(Ichiro works out with his teammates during a practice at the Tokyo Dome this week. Photo by Associated Press).
I tried this last year right before the season opener, so what the heck, I’ll make it a tradition. I predicted 72-90 for the M’s in 2011, and they actually finished 67-95, so I was a little overly optimistic. On the other hand, if the M’s had kept Doug Fister in their rotation — and no one saw that trade coming — they might well have picked up a few of those extra five wins. They were 3-7 in Charlie Furbush’s 10 starts after Furbush replaced Fister in the rotation, while Fister was going 8-1 in 10 starts for the TIgers.
2011: Justin Smoak
2012: Justin Smoak
Comment: I see Smoak as the biggest key to the Mariners’ hopes of finally having a respectable offense in 2012. If he can be the power threat the ballclub envisioned when they made him the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade — over Jesus Montero — then they have the makings a potentially formidable trio to build around in Smoak, Montero and Dustin Ackley. But if Smoak continues to be inconsistent, the lineup is not nearly as imposing. There are explanations for Smoak’s troubles last year (and remember, he finished April with a .920 OPS), namely injuries and the mid-season death of his father. And there are encouraging signs this spring. Smoak showed up in much better shape, and has had a great spring, hitting .393.
Edge: 2012 — but Smoak still has to show he can do it for a full season.
2011: Jack Wilson/Adam Kennedy/Dustin Ackley
2012: Dustin Ackley
Comment: Scouts have been raving all spring about Ackley, and he seems poised to have a big year. Last season after taking over the job in June, he quickly established himself as the best hitter on the team, though Ackley faded a bit in September, hitting .219 in the month. Wilson was pretty much a disaster last year, while Kennedy, after a fast start, was ineffectual in the second half, hitting .190 after the All-Star break. Having Ackley for a full season should be a big boost for the Mariners.
2011: Brendan Ryan
2012: Brendan Ryan
Comment: Ryan’s in there for his glove; some defensive metrics ranked him as the best fielding shortstop in the majors last year. He doesn’t offer too much with the bat (.248/.313/.326 last year). Ryan missed much of September with a neck injury that the Mariners hope is under control, but could flare up. Backup Munenori Kawasaki had a great spring, hitting .387, and could be more of an offensive threat than anticipated when he was signed out of Japan.
2011: Chone Figgins/Kyle Seager
2012: Chone Figgins/Kyle Seager
Comment: After a lackluster 2010 season by Figgins, the Mariners tried to put him back in his comfort zone by moving him from second to third base. Didn’t work. Figgins was a non-contributor, hitting .188 and eventually losing his starting job. A hip flexor injury didn’t help. Now the Mariners are making one last stab at resurrecting Figgins, still owed $18 million over the next two years. This time, they are trying to put Figgins back in his comfort zone by moving him to the leadoff spot. He hit just .214 in spring but had a .371 on-base percentage. Eric Wedge also plans to use Figgins all over the field, much as the Angels did in his best seasons. That could mean time in left field and center field as well as all over the infield, opening up playing time at third base for Seager, who’s had an outstanding spring. The Mariners figure to have a short leash with Figgins, particularly with their youthful depth at third base.
Edge: 2012 (slightly, because either Figgins produces, or they go to youth, and I think Seager has a chance to be a real threat, with Vinnie Catricala and Alex Liddi waiting in the wings).
2011: Miguel Olivo.
2012: Miguel Olivo.
Comment: The good news is that Olivo led the team in homers and RBIs last year. The bad news has three parts: 1) With this offense, that’s not saying much; 2) Olivo hit just .224 with a .253 on-base percentage, among the lowest in MLB; and 3) his 11 passed balls were second most in the majors to the 12 of Toronto’s J.P. Arencibia. John Jaso is an upgrade at backup catcher (at least the Jaso of two years ago would be), while Jesus Montero will get a chance to dabble behind the plate for about 20 to 30 games, I’d expect.
2011: Jack Cust
2012: Jesus Montero
Comment: Cust was a disaster, hitting just .213 in 67 games with a mere three homers. After he was cut, a cast of thousands shared the DH spot, including Mike Carp (19 starts), Wily Mo Pena (17 starts), Adam Kennedy (15 starts) and Justin Smoak (12 starts). Montero will be the DH every day (except for his intermittent catching starts), and the Mariners are counting on him being a bonafide power threat. There may be some growing pains, but all signs point to Montero making an impact right away.
2011: Milton Bradley/Carlos Peguero/Mike Carp
2012: Mike Carp
Comment: To say that Bradley didn’t work out is an understatement, but he was gone by early May, after which 10 different players made starts in left (including 16 by the late Greg Halman). Carlos Peguero struggled to make contact (54 strikeouts in 143 at-bats), but Carp seized the job with a very hot stretch after being called up from Tacoma for the second time. Now Carp is set to play every day, despite struggling all spring. This is the big chance he’s been waiting for. Now he has to seize it.
2011: Franklin Gutierrez/Michael Saunders/Trayvon Robinson
2012: Michael Saunders/Franklin Gutierrez
Comment: Gutierrez’s on-going health issues made this a position of flux last year, with six different players making at least three starts in center, none with any great distinction. Gutierrez was the talk of camp at the outset of spring training this year — fit, newly muscled, healthy and knocking the ball all over the yard. But then he tore a pectoral muscle, and now he’s once again on the mend, set to start the year on the disabled list. Michael Saunders has looked great all spring, but he’s a career .196 hitter in 204 games and has to show his (latest) new batting style can translate to the regular season.
Edge: Even (until I see that Gutierrez can come back healthy, and Saunders is truly a transformed player. If either happens, the edge goes to 2012).
Comment: The big news last year was what Ichiro didn’t do — hit .300, knock out 200 hits, make the All-Star team or win a Gold Glove, the first time in 11 years in MLB he had missed any of those milestones. Now the big news is what Ichiro IS doing — hitting third after spending his entire Mariners’ career at leadoff. I happen to believe, pretty strongly, that Ichiro is going to have a big bounceback year, because he’s a prideful guy who wants to show last year was a fluke. He’s had an impressive spring, for what that is worth. It will be fascinating to see how different his batting style will be from the three hole.
2011: Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Michael Pineda, Doug Fister, Erik Bedard, Blake Beavan, Charlie Furbush
2012: Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Hector Noesi, Blake Beavan, Kevin Millwood
Comment: Starting pitching was the early strength of the Mariners last year, and the biggest reason they were only 2 1/2 games out of first place on July 4. Then they gutted their rotation by trading Fister and Bedard (the latter after a month-long stint on the DL, to be fair) in July, and further cut into their depth by trading All-Star Michael Pineda to the Yankees in the offseason Montero deal.
The upshot is that beyond Hernandez (still among the best in the game, and still about a week shy of his 26th birthday) and Vargas (who threw three shutouts last year and had another game in which he went nine scoreless in a no-decision), the rotation is more problematic. Noesi and Beavan have never opened a season in a major-league rotation, while Millwood is 37 and coming off a season in which he didn’t make a major-league start until August. The Mariners are just biding time until their Big Three of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker are ready — but Erasmo Ramirez might beat them all to a starting gig if someone falters.
Edge: 2011 (but on the other hand, we don’t have to see any more starts by Anthony Vasquez, who was 1-6 with an 8.90 ERA in seven starts, with 13 homers allowed and 13 strikeouts)
2011: Brandon League, David Pauley, Jamey Wright, Aaron Laffey, Tom Wilhelmsen, Josh Lueke, Jeff Gray
2012: Brandon League, George Sherrill, Tom Wilhelmsen, Shawn Kelley, Steve Delabar, Erasmo Ramirez, Lucas Luetge
Comment: League survived a horrendous week of blown saves in May to forge an All-Star season. Pauley pitched at a near All-Star caliber in the first half before cooling off, then being included in the Fister trade to Detroit. League should be just as strong, if not better (and perhaps becoming July 31 trade bait), but there are a lot of question marks in the setup roles. This bullpen has the potential to be strong, but it also has some potential vulnerabilities. The role of Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma is a mystery at this point.
Conclusion: I see a team that should hit better than it did last year, which isn’t really going out on a limb. But the Mariners could actually have a league average offense — which in comparison to the last two years would be like importing the 1927 Yankees. But after finishing third and sixth in the American League in team ERA the past two years, the pitching might take a step backward — at least until the rookie reinforcements arrive. The key to the Mariner season will be for the youngsters upon whom they are pinning all their hopes of a brighter tomorrow — primarily, Montero, Smoak and Ackley at the big-league level, Hultzen, Paxton and Walker at the minor-league level, plus a few others, to progress to the point they can be counted upon as the nucleus of a contending team.
It doesn’t add up to a contending team in 2012. It adds up to a third-place finish, with the M’s holding off the A’s to win the have-not division of the AL West. I’ll be optimistic (again) and say: 76-86, an improvement of nine victories.