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April 22, 2009 at 10:11 AM

Are the M’s legit?

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That question keeps popping up no matter where I go and it’s a good one. Are the Seattle Mariners a legitimate first-place team? Is this start based on a bunch of smoke and mirrors? And the answer I keep giving is yes, this is a legit start. More legit, in fact, than we’ve seen from the one AL team with a superior record — the Toronto Blue Jays. And more legit than the team with the best record in the majors, the Florida Marlins.
Let’s look at why.
For an answer to the question, one need only look at the biggest reasons why the three teams we’ve mentioned are in first place.
On the Marlins side, they have some standout starting pitching, yes. But is it the quality of the arms that has made the Marlins look so good? Or perhaps, the quality of the opponent?
Hard not to notice that the 11-3 Marlins are now 6-0 against the gosh-awful Washington Nationals, a team looking hands-down like the worst in major league baseball. It’s not the Marlins’ fault they got to bottom feed early on. But if you want a cheap and easy explanation for the Marlins’ fast start, there it is.
Yes, that sweep of a decent Braves team gave Marlins’ fans reason to be hopeful. But then again, the Fish just dropped the first two games of a series with the lousy Pirates. Which is what you expect from a .500 team. Inconsistent play. Yes, the Marlins have what it takes to be a .500 team. But no, they are not this good. I don’t expect them to be in first place much beyond this month. Give any current sub-.500 team a half-dozen games against Washington before April ends and they, too, could lead their division come May 1. So, hats off to the Marlins’ pitching. But the reason for their astounding start is right there in the schedule if you know where to look.
On to the Blue Jays. Ah, yes, the team that has captured its first four series of a season for the first time in franchise history. I was there to witness nearly a decade of that history firsthand and remain intrigued by what’s gone on. A 3-1 Roy Halladay is no surprise to me. He was the AL’s best pitcher last season — sorry Cliff Lee — and is probably a Cy Young Award frontrunner this year.
But wait. The clues about why the Jays are in first-place? Check out Halladay’s ERA. It’s up at 3.72. Now, that isn’t terrible. But it’s a good half-run higher than Halladay normally sees it. And yet, he was a couple of pitches away last night from a 4-0 start to the season. How could that be? Easy. His team had scored 26 runs in his first three starts. In fact, the Blue Jays have been piling up the runs in all of their games like I’ve never seen them do before.
Toronto’s +28 run differential is the AL’s best. And the reason why is that they’ve scored 91 runs in 15 games — tying Cleveland for the league’s best mark. Now, you have to ask yourselves, how realistic is that figure? How likely is it to continue? The Blue Jays were a terrible offensive squad last year and made few substantiative changes over the winter. Just on paper, this does not appear to be a team that can keep up this torrid pace. Toronto is a team known for pitching and defense. The gloves are still there, but the starting rotation has two guys shelved long-term by arm injuries and is being held together by Halladay and some high draft picks. I do think the Jays can do adequately well with their rotation as is, and the defense behind those arms could allow the Jays to be a .500 team. But I think a lot of the fast start that squad has had is due to unworldly offense. Every club goes on a torrid offensive streak at least once in a season. And Toronto’s current stretch is making a lot of ordinary pitchers look downright tremendous. I expect that to correct itself once the bats inevitably cool off and the Blue Jays go back to being what they were expected to be. Some of those young starters could also fall victim to the “once around” syndrome.
So, another “nay” on my ballot.
Which brings us to the Mariners.
Heading into the year, this was supposed to be a team where the gloves would be its biggest improvement. And where the starting pitchers, buoyed by a healthy Erik Bedard, could also be a huge plus. This was also a team where the lack of a closer would be a liability and the offense would be devoid of power and scraping for runs all year.
Well, let’s look at why the M’s are in first place.
Scheduling bonus? Nope. The team played its first seven games on the road and took two series from division rivals. The M’s split in Minneapolis, a place they hardly ever won the previous five years, then dropped a series to a winning Tigers club. They are now playing the defending AL champion Rays and just won the opener. So, no. You can hardly say this start was the result of a scheduling benefit.
Is the offense doing something unexpected, like Toronto’s? No again. If anything, this offense is worse than anybody thought so far. Adrian Beltre has yet to get it going, Jose Lopez is in a slump and Ichiro is again struggling out of the chute. For this team to go anywhere, those three have to produce. History says they will, so the M’s could probably expect an offensive boost at some point. Don’t forget, Russell Branyan has been hurt this past week as well.
No, the M’s are winning by playing to their expected strengths, pitching and defense. The defense has been some of the best in the majors and really, unless guys are going to develop Steve Sax disease overnight, there is no reason it can’t continue. It’s what guys like Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez do best.
The pitching?
Bedard was one of the best in baseball in 2007. Now that he’s healthy, he’s picked up where he left off.
Felix Hernandez is Felix Hernandez. When he’s on, he’s great. When he’s off, a mixed bag, And a mixed bag is what he’s presented thus far.
Jarrod Washburn remains the big surprise so far. But Washburn pitched very well last year from late-May onward until slowed by some August injuries. He was victimized last year by poor defense and a lack of run support. With a better defense behind him, you would expect instant improvement. And those nine strikeouts last night showed that it isn’t all defense. It showed that, quite possibly, those improvements Washburn made to certain pitches — like his sinker — have made him a better pitcher. I don’t expect him to go 34-0 this year. But is it really unrealistic to expect a 15-win season out of him? To expect a better overall performance? I don’t think so.
And heading into the season, if I’d told you Washburn could win 15 games, and Bedard would revert to the pitcher he was in 2007, many of you would be breaking into a sweat envisioning the possibilities.
Well, those possibilities are happening. The M’s are in first place.
Oh yeah, that closer problem? It’s been solved, rather unexpectedly, by Brandon Morrow heading back to the bullpen full-time. One more liability erased.
So, no, this is not a fluke. It’s not something due to end at any moment like a hot offensive streak. If anything, the M’s are due for a boost once they are supplied with even passable offense by guys who historically have helped deliver just that.
No, this first-place M’s team leads the AL West because it has done exactly what it was expected to do. There are no hidden variables here. No unknown gifts — other than from Gabe Kapler in center field last night. To quote a once decent football coach: “They are who we thought they were!”
So, yes, quite legit.



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