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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

October 4, 2011 at 12:07 PM

Looking back at my preseason checklist for Mariners

Just for fun, I looked back at the column I wrote for our preseason baseball issue back in March.

I noted that PECOTA and CAIRO, two of the most prominent forecasting systems, both predicted that the Mariners would finish 70-92 — as did the website predictionmachine.com, which played each game of the 2011 season 50,000 times on a computer. Turns out all three were overly optimistic, as the Mariners finished 67-95.

But what really caught my eye was this paragraph:

The most prudent way to judge the success or failure of the 2011 Mariners season, however, is to mostly ignore the standings. In a year in which contention is not a realistic goal, the measures of progress will be found elsewhere.

And then I listed eight examples that would deem this a successful season. Let’s see how they turned out:

1, Legitimate advancement by first baseman Justin Smoak, to the point where he establishes himself as a future force in the middle of the lineup. Smoak, with just 100 big-league games to his credit, doesn’t need to put up monster numbers this year; but it would be nice if he showed himself capable of doing so soon.

Conclusion: This didn’t happen — at least not nearly to the extent the Mariners would have hoped. After a season in which Smoak hit .234 with 15 homers and 55 RBI, he still has to be listed as a question mark. In his favor, he did have extenuating circumstances — the midseason death of his father, and some injuries. Smoak still has a high ceiling, and he finished strong. But the key word is “establishes himself.” He still hasn’t established anything, though the potential to do so remains.

2, A successful integration of second baseman Dustin Ackley, who should join the lineup in late May or early June, to mitigate future service-time issues. If Ackley is close to the hitter the Mariners thought he’d become when they picked him No. 2 overall in the 2009 draft, right after Stephen Strasburg, then their lineup will have received a major future boost.

Conclusion: This did happen, almost precisely as described. Though Ackley faltered a bit at the end — he hit .219 in September — I don’t think many who saw him this year doubt that he will be an impact hitter in the major leagues, and soon.

3, Michael Pineda shows himself to be a potential top-of-the-rotation starter, as his stuff indicates he can be. As with Smoak, growing pains are to be expected, but M’s fans will be looking for the occasional flashes of what lies ahead once maturity, and a competent changeup, settle in.

Conclusion: This happened, too. Really, Pineda did everything that could have been expected, and more, in his rookie season. He made the All-Star team, stayed healthy all year, struck out 173 in 171 innings, and positioned himself as a top-of-the-rotation arm moving forward.

4, Michael Saunders and Adam Moore, having already endured their share of growing pains, grow to the point of being solid contributors.

Conclusion: Oops. This was pretty much a bust. Moore blow out his knee just two games into the season and missed the rest of the year. Saunders, who like Smoak had to endure the mid-season death of a parent from cancer, wound up hitting just .148 in 58 games during two stints in the majors.

5, Another healthy and productive season for their most valuable property, Felix Hernandez, as he continues his ascension. The challenge for Hernandez this year will be to tune out the inevitable trade talk that will heat up as the July 31 deadline approaches. Unless the Mariners dramatically change philosophy, he’s not going anywhere.

Conclusion: This happened. Though he didn’t reach the heights of his Cy Young season in 2010, Hernandez did indeed have a healthy and productive season. And though some trade speculation reared up a couple of times, it really wasn’t the prevailing story I expected it to be, mainly because the Mariners made it clear early they were not dealing Hernandez.

6, Speaking of health, it would be a huge step forward if Erik Bedard finally can come back after enduring three shoulder surgeries. The win-win option for the Mariners would then be to flip Bedard at the deadline to a pitching-hungry contender, garnering a valuable prospect or two; or lock up Bedard as a cornerstone of their rotation moving forward.

Conclusion: This pretty much happened. Bedard was outstanding for a two-month stretch, then got hurt, but showed enough in his comeback start to induce the Red Sox to trade for him. Whether or not the prospects they got — Trayvon Robinson and Chih-Hsien Chiang — will turn out to be valuable prospects in the long run is still an open question. After a four-hit game in Cleveland in the opener of a doubleheader, Robinson hit .144 with 44 strikeouts in 90 at-bats over his final 29 games. Chiang was hitting .340/.402/.648 in 88 games in the Class AA Eastern League when the Mariners got him from Boston. He hit .208/.255/.262 in 32 games in the Class AA Southern League once he joined the Mariner organization.

7, David Aardsma is another possible July trade chip, so it would be nice if he bounces back quickly from his hip surgery to have a strong first half. Jack Wilson, as well, needs to stay healthy enough to make him desirable to other teams once Ackley supplants him. The Mariners are trying to stockpile all the young talent they can including the blue-chipper they should land with the No. 2 overall pick in the June draft.

Conclusion: This didn’t happen. Aardsma’s hip surgery turned out to be just the beginning of his problems. He ended up having arm problems that resulted in Tommy John surgery in July that ended his year without him throwing any pitches in the majors. In fact, he’ll likely be out for at least the first part of next year as well. Wilson quickly fell out of favor with manager Eric Wedge and became a seldom-used bench player (173 at-bats) before the Mariners essentially give him away to Atlanta at the end of August.

8, After the distractions of last year, from the Milton Bradley drama to the Griffey saga to the Chone Figgins confrontation with Wakamatsu, the Mariners could really use a dissension-free season as new manager Eric Wedge puts his imprint on the team.

Conclusion: This happened. For all their losses, Wedge kept the clubhouse together, and there really weren’t any issues of dissension. Not public ones, at least. About the biggest distraction was Wedge benching Wilson in April after he pulled himself out of a game in Texas, and that blew over quickly.

Here’s how I ended up the article: To sum up, it wouldn’t be realistic to expect the Mariners to contend in 2011. But it’s not unreasonable to expect them to use this year as a launching point for contention in the near future.

Conclusion: The first part was dead-on: It wasn’t realistic to expect them to contend. Oh, they teased for awhile and still stood at .500 (43-43) on July 5, just 2 1/2 game out of first place. That’s when they began their 17-game losing streak that sent them spiraling downward to another last-place finish.

Did they leave themselves at a “launching point for contention?” I don’t think even the most optimistic Mariners fan would have an emphatic “yes” to that question. My most optimistic answer would be: Perhaps, but only if ownership shows the necessary commitment with regards to payroll, Jack Zduriencik has a stellar winter acquiring talent, and several young players have breakthrough, or breakout, years. And that’s a lot of “ifs.”

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