The question that tops this blog is a common one at this time of year in radio interviews, e-mails and live chats.
I notice that my answer isn’t always the same, which means one of two things: 1) I’m irresponsibly inconsistent; or 2) There’s more than one correct answer.
I’ll go with 2). I don’t think you can pinpoint one single player who will make or break the Mariners, but I’d say there’s about five whose success, or lack of same, will go a long way toward dictating the Mariners’ success — or lack of same. I’m not going to include Felix Hernandez or Ichiro, because I think that by now, everyone has a fairly good idea what they’ll give you if they’re healthy, which is a lot. All bets are off if they get injured, of course, but I’d say virtually all appraisals of the Mariners’ 2010 season are based on Felix being brilliant and Ichiro getting his usual 200 hits. I’m talking about guys who could go either way — and the Mariners really need them to come through. Guys like:
1) Milton Bradley. The Mariner offense is a tenuous construct. Someone in the middle needs to produce at a high level for them to thrive. Bradley, with his combination of power and selectivity, is the leading candidate to really emerge as an impact bat. But we all know the potential downside of Bradley. No need to go over that. I’m genuinely curious what we’re going to get from M-Brad. The answer will be vital.
2) Ryan Rowland-Smith. At some point, we can presume, Cliff Lee will come back, and the M’s will have their Felix-Lee combo. But two pitchers do not a rotation make, even two of that high caliber. If Rowland-Smith continues to be the solid, reliable starter he was at the end of last year, the Mariners will be able to handle the inevitable up-and-down nature of the No. 4 and 5 spots.
3) Casey Kotchman. Kotchman has had a somewhat checkered career, but now he’s in a position to break out. The Mariners are going to let him hit No. 3 against righties and play every day. If he delivers, the Mariners will benefit immensely. If not, the lineup will likely sputter.
4) Ken Griffey Jr. It’s obviously not fair to expect to see classic Junior numbers, but if he’s going to be the DH against righties and hit fifth in the lineup — as it appears will be the case at the start of the season — then the Mariners need production.
5) David Aardsma. Aardsma had a standout year as closer, but there are skeptics who wonder if he can replicate that performance. Nothing demoralizes a team quicker than losing a series of games in the ninth inning. The M’s have some fallback plans, but if Aardsma resembles his 2009 form, their bullpen should be a real strength. If not, it’s scramble time.
Any other nominees?
(Photo by Associated Press)