. He will probably see more time at designated hitter than in left field for the time being. Casper Wells is showing he is a capable reserve outfielder so far.
Add that all up, you have a fairly anemic offense. As the underperforming veterans are replaced, and as some of the young players step up their game, things will get better.
Pitching is not necessarily a concern for the Mariners at this time. Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas and Blake Beavan form a pretty good 1-3 in the rotation. the 4-5 guys, Hector Noesi (also acquired from the Yankees in the Pineda trade) and veteran Kevin Millwood are inconsistent so far, and could be replaced in the rotation by Erasmo Ramirez or Hisashi Iwakuma (both currently in the bullpen) or by youngsters in the minors doing well (Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Andrew Carraway). Brandon League and Tom Wilhelmsen anchor the bullpen, and the rest of the relievers are average.
An average pitching staff is not bad to have. An inept offense IS bad to have. That is what has brought about the 11-17 record so far.
1. Chone Figgins has already been demoted to a utility player role, and will be cut or traded by June 1.
2. Kevin Millwood and Hector Noesi will be replaced in the rotation, trading roles with relievers Erasmo Ramirez and Hisashi Iwakuma, by June 1.
3. Justin Smoak will be sent to the minors (AAA-level Tacoma) during the next few weeks, and Mike Carp and Alex Liddi will get the bulk of playing time at first base.
4. When center fielder Franklin Gutierrez returns from the disabled list (he has a pectoral injury and plantar fascitis), Michael Saunders or Casper Wells will be sent to AAA.
5. At the trading deadline (July 31) the Mariners will be out of the race and will once-again be "sellers" (trading veteran players for young players/prospects).
6. Those being traded will include their 'closer' Brandon League, starting pitcher Jason Vargas, shortstop Brendan Ryan, pitcher Kevin Millwood, and maybe catcher Miguel Olivo. There may be a surprise too, that is, a young player could also be dealt.
7. Players will be called up from the minors to 'audition' for next season. Those players will include pitchers Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, and position players Carlos Peguero (outfield) and Carlos Triunfel (shortstop).
8. The team will win about 70 to 75 games.
As a long-suffering Mariners fan, I could just throw my hands up in the air and forget about it all... but I'm a fanatic, and a truly devoted fan.
What can I say... I love my M's!