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Springtime Storylines: Has the Mariners’ offense improved enough to be merely awful?

Mar 28, 2011, 11:00 AM EDT

Cincinnati Reds v Seattle Mariners Getty Images

Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The Deadball Preservation Society (a/k/a The Seattle Mariners).

The Big Question: Has the Mariners’ offense improved enough to be merely awful?

Oh, sure, this team had some overall bright spots in 2010. Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award. Cliff Lee was pretty impressive 13 starts. Mt. Rainer didn’t erupt, sending lahars and pyroclastic flows down the Duwamish estuary, destroying downtown Seattle.  Always look on the bright side of life, right?

But there’s no polishing the turd that was the Mariners offense last year. I don’t need to quote the statistics to you (note: I will now quote statistics), but the Mariners finished last in runs scored in all of baseball by a full 74 runs, were last in home runs, average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. It was the worst offensive performance since the advent of the DH and, if you listen to some folks, it’s in the conversation for worst offense of all time once you adjust for era.

Are they any better?  The offseason additions don’t seem to be needle-movers, as they say. Jack Cust has been imported to DH. If he were on the Mariners last year he would have been the team’s best hitter, but if Jack Cust is your best hitter, you’re not going anywhere. Miquel Olivo was also added. He has some power and will bring more to the table than last year’s catchers did, but Safeco Field isn’t going to be particularly friendly to him.

There are several holdovers from a year ago who could reasonably be expected to improve or to have larger roles — Chone Figgins is the former, Justin Smoak the latter — but the Mariners have also decided to make Jack Wilson and Brendan Ryan their starting middle infielders. While the defense should be pretty incredible up the middle, those two stand a damn fine chance of being worse at the plate than the Figgins/Wilson (pick your Wilson) combination from 2010, and that’s saying something.

The natural ebb and flow of life, the universe and everything will probably cause this bunch to score more than 513 runs in 2011, but not so much more that it will make a big difference.  As things stand, this looks like it will be the worst offense in baseball once again, and therein lies the reason why the Mariners have virtually no hope of escaping the cellar in the AL West.

So what else is going on?

  • In my video preview of the AL West I suggested that a good strategy for the M’s would for someone to sabotage the retractable roof at Safeco Field, thereby dramatically increasing the number of rainouts and thus the frequency of Felix Hernandez starts.  That may not be workable. And it may not be as necessary as I made it seem. Jason Vargas and Doug Fister are solid. Not special, but solid. They’d make a lot of teams’ rotations, though maybe not as the second and third starters.  I’m not the world’s biggest Luke French fan, but he lowered his walk rate in the minors a bit last season (while his strikeout rate also went down) giving him a fairly nice line at Tacoma. Maybe that’s something. The real wild card is Erik Bedard. He’s looked good this spring and, if he can stay healthy, could complement King Felix in the rotation. But never has the phrase “if he can stay healthy” been more meaningful and perhaps fanciful than it is when coupled with Bedard’s name.
  • Justin Smoak is the young guy with promise in this lineup, but Dustin Ackley could join him soon.  Ackley is a second baseman and the Mariners want him to cook a bit more in the minors, but it’s inevitable that he’ll be up sometime this year. He killed the Arizona Fall League and his transition from outfielder to infielder seems to be all but complete. I would assume that Jack Wilson and/or Brendan Ryan will be showcased for a trade to a defense-deficient contender at some point this season, thereby opening up a slot for Ackley.
  • Eric Wedge is the new manager and Chris Chambliss is the new hitting coach. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times had one of my favorite lines of the spring so far when he said that the job of Mariners hitting coach “has been roughly as secure as the drummer for Spinal Tap.”  Manager isn’t much better. I’m not much of a Wedge fan, though it’s worth noting that he always seemed to do much better in Cleveland when expectations were low than when they were high, and assuming he hasn’t changed, he should be an OK steward for the Mariners. I like Chambliss. I’m going to miss him managing/coaching third for the Charlotte Knights when they visit Columbus this year. I’ve always kind of liked him, going back to his playing days.
  • Ichiro continues to hum along. There isn’t much in baseball that one can predict with any kind of certainty, but Ichiro getting 200 hits is a fairly safe bet.  For as dreary as the Mariners season looks to be as a whole, Seattle fans can buy a ticket almost every game and be treated to a performance by one of baseball’s truly unique talents and a future Hall of Famer. People in Pittsburgh and Houston can’t say that.

So how are they going to do?

Lousy, but you knew that already. They didn’t improve the offense all that much and beyond King Felix the pitching is kinda ho-hum and uncertain.  The best you can say about the team is that they didn’t panic after last season’s debacle by signing a bunch of middle age mediocrities to multi-year deals and that they did what they could to turn lemons into lemonade with the Cliff Lee trade.  There may not be many teams with bleaker immediate prospects, but there are several with bleaker futures.  The Mariners are a mortal lock for last place in the AL West, but there is enough interesting going on to make them worth watching.

  1. bcopus - Mar 28, 2011 at 11:07 AM

    Always look on the bright side of life! (whee hoo, whee hoo, whee hoo hoo HOO HOO HOO HOO)
    You’re killing the comedic movie quotes today. I don’t know if this one was as intentional as the last one.

  2. shawnuel - Mar 28, 2011 at 12:20 PM

    Nice summation at the end of the article. I, for one, am pretty optimistic for the future. I think the offense might be a bit better than you do, but Gutierrez’ stomach ailment has me worried a bit. Last season, every risk move went wrong….EVERY SINGLE ONE. This season, if Zduriencik went 50/50 in speculative moves this off-season Seattle is going to improve by 5-10 games in the standings. Not earth shaking, but a nice progression as their farm develops. A real wildcard for Seattle that rarely shows up in prospect evals. is their success scouting the international markets. Bob Engle may be the best in the business in this regard and the team has invested good money in this area. I see this team starting to contend regularly starting in 2013.

    • marinersnate - Mar 28, 2011 at 3:39 PM

      I think that in say, three years or so the M’s may start to contend- a bit. Think Oakland-like, not Texas-like. It is going to take far more than a core of Pineda, Smoak, and Ackley to turn this thing around. Franklin is still years from the bigs. And by 2014 Ichiro will most likely be gone and Felix is in his walk year.

      I think the better question is: Will Zduriecik be there to see it? I can see the M’s improving 5-10 games this season as well. But is that enough to save Zduriecik’s job? I am not quite certain that his regime can survive a 90 loss season let alone a 95 loss season. Going to be an interesting year. And a long one.

      • shawnuel - Mar 28, 2011 at 4:40 PM

        Well, You need to include Felix in that core as well. Plus, I believe that Franklin is here for good by mid 2013. Additionally, you have Bradley, Wilson, Ichiro, Figgins salaries off the books by then. I expect Zduriencik to make more noise with trades that add some salary than with Free agent signings but there could be significant additions via that route as well. We will have several big bullpen arms that are ready to mature by then, including Lueke, Cortes, Pryor, Burgoon….maybe even Josh Fields. Finally, unless we take a chance on Bubba Starling or Francisco Lindor in the draft this summer, Gerrit Cole OR Anthony Rendon shouldn’t need much time in the minors. An infield of Rendon, Franklin, Ackley and SMoak could be excellent. Or Hernandez, Pineda, Cole, Vargas, Beavan, or even international signing, Jose (Vicente) Campos in the rotation.

    • shawnuel - Mar 31, 2011 at 10:15 AM

      Also throw James Paxton into the rotation mix for the future.

  3. Jonny 5 - Mar 28, 2011 at 12:35 PM

    So Chambliss could spontaneously combust at any moment?

  4. docwat - Mar 31, 2011 at 8:37 AM

    Watching games at Safeco is like going to an art museum; you see a lot that isn’t interesting, but you can stand before a masterpiece for quite a while. Watching Ichiro play outfield and hit, watching Felix carve up hitters, and watching the sun set over Seattle – plus those onion fries! And, sometimes they even win a game!

  5. shawnuel - Mar 31, 2011 at 10:13 AM

    Do you mean the garlic fries? And I’m really trying not to be a correcting jerk here because if there are Onion fries and I’ve been missing out, I’d like to try ’em.

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