Is it possible to pick a team to finish last and be optimistic about them at the same time?
That’s where I stand with the Mariners. Earlier today, Geoff gave a compelling argument for why he’s picking them to finish third, ahead of the Rangers. I, too had to submit my picks to run in our Mariners’ extravaganza for Sunday that we’re all working on madly.
I picked the Mariners’ to finish fourth, behind the Angels, A’s and Rangers, in that order. But I think it’s going to be a vastly improved, heading-in-the-right direction, the-future-is-bright fourth, if that’s possible. And for a team that lost 101 games last year and finished 39 games out of first — and 14 1/2 games out of third!!! — I think it is.
For one thing, the AL West figures to be a lot tighter this year, so a last-place finish doesn’t have to land the Mariners in another time zone again. The warning signs for the Angels (who won the division by a ridiculous 21 games over Texas in ’08) are rampant, including a report in today’s Los Angeles Times that Joe Saunders, their Opening Day starter, may be experiencing “dead arm.” That’s on top of John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Kelvim Escobar all opening the season on the disabled list. However, I still think the Angels have enough pitching depth to overcome those injuries, and they remain the most complete team in the division.
Oakland is filled with exciting young talent, plus newcomers Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi and Orlando Cabrera. They’ll clearly be better, but there will be inevitable growing pains with a rotation that figures to average 23 years of age now that ace Justin Duchscherer has undergone elbow surgery (Dallas Braden, Dana Eveland, Sean Gallagher or Josh Outman, Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson).
Texas, as usual, needs to improve its pitching after compiling a MLB-worst 5.37 ERA last year (to go with an MLB-high 901 runs scored). The Rangers will always rack up runs, especially in their park, and even without Milton Bradley. The eternal question: Can they prevent them? The difference this year is that the Rangers have quietly built up one of the best arrays of minor-league talent — if not THE best — in the game. And that includes some first-rate arms that could be ready to break in by mid-season (Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland) — not to mention rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus, who has dazzled with his range. The Rangers are a team on the upswing, though it might be a slow-developing upswing.
The Mariners, too, are on the upswing; how can they not be after thudding to rock bottom last year. I see them improving by about 10 games — but that still gets them to just 71 wins (or, to put it another way, 91 losses). If things really click, perhaps they’ll move up by 15, which could pull them into third place, as Geoff forecasts.
While Geoff details the improvement in clubhouse mood — and I witnessed it myself — I don’t see that as overly influential in their record. I think, for the most part, their clubhouse was dysfunctional last year because they sucked, not the other way around. It should be a happier place this year with Ken Griffey and Mike Sweeney around, but that won’t solve the deficiencies I still see. The starting pitching, without Brandon Morrow, is hardly overwhelming, though the outlook is much brighter if Felix finally has his breakout year, and Erik Bedard stays healthy enough to put up the sort of dominant season the Mariners expected last year. Based on what I’ve been seeing in spring, the bullpen looks worrisome to me. Even with Morrow, who looks doubtful to me for the start of the season. And I’m still not convinced this lineup has enough pop to overcome the pitching weaknesses, even with a healthy Griffey and a revived Branyan (and I’ll reserve some skepticism on both fronts).
Yes, the outfield defense should rock (provided it’s Endy Chavez and not Griffey out in left the bulk of the time). Yes, the manager, and the management team, seem to have their stuff together. Yes, there are some exciting young players on the horizon. Yes, the future looks infinitely brighter than it did last October.
But I’m still picking them last. Then again, I picked them first last year, so what do I know?