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March 29, 2013 at 5:00 AM

How I’m picking Mariners to do this year: you might be surprised

Veteran acquisitions like Michael Morse (left), Kendrys Morales (center) and Jason Bay (right) should help transform the offense and the team's clubhouse focus.

Veteran acquisitions like Michael Morse (left), Kendrys Morales (center) and Jason Bay (right) should help transform the offense and the team’s clubhouse focus.

Part of finishing off spring training involves preparing our season preview packages for the print edition of the paper. Much of that involves forecasting where we see the Mariners heading and what our predictions are for the AL West in 2013.

Well, our preview will appear in Sunday’s paper, but here’s a sneak peek at my prediction. Also, on the jump, you can see a video produced by Amy Bergstrom of the Times that shows the new giant video board at Safeco Field.

With regard to the division, I have it shaking out this way:

Angels

Rangers

Mariners

Athletics

Astros

Putting the Mariners third was a tough call for me. No, not because I think the Athletics really are the better team. No, more because I almost put the Mariners second and the Rangers third.

There is something about this year’s team that gives me a good feeling. In many ways, it reminds me of the 2009 Mariners when Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney first came in and helped transform the clubhouse. Sweeney told me a few days before the season opened that the team was going to surprise a lot of people because of the confidence it had and the positive vibe it took out of camp. And he was right. The Mariners contended through late-July that year and won 85 games.

Looking at this year’s team, I sense the same positive vibe. The same quiet confidence. Only difference is: this team has more talent. The veterans who again have helped calm, focus and energize the clubhouse are more talented at this stage than the ones who led the revival four years ago. And the young players now here do have more upside, I believe, than the younger players on that 2009 team.

Perhaps it’s the competition thing: the players who made this team had to win their spots. The guys who made the 25-man squad, by and large, belong there. Whether they are a young, talented high-round draft pick or an aging veteran trying to revive his career. Anyone who made this team did so only after demonstrating they belonged. There were no free rides given out.

That’s not unique among good clubs but it has been the exception rather than the rule with the Mariners since I arrived in late 2006.

Is that going to be enough to take this team where it needs to go? Probably not this year. But I’ll tell you what, I can’t rule it out entirely. I thought this team was better than Oakland a year ago and now — even after the A’s caught fire and won the division last year with a whole lot of things breaking right — I still believe the Mariners are better this time, too. I think this Mariners team has a much better offense than the 2009 squad — or any Seattle edition since.

This isn’t just a middle of the order transformation we’re seeing with Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales. Their presence should change the fortunes of the rest of the lineup as well. No pitcher is going to take liberties with this lineup the way they did previously, with nothing to fear from the middle of the order. Some years, you might as well have been running Brendan Ryan out there at cleanup for all the difference this team’s “difference makers” made.

Now, they have those difference makers. And I think Justin Smoak just might become one of those this year as well. Michael Saunders, too. In fact, I can go down a whole list of guys who might help transform this offense before I ever get to Dustin Ackley’s name. If I’d told you two years ago that I thought 2013 is when the Mariners would finally have a winning record again largely because of the offense, you’d automatically have assumed Ackley would be the guy leading the way.

That he isn’t likely to be the guy tells you two things: No. 1, he has to step up his game. No. 2, the Mariners have acquired some pretty talented offensive pieces.

I’m tired of watching rookies get eaten for lunch in this team’s middle of the order. This lineup looks big league. No more seasons of 650 runs or fewer for this group.

Can the offense withstand the defensive downgrade in the outfield and on the mound? I do think it can.

First, one of the underrated benefits, for me, of bringing in the Safeco Field fences is that it should make the outfield easier to cover ground in. The Mariners employ too many sabermetric-knowledgeable guys — whether it’s assistant GM Jeff Kingston or many of the lesser-known staffers in its baseball operations team — not to have considered the defensive component of the fences move. The Mariners, I truly believe, would not have acquired Jason Bay, Raul Ibanez and Michael Morse if they believed Safeco was going to remain largely the same defense-wise in the outfield.

They are smarter than that. And assistant GM Kingston has Jack Zduriencik’s ear. He does get listened to. The Mariners crunch all types of data and stats info that is proprietary and goes beyond what we see debated on the internet. They employ seasoned scouts, ex-players and even ex-GMs in their front office who have watched all spring to make sure the outfield can be covered adequately.

Note that I did say adequately. You won’t see Gold Glove or Fielding Bible level defense in the outfield corners on days Michael Saunders plays center field. But you won’t have to. This team is poised for a big enough offensive transformation that it can more than offset any outfield downgrade on defense.

For me, the bigger question is the starting rotation. After Felix Hernandez, it gets dicey. This team has put a heck of a lot on the shoulders of Hisashi Iwakuma and if he stumbles, it could be a long, long year. Joe Saunders has bounced back from from bad spring training results before and had decent years. But he has to keep his pitches down with the fences coming in.

Brandon Maurer? Not expecting a whole lot. Blake Beavan? We’ll see how his improved delivery works for him. If it does click at some point, Beavan could provide the team a welcome surprise.

For now, though, I see the rotation as a weakness that will likely prevent the Mariners from going to the playoffs.

That said, this bullpen is better than some of the ones I’ve seen the past several years. If Tom Wilhelsmsen can live up to his billing as closer, then the rest of the pen has a good balance of youth and experience. It also has more balance from the left side than any of the recent editions.

The younger arms have some pure stuff that should be fun if they can harness it correctly. Veterans like Oliver Perez and Kameron Loe in there should help prevent a mid-August burnout of all the younger, less-developed arms.

And that goes for the team as a whole. Having so many veterans around this time should help keep this club from flaming out midway through as it did in 2011. Very youth-centric teams have a hard time getting to the playoffs because of an inability to pace themselves both physically and mentally. Sure, some of them manage to do it anyway. But there’s a reason everybody kept expecting the Orioles and A’s to crash and burn last year. Eventually, they did manage to play largely over their heads the entire season but that really isn’t all that common. Former A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy is on record saying his team likely would have finished back of the pack if not for a handful of key veterans to keep things real.

This Mariners team has that calm, steely composure that good veterans can bring. And it should help the younger talent on this team finally start to maximize their potential. It should take some of the pressure off so the young guys can play.

In the end, nobody is getting blocked. The skeptical part of me doesn’t like that many of the additions are here on one-year deals only.

But the other side tells me the Mariners managed to make themselves into a far more interesting team than we’ve seen here probably since 2007. And it was done without sacrificing anybody critical to the young major league core. That does count for something.

This team should be a winning one. If it finishes below .500, count me disappointed. The Mariners might not make the playoffs, but they have the ability to contend well into the summer months with this group. And if anybody ranked ahead of them stumbles, staying close might just be all this group needs.

Unlike 2009, this team has offense. It has reinforcements in the minors. It has lefties in the bullpen. It doesn’t have an aging Hall of Fame candidate about to hit .214 in the middle of the order. The negative clubhouse distractions should be gone as well. It has guys all around who can push players young and old to be the best they can be, at the threat of being replaced.

The 2009 squad never had that. It had better outfield defense, sure. But that’s about it.

So, yes, to answer your question, I am somewhat bullish on the Mariners this year. And no, I am not all that high on the Rangers. That said, the Rangers are a three-time defending playoff team and could have been reigning division champ during that time if not for a late collapase last season.

I do believe it’s up to the Mariners to earn their pre-season forecast, not the other way around. It’s not up to the Rangers to justify to me, or anyone else that they are a playoff-capable team.

They’ve proven that. The Mariners haven’t proven a thing.

That said, I don’t like how the Rangers went about their off-season. A bit cocky on the front office side, not enough replacing done on offense, too many little side distractions creeping in over the months that followed and now some early injuries and a potential time bomb with the Elvis Andrus contract situation and the Nelson Cruz¬†Biogenesis fallout, if any. Did we mention the 2012 collapse thing? They collapsed twice while one out from a World Series title in 2011 as well. That can do stuff to a team going forward. It also speaks to a potential character issue as well. Sometimes, you have to be able to seal the deal.

I don’t know. Something about the Rangers points to a team messing with a little too much bad karma for my taste. The whole Nolan Ryan thing? Another potential sideshow.

Don’t get me wrong. This team is talented enough to win 100 games. But it’s also got enough question marks to fall to .500 if things start to go wrong in a hurry.

And if that happens, I would not be shocked to see the Mariners finish ahead of the Rangers. Still, I won’t pick them to do it based off a gut feeling. I need to see less talk, more action from this group than the Mariners have managed in years past.

But I do think we’re in for a ride. If the Mariners are once again out of it by June, something will have gone terribly wrong and people will likely pay with their jobs. I do not expect that to be the case.

The team being put on the field this year is MLB caliber and with some luck, can be a whole lot more. That 2009 team got off to a 5-2 start on the road and rode the momentum all year. This squad also needs a good April start.

Starting on Monday, it really is “game on” for the Mariners. Because unlike too many seasons in recent memory, this team might actually find itself playing for something meaningful after the July 31 trade deadline has come and gone.

0 Comments | More in predictions | Topics: michael morse; kendrys morales; al west; standings

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