On the eve of the 2011 Mariner opener on Friday in Oakland, I thought I’d take a position-by-position look at the M’s and see how they compare to last year. Admittedly, that’s not a very high standard, judging by the M’s 61-101 record in 2010 and the fact they scored fewer runs than any team in the DH era. But it’s a good gauge to see if they’re going to be any better.
2010: Casey Kotchman/Justin Smoak
2011: Justin Smoak
Comment: First base is traditionally a position of production and power, but the Mariners got just 17 homers, and a .227/.293/.357 line from their first baseman. Only Pittsburgh and Baltimore were worse. Kotchman, at least, provided great defense, but after driving in three runs on Opening Day he was pretty much a washout at the plate. Smoak had his struggles after coming over in the Cliff Lee trade, but he finished strong (a 10-game hitting streak in which he hit .441 with three homers). Scouts still believe there are alarming holes in his swing, however.
2010: Chone Figgins
2011: Jack Wilson
Comment: Figgins got off to an awful start, struggling to adjust to the switch to second base and perhaps feeling the pressure of having signed a big free-agent contract. But just about the time he clashed in the dugout with Don Wakamatsu, he took off. Figgins hit .286 after the All-Star break, stole 42 bases and led the team with 74 walks. The injury-prone Wilson is merely a placeholder until Dustin Ackley arrives, but he did look good in spring.
Edge: 2010 (but Ackley can change that assessment with a strong showing).
2010: Jack Wilson/Josh Wilson
2011: Brendan Ryan
Comment: This is another position where the Mariners were absolutely dreadful offensively last year. Their shortstops hit a combined .230, scored and drove in 37 runs, and had a .570 OPS, lower than all but the Orioles’ shortstops. Brendan Ryan is not Cal Ripken Jr. at the plate, but in 2009, before a wrist injury last spring, he put up a .740 OPS. In addition, there are defensive metrics showing Ryan was the top fielding shortstop in MLB last year.
2010: Jose Lopez
2011: Chone Figgins
Comment: Lopez had an extremely frustrating season last year. Though he did hit 10 homers and drive in 58 runs (Pujolsian numbers on this team), his .270 on-base percentage was the worst in baseball among qualified players. The M’s are hoping that Figgins, returning to his comfort zone at third, can be the disruptive player he was with the Angels (and at times last year).
2010: Rob Johnson/Adam Moore/Josh Bard
2011: Miguel Olivo/Adam Moore
Comment: The Mariners’ offensive production from its catching corps was simply awful last year (their .566 OPS ranked dead last among the 30 teams), and the defense was spotty at times, too. Olivo had a rough spring, suffering a groin injury, but he looks to be ready for Opening Day. Even factoring the switch from Coors FIeld to Safeco, Olivo (who had 23 homers in 2009 and 14 last year), figures to be a pretty significant offensive upgrade.
2010: Ken Griffey Jr./Mike Sweeney/Russ Branyan
2011: Jack Cust
Comment: This position was a wasteland in the 25 games Griffey started, and only somewhat better otherwise. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the M’s had the worst DH’ing in the American League by a longshot, producing a cumulative .194 average and a .609 OPS (though they did hit 21 homers). Cust will strike out a lot, walk a lot and hit some home runs; his .830 career OPS bodes well for improvement.
2010: Milton Bradley/Michael Saunders
2011: Milton Bradley
Comment: Mariner left-fielders hit a cumulative .218 last year, lowest by far in the AL. Bradley succumbed to personal issues and injuries (never saw that coming) and played in just 73 games (and not very well). Saunders was spotty, showing some flashes of production but overall hitting just .211 with a .295 on-base percentage. Once again, the Mariners are counting heavily on Bradley, always a risky proposition, but he had a good spring and appears healthy again. Whether he can stay out of controversy is another question entirely.
Edge: 2011. It’s not that I feel great about Bradley’s prospects, but rather that I don’t see how things could go worse for him than they did last year.
2010: Franklin Gutierrez
2011: Franklin Gutierrez
Comment: Gutierrez remains a marvel with the glove but regressed offensively in 2010 after a promising debut year in Seattle; some of that might have had to do with ongoing stomach problems that continue to plague him. In fact, Gutierrez will start out on the DL, and Saunders and Ryan Langerhans will man center field at the start of the year.
Edge: 2010. Until doctors can pinpoint what’s wrong with Gutierrez, his status in 2011 will remain a concern.
Comment: You can plug in the numbers right now: Upwards of 210 hits, an average above .300, 30 to 40 steals, and another Gold Glove. Ichiro is 37, and one of these years will start to show signs of aging. But it’s not visible yet.
2010: Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, Jason Vargas, Doug Fister, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Ian Snell, Luke French, David Pauley
2011: Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Doug Fister, Erik Bedard, Michael Pineda
Comment: There were high, high hopes for the Hernandez-Lee one-two punch, but Lee missed the first month of the season with an injury and was gone to Texas by July. The Mariners got just 13 starts from him, brilliant though they were. Hernandez, of course, was superb all year and won the Cy Young Award. Fister faded badly in the second half after a strong start, while Rowland-Smith and Snell were a combined 1-15. Still, the combined 3.83 ERA by Mariner starters was second in the AL, with only Oakland better. This year, Bedard finally seems healthy and returns to the rotation after missing all of last year, and promising rookie Pineda breaks in.
Edge: 2010, but this can change if Bedard stays healthy and returns to his old form, and Pineda shows that he’s ready to be a dominating starter. Lee, even in a small dose, was the difference maker for me.
2010: David Aardsma, Brandon League, Shawn Kelley, Mark Lowe, Garrett Olson, Brian Sweeney, Kanekoa Texeira, Sean White, Jamey Wright.
2011: Brandon League, Chris Ray, Jamey Wright, David Pauley, Josh Lueke, Tom Wilhelmlsen, Aaron Laffey.
Comment: Aardsma begins the year on the DL while recovering from hip surgery, so the Mariners have to hope that League, the apparent replacement closer, can get the job done until Aardsma comes back (optimistically by late April or early May). The rest of the pen is filled with youth and question marks.
Edge: 2010, but I’ll keep an open mind and see how these guys come together.
Conclusion: There’s definitely some incremental improvement, and what you see now probably won’t resemble what you see in June. I believe the M’s will be better, but not enough to vault them into contention. I’ll say 72-90.