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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

March 19, 2011 at 10:29 AM

Time to worry about Mariners yet? Only if you want them to avoid a 100-loss season

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Managed to get through most of spring training without being overtly negative about the Mariners. And yes, down the road, they might have some promising youngsters who can lead them to better things.
But if we’re looking at 2011, well, so far, it’s going to be tough to avoid another 100-loss season. Believe me, it’s the absolute last thing I feel like covering. But going up and down the roster, I’m having a hard time figuring out where the improvements are going to come from.
As Larry Stone wrote the other day, the “youth movement” talked up all winter isn’t really going to be visible right away. Michael Saunders may very well start the year in Class AAA, as will Dustin Ackley. Adam Moore could join them, or could be a backup behind Miguel Olivo or Josh Bard. His 40-man roster status will likely keep Moore in the majors because the team needs non-roster guys at too many other spots.
You’ll have Justin Smoak at first base and that’s pretty much it for position players. Franklin Gutierrez is entering his fourth full season and fifth partial campaign, so he doesn’t really count as a youth movement guy any more. On the pitching side, you’ll likely have Michael Pineda as the fifth starter and Josh Lueke in the bullpen. Not exactly a youth invasion.
I’ve got no real problem with that. Let the team field its best players. The question is, how good are the best players going to be?
We can break down each position scientifically, or just try to get a general read on what’s happening. I am not going to give you a precise math equation position-by-position, largely because I believe that, offensively, the composition of a lineup that lacks power really can impact individual numbers across the board.
We are entering uncharted territory here. There are equations that dispute the “protection theory” of hitters, meaning that putting a bona fide slugger behind a guy won’t necessarily boost the numbers of the latter hitter by getting him better pitches to hit. Or, that the numbers of a particular hitter won’t necessarily plummet if you stick a slap-hitting infielder behind him in the batting order.
But when it comes to an entire lineup devoid of serious power, there have not been any studies done as to how that impacts the lineup as a whole. The Mariners flopped on an historic level last season and the reasons behind it just may go beyond the notion of mere bad luck. Did the entire lineup press too hard because all nine players felt they had to hit a home run every time up? Did the knowledge that the team would need four hits in an inning just to score a single run eventually wear guys out mentally?
I think it’s possible.
When I interviewed longtime MLB pitcher Dan Plesac, now with MLB Network, more than two weeks ago, he told me it’s unrealistic to expect any lineup, especially in the American League, to be able to keep the offensive pace without true power.
“If you don’t have the ability to strike with one swing of the bat you can get right back into a game or break the game open, it puts too much pressure on your pitching and it puts too much pressure on your lineup,” Plesac said. “It’s awfully difficult at the major league level to get four or five hits in one inning to score two or three runs. It’s just nearly impossible in the American League.”

And when I look at this current M’s team as an overall picture, I just don’t see much room for offensive improvement. Think about it: if I told you a year ago that one of the two biggest offensive improvements the M’s were going to make after an historically-bad offensive year was Miguel Olivo, what would your reaction be?
For me, Jack Cust looks like the best power hitter on the team at present, and maybe the second best hitter in the entire lineup behind Ichiro. Milton Bradley has shown signs of improvement this spring, so we’ll see where that takes us.
But I don’t get wrapped up in the whole “We’re scoring five runs per game in spring training” thing. Alex Liddi drove in eight runs in two days with two swings of the bat. He’s a Class AAA player. When it comes to the regular guys, the Mariners are still going to hope to get Ichiro and Chone Figgins on, have them steal a lot of bags and wait for somebody to drive them in. By the way, they both did that in the second half of last year and nobody could drive them home.
Will it change this season? You’d think it would. But by how much? Score an additional 100 runs, this is still one of the worst teams in the AL offensively.
The other day, the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA system projected the Mariners to score 576 runs — which is a 63-run improvement over last year, but still leaves them last in the majors. What baffles me a bit is BP projecting the M’s to win 70 games — nine more than last year — with an offense that is still awful.
Now, I’ve mentioned before, that picking won-lost records is a tricky business. One good win streak or slump in the final two weeks against AAA lineups can drastically impact a record. Even so, this nine-win improvement seems pie-in-the-sky.
Yes, I understand the math part of how they got there. But 70 wins still seems a bit top-heavy.
Because when I look at the pitching that’s going to have to help the M’s get that nine-win improvment, I see a team that won’t have Cliff Lee around for 2 1/2 months the way it did last season. A team where the No. 2 starter, Jason Vargas, appeared to be running on fumes the final two months of last season and is a candidate for some arm fatigue this year. A team where the true No. 2 starter, Erik Bedard, hasn’t pitched in two years and will be on an innings-limit even if he can pitch as well as Cliff Lee did. A team where No. 5 starter Doug Fister will be the No. 3 starter, has only one good pitch and gets creamed if he can’t locate it. And where they will be breaking in rookie Pineda, who will also be on an innings count.
And yes, it will need Felix Hernandez to be Cy Young worthy for a third straight year.
Not knocking any of these guys, all big leaguers. But they are what they are. Are they better than last year’s group? Well, anything will be better than the way Ryan Rowland-Smith pitched last year, so there’s improvement there. But so far, the dropoff from Lee to Vargas or Bedard looks huge to me. I can’t honestly say that this group will be equal to what the M’s had last season.
The bullpen? No way. You had David Aardsma, Brandon League , Mark Lowe and Shawn Kelley to start off last season.
This year, you have League and a bunch of crossed fingers. Even the M’s don’t know who is going to come next. Well, they do, but they’re not saying. It’ll be Chris Ray, probably Lueke and then a bunch of guys they truly have not figured out yet. That’s why we’re having “bullpen day” this afternoon against Texas. To try to make sense of it all.
The M’s will eventually make sense of it, but no way is this bullpen better than in 2010.
Even once Aardsma returns, he’s almost certainly going to be traded in July.
Again, you can mix and match individually, and come up with all the equations and formulas you want, but you’d probably sleep better at night betting on this group underperforming last year’s squad.
As a whole, is the entire 12-man pitching staff (no, they aren’t going to carry 11 with a rotation that iffy) better than last season’s? I just don’t see how you make that argument without a tremendous leap of faith.
And so, is going from historically bad offense to just worst-in-the-majors offense going to be enough to get the M’s nine more wins? Perhaps, because W-L is a tricky science. Am I betting the mortgage on it? No way.
For one thing, the team won’t get the Dead Cat’s Bounce it got last season when it went 7-3 in the first 10 games after Don Wakamatsu was fired as manager. The M’s didn’t have too many 7-3 stretches last year. They were able to go 3-7 with frequency.
This is going to be a tough year, any way you slice it. We knew that to an extent going in, that it’s all about the rebuilding. I suppose I’ll feel a bit better about it once Ackley arrives, Smoak improves and we start to see some actual rebuilding. But brace yourselves, because it’s going to be a long season. The M’s appear to be counting on a whole bunch of improved performances at the plate from guys who were already here. But again, we do not have enough evidence to determine the impact that using a lineup without the same power as the rest of baseball can have on the individual performances of hitters one-though-nine. That research has not been done. The team appears to be hoping that the research would show last year was a fluke. But if it’s not, expect similar struggles when the team strands runners early, or scores just one run on five hits and everyone starts to press.
And even if you get a few more singles from some guys, how many more runs is that going to generate? Not the 200 needed to vault this offense back to mediocre levels. As the BP projections clearly point out.
And with a pitching staff that doesn’t look to be better than last year’s, well, that’s some math you can all do without a calculator.
I hope I’m wrong about it. But at this point, a 92-loss season looks like a gift. We’ll see. The season doesn’t open for another 13 days. These are my impressions so far.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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