MLB March Report: Seattle Mariners

TheSportsNotebook’s spring training tour of the major leagues continues today with a stop in on the Seattle Mariners. It’s been hard times in the Pacific Northwest. They haven’t made the playoffs since their 116-win campaign of 2001, and had hard-luck misses the following two years, being left out with 93 wins. Over the last eight years, Seattle’s been on the wrong side of .500 six times and most of them have been pretty ugly, including last year’s 67-95 campaign. TheSportsNotebook looks at the 2012 Mariners with an eye on the usual measuring sticks of the ability to get on base, power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Ichiro Suzuki has long been the hallmark of this lineup—for that matter most of baseball—when it comes to getting aboard. But the 38-year-old rightfielder failed to hit .300 for the first time in his career last year, dropping to .272 and with his age I think we have to assume the decline is permanent. Chone Figgins has been an absolute disaster at third base since being signed away from the LA Angels following the 2009 season. Last year Figgins hit a buck-88. And to think back in ’09, we wondered why the Angels didn’t make competitive offers to John Lackey (Boston) and Figgins. Looks like they knew what they were doing. There are no obvious candidates to step up and fill the void in this lineup left by Suzuki’s aging and Figgins’ incompetence (although since the latter is 34 I guess we can throw the aging factor into that equation as well). But there are some young kids who could make things interesting. Foremost among them is second baseman Dustin Ackley, who got the job in the middle of last season and produced a .348 OBP in 300-plus at-bats. He’ll get a full season’s worth of playing time in 2012. Perhaps leftfielder Mike Carp  or Michael Saunders, competing for playing time in centerfield can get something done. There’s nothing in their track records to suggest it will happen. But considering both are 25 years old, there’s no reason we should rule it out.

POWER: Eric Wedge’s offense will depend heavily on its big acquisition of the offseason and that’s catcher Jesus Montero, the prize of the New York Yankees’ farm system and the key piece of the trade that shipped starting pitcher Michael Pineda to the Bronx. Montero will open the season as the DH in Seattle. He got 61 at-bats last year in New York and did everything well—hit for power, hit for average and showed patience. At 22 years old, the hopes of a franchise are riding on him. No pressure kid. The regular catcher Miguel Olivo has hit 56 home runs over the last three seasons, although Wedge won’t be able to live with another season of him hitting .224, especially not with Montero now able to catch and other options available at DH. Seattle needs first baseman Justin Smoak to live up to the promise everyone in baseball thought he had when the team acquired him from Texas as the centerpiece of the deal that put Cliff Lee in Dallas for a pennant run. Smoak started getting big-league time immediately after the trade in June 2010, got full-time at-bats last year and has done nothing with them. He’s still just 25, so there’s certainly time to change things.

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STARTING PITCHING: It all starts with Felix Hernandez, who’s made 30-plus starts every year since 2006. Over that time he’s won the Cy Young Award and shown that even in less than stellar years—last season for instance—he’ll still post an ERA no worse than the mid-3s. And the importance of his reliability in taking his turn can’t be overstated. Jason Vargas is the #2 man, and in his two years as a starter, he’s settled into an ERA range of the high 3s to low 4s. 23-year-old Blake Beavan made 15 starts in 2011 and had a respectable 4.27 ERA. The fourth and fifth starters are intriguing in their own way. On the young side of the age spectrum, you have 25-year-old Hector Noesi, also a part of the Montero-Pineda trade. Noesi hasn’t been a  starter, but Wedge had no hesitation about putting him in the rotation. Then we have Kevin Millwood, the 37-year-old veteran, in the fifth spot. Millwood’s had one good year since 2006 and his health is questionable, to say the least. If he falls by the wayside, the likely replacement is Hisashi Iwakuma. At age 30, Iwakuma is pitching in the majors for the first time, as he comes over from Japan. Wedge plans to open the season with him in the bullpen, but I’m sure Iwakuma will get his share of starts.

RELIEF PITCHING: Depth is a big problem here. Closer Brandon League showed he was up to the job in the ninth inning, after closing 37 of 42 save chances in 2011. Who will pitch in front of him is the big worry for Wedge. He’ll have to piece together a bullpen with Shawn Kelly, fresh off elbow surgery, Tim Wilhelmsen, Cesar Jiminez and Chance Ruffin. I’m right now dropping names while providing no discernible analysis, because there is none—these are unproven arms and we’ll have to see if they can hack it. The veteran arm in the relief corps is lefty George Sherrill, who had a great career here as a setup man before being traded to Baltimore prior to the 2008 season in Seattle’s ill-fated acquisition of Erik Bedard (the M’s also gave up Adam Jones). Sherrill was a decent closer for the Orioles and then struggled after being part of a trade deadline firesale. We’ll see if being back where he started rejuvenates him as a solid eighth-inning arm.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 71.5: This is one of the hardest teams to read. The lack of any major league track record with so many players tells you that 100 losses is within the realm of possibility. But of the young teams making rebuilding claims, Seattle’s got as good a case as any for saying their kids are really legitimate. If that happens, winning 75 or so is realistic. But I have to go with the Under here. I think it’s a virtual certainty that the Mariners will lose 90 games and the only window for predicting that and taking the Over is if they end up 72-90. No one outside of Ace Rothstein in Casino can thread the needle like that.