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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.

March 29, 2013 at 8:45 AM

Summing up the 2013 Mariners (plus a predicted record and finish)

Photo by Associated Press

Photo by Associated Press

It’s time for the third annual blog in which I assess how the latest version of the Mariners stack up with the previous year’s crew. And then I’ll toss it all around in my brain and come up with a record and predicted finish for 2013. Last year, I was pretty close, forecasting a 76-86 record, just one game off their ultimate 75-87 mark. On the other hand, I predicted they would finish in third place, ahead of the Oakland A’s, when in reality Seattle finished fourth, while the A’s won the division title. Oh, well. Two years ago, I guessed 72-90, and they actually wound up at 67-95. So they’re getting better, and I’m getting closer. I predict both trends will continue.

First base

2012: Justin Smoak

2013: Justin Smoak

Comment: The Mariners have shown admirable (though some would call it excessive) patience with Smoak, perhaps motivated by their desire to get dividends from the Cliff Lee trade. But now it’s pretty much do-or-die time for the 26-year-old switch hitter. I like his chances, and not just based on the way he finished last season (.341 average, .423 OBP, .571 slugging over his final 27 games) and the way he carried it over to this spring (.418/.468/.782 in 55 at-bats). Smoak also passes the eye test — more muscle (he reported in the ever-popular best shape of his career) and a shorter, quicker stroke. However, I must point out that Smoak hit .393 last spring, and had teased with a .920 OPS in April of 2011.

Edge: 2013 (but I’ll say the same thing I did last year: He still has to show he can do it for a whole season).

Second base

2012: Dustin Ackley

2013: Dustin Ackley

Comment: Once again, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect improvement from a young player who struggled last year. It can take time to find one’s way in the big leagues — not everyone comes fully formed like Mike Trout (and even he hit .220 in 40 games his first go-round). It also helps fuel a little hope when there’s at least a partial explanation for his troubles last year, and Ackley had bone spurs in his left ankle that had to be surgically removed. He’s never used it as an excuse, but Eric Wedge and Jack Zduriencik believe it affected Ackley’s ability to push off with his back leg. Everyone who saw Ackley hit at North Carolina, in the minor leagues, and even his rookie 2011 season, believes there’s more to Ackley than he showed last year. Perhaps moving to No. 8 in the order will take some pressure off, and he can show it. But he needs to take a big step forward or risk cementing the perception that he was a bust pick at No. 2 overall in the 2009 draft.

Edge: 2013

Shortstop

2012: Brendan Ryan

2013: Brendan Ryan

Comment: Ryan was great defensively in 2012, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be great again this year. But Ryan was a disaster at the plate, hitting .194 with a .277 OBP and .278 slugging percentage (I thought at first that must be a mistake, but I double-checked; yes, indeed, he slugged .278). But here’s the thing: That year was an aberration. Ryan hasn’t exactly been vintage Alex Rodriguez as a shortstop, but his OPS was almost 100 points higher in 2011, and nearly 200 points higher in 2009. He, too, had an operation after the season, his to remove bone chips from his right elbow. Ryan doesn’t have to hit much to justify his playing time, but he needs to hit more than he did last year, especially with Nick Franklin moving his way up the farm system and Brad Miller making such a strong impression in spring. And there’s no reason he shouldn’t, because he always has. One other plus for the Mariners: Ryan should have a much more potent backup in Robert Andino, compared to Munenori Kawasaki and his .202 slugging percentage.

Edge: 2013

Third base

2012: Kyle Seager

2013: Kyle Seager

Comment: Who knows what would have happened if Mike Carp hadn’t gotten hurt on Opening Day in Japan, necessitating Chone Figgins to move to left field, and giving Kyle Seager — previously headed either for a backup role or a return to the minors — a shot. He ran with it, becoming one of the Mariners’ most productive hitters with 20 homers and 86 RBIs. There’s always a chance Seager will backslide in his second full year, but I don’t see why he shouldn’t be expected to at least match last year’s production. It should help that he won’t be asked to hit third or fourth, as he did 84 times last year.

Edge: Even

Catcher

2012: Miguel Olivo/Jesus Montero/John Jaso

2013: Jesus Montero/Kelly Shoppach

Comment: Even with Miguel Olivo putting up a .239 on-base percentage, the Mariners actually got decent production from their three-headed catching monster last year. Their catchers ranked third in the AL in OPS (.783), tied for third in homers (26) and third in RBIs (82). Defense was another story — all three had their issues. Now Jaso and Olivo are gone, with Montero taking over the bulk of the time behind the plate (for the time being), backed up by veteran Kelly Shoppach. Montero remains a work in progress on the defensive side, not the train wreck many predicted but never to be mistaken for Pudge Rodriguez. Montero is expected to make his mark with his bat, of course. He was spotty, but you’ve got to cut him some slack for being just 22 and  in his first full season. Those excuses won’t fly much longer, however. Montero needs to take a big step forward, and he should. Like Seager, he can move to a more conducive spot lower in the batting order after hitting cleanup in 72 starts last season. And no one should benefit from the closer fences than Montero, who showed visible frustration at times last year when his balls died on the track. Keep in mind that the catching position could be in flux. If top prospect Mike Zunino continues his rapid progress while at Triple-A (which is where Wedge told KJR’s Mitch Levy he’ll start the season), he could be up by June. That would theoretically move Montero to DH, and force some chain-reaction moves. But those are issues for another time.

Edge: 2013, based on Montero’s breakout offensive potential.

Designated hitter

2012: Jesus Montero/John Jaso

2013: Kendrys Morales

Comment: The Mariners have had the worst production in the American League by their DHs for the past three seasons — by a longshot. Last year, despite having Jaso start 43 games at DH, they put up a collective .597 OPS, worst in the league by nearly 100 points. And their 11 homers and 58 RBIs were a distant last, too. You could argue that Jaso (who led the team with a .850 OPS, including .814 in 150 at-bats as a DH), should have played earlier and more often. That said, Morales can be expected to give the Mariners their best production out of the DH spot since Edgar Martinez’s heyday. Last year, Morales put up 22 homers and a .797 OPS in his return from a year and a half layoff from a serious ankle injury. As he distances himself from that injury, there’s no reason he can’t get closer to being the player he once was — the guy who hit 34 homers and finished fifth in the MVP voting in 2009, and was headed to another big year in 2010 before the injury. Morales looked sensational in spring, hitting six homers with a .610 slugging percentage.

Edge: 2013

Left field

2012: Casper Wells/Trayvon Robinson/Chone Figgins/Michael Saunders/Mike Carp

2013: Michael Saunders

Comment: No Mariner started more than 42 games in left last year (Wells), followed by Robinson with 39 starts, Figgins with 29, Saunders with 22, and Carp with 21. In other words, a hodge podge, and the result was a .207/.277/.370 line, unacceptable for a corner outfield spot. Only Cleveland received a lower OPS from its left fielders. It will be interesting to see how Wedge mixes and matches with Saunders, Michael Morse, Raul Ibanez and most likely Jason Bay in the corner spots, but those appear to be better options all the way around, at least offensively. The latter three will be doing well if they can offer up average defense. But with Saunders likely getting the bulk of the time in left (he could also be utilized in right), he provides outstanding defense and last year knocked 19 homers while making great positive strides at the plate. Going 8-for-11 for Team Canada against top-flight competition in the World Baseball Classic to win his pool’s MVP award should help Saunders’ confidence.

Edge: 2013.

Center field

2012: Michael Saunders/Franklin Gutierrez

2013: Franklin Gutierrez

Comment: Gutierrez reported to camp last year in tremendous physical shape and raised excitement that he might be poised for a monster season — until suffering a torn pectoral muscle that knocked him out until mid-June. A concussion cost him more playing time. That’s been the ongoing dilemma with Gutierrez — keeping him healthy and on the field. This year’s camp was not encouraging in that regard as Gutierrez was babied all spring because of leg tightness. Last year’s setbacks by Gutierrez opened the door for Saunders to emerge, and he could move back there again this year if Gutierrez falters. But that would severely weaken the defense at the corners. With Casper Wells looking like a longshot to make team, recently signed Endy Chavez would be the only other viable option in center. Gutierrez is a fine player when healthy, but keeping him that way has proven to be a shaky venture for the Mariners.

Edge: 2012

Right field

2012: Ichiro/Eric Thames/Casper Wells

2013: Michael Morse

Comment: Yeah, spring-training numbers don’t mean much. But you have to pay attention to nine homers and a .926 slugging percentage, which is what Morse put up in 54 Cactus League at-bats. Mariners’ right fielders last year finished 13th among 14 teams in homers (12), RBIs (53) and OPS (.659), so there’s clear room for improvement. Morse won’t provide anything close to the defense Ichiro gave them, even in his late 30s, but he’ll offer more pop from that position than they’ve had in a long time. Morse, coupled with Morales, gives the middle of the lineup some bona fide presence, a quality long vacant in Seattle. Morse is a candidate to hit 30 homers, having done so just two years ago. If Wedge is judicious in spot-starting lefty Ibanez and righty Bay, they should be able to contribute as well.

Edge: 2013.

Starting pitching

2012: Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Kevin Millwood, Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi, Hisashi Iwakuma

2013: Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Joe Saunders, Blake Beavan, Brandon Maurer

Comment: This is an area of some concern for the Mariners — ironic, since it is also the area of considerable future excitement with the likes of Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen on the way. Maurer got here before any of them, and though he has looked impressive in spring, there’s really no way of knowing how he’ll perform over the long haul of a major-league season. The promise is high, but he’s never pitched above Double-A, and this is an entirely different ballgame. Hernandez, of course, is the key to it all, and he was on his way to another Cy Young before a September fade (0-4, 6.62 in his final six starts). Until proven otherwise, there’s no reason not to expect the great version of Hernandez to start the season. Iwakuma is less of a sure thing, but that 6-2, 1.83 ERA line over his final nine starts bodes very well that he can be a solid No. 2. Saunders steps right into the Jason Vargas role as the savvy lefty veteran. It probably would have served the Mariners better to have Erasmo Ramirez beat out Blake Beavan, but he’s among those waiting in the wings in Tacoma, along with veteran Jeremy Bonderman. One good thing: We won’t have to endure 18 more starts from Hector Noesi, which produced a 2-12 record and 6.24 ERA.

Edge: Even (losing Vargas and his 217 innings is balanced out by the departure of Noesi, and the benefit of having Iwakuma in the rotation from the start of the season).

Bullpen

2012: Tom Wilhelmsen, Brandon League, Lucas Luetge, Charlie Furbush, Steve Delabar, Shawn Kelley, Josh Kinney, Oliver Perez, Stephen Pryor, Carter Capps.

2013: Tom Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush, Kameron Loe, Carter Capps, Stephen Pryor, Oliver Perez, Lucas Luetge

Comment: There’s a perception that Wilhelmsen faltered down the stretch last year, but in 23 outings from Aug. 1 to Sept. 27, he saved 15 out of 17 games with a 1.57 ERA and .148 opponents average. Then he got knocked around a little in his final two appearances, but for the most part it was a very solid showing in his first stint as a closer. Everything else is more or less the same as it was to end last season, with Loe replacing Shawn Kelley, and Kinney landing on the DL for an extended stretch. The experience gained last year by Capps and Pryor should allow them to assume a more prominent late-inning role. If they can continue to develop their off-speed pitches, it gives the M’s a potentially formidable bridge to Wilhelmsen. The left-right balance is excellent, allowing Wedge to play matchup if he desires.

Edge: 2013, considering that Brandon League, who blew six out of 15 save opportunities, closed for much of the first half last year.

Conclusion:  It shapes up as a much improved Mariners team across the board. That may be damning with faint praise, but it beats the alternative. The addition of 19 games against the lowly Astros should help boost the M’s record. But the Angels, Rangers and A’s play them 19 times, too, so it won’t necessarily help Seattle move up in the standings. That’s why I forecast a gaudier record — 83-79 — leaving them with another fourth-place finish.

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