The Year of Prospecting
Cautious optimism wasn't unrealistic for the Mariners entering last season. But the caution flags quickly turned into red flags, and a month into the campaign all optimism was quashed. Career-worst performances from key players, reasonably risky signings that went bust, dugout skirmishes, Milton Bradley's meltdown, manager Don Wakamatsu's firing, Ken Griffey Jr.'s sour departure - 2010 was a franchise low point, and that's saying something with this franchise.
The two positives from last season - Felix Hernandez and Ichiro Suzuki - could again be the only reasons to visit Safeco Field this summer if the team's bevy of youngsters struggle. The Mariners hope Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, Adam Moore, Michael Pineda and Dustin Ackley will develop into everyday contributors this season. That's a lot to hope for, which makes 2011 a year of prospecting under new manager Eric Wedge before the rebuilding can even begin.
Check back in 2012.
Acquired Brendan Ryan from St. Louis in a trade for minor-league pitcher Mikael Cletoto.
Ryan, who signed a two-year contract after the trade, improves the Mariners' infield depth with his elite glove and versatility. He'll likely man second base until top prospect Dustin Ackley is ready and can also handle shortstop if/when Jack Wilson is injured. Then next season, with Wilson out of the picture, he'll likely be a one-year fill-in until prospect Nick Franklin is ready for the bigs in 2013.
Signed free-agent Miguel Olivo to a two-year contract
The Mariners brought in Olivo to shore up a position that was a disaster for the team last season. Olivo, though, figures to struggle at the plate at Safeco Field, and the Mariners still need to develop catcher-of-the-future Adam Moore. A two-year contract probably gives Olivo more stability, but playing time could be an issue if Moore improves.
Signed Gabe Gross, Jody Gerut, Adam Kennedy, Josh Bard to minor-league contracts.
Gross and Gerut will compete for a backup outfield job while Kennedy looks to land the utility infield job. Bard will only see time in Seattle if there are injuries to the top two catchers.
Signed pitchers Jamey Wright, Chris Ray, Nate Robertson to minor-league contracts.
Wright and Ray will be in the mix for bullpen spots. Roberston could win the fifth starter's job as his competition is not fierce.
Lost Ryan Rowland-Smith and Casey Kotchman to free agency.
The Mariners made minimal effort to re-sign Rowland-Smith and no effort to re-sign Kotchman. Neither will be missed.
Declined team option on Ian Snell.
Snell was waived in June but stuck with organization when no other team was interested. There was no chance the Mariners would bring him back, let alone pick up the $6.75 million option.
Traded Rob Johnson to San Diego for player to be named.
Johnson saw much more action last year than his skills warranted. Such was the state of the Mariners' catching situation.
Traded Jose Lopez to Colorado for minor-league pitcher Chaz Roe.
Receiving a former first-round pick in Roe is probably as much as could have been expected for Lopez, who disappointed in Seattle and wasn't going to be back this season.
Offensively inept last season, the Mariners didn't make great strides improving the offense this season. The heart of the lineup has issues -- Cust isn't a prototypical No. 3 hitter, but the Mariners don't have many options; Smoak and Saunders need to prove themselves; Guitierrez needs to bounce back. The bottom third of the lineup could be a black hole.
Outside of the reigning Cy Young winner, Mariners starting pitching doesn't garner much attention. But the rotation could be decent. A flyball pitcher, Vargas should continue to live off Safeco Field's home-run suppression. Fister is a control artist who should benefit from a better defense this season. Pineda is a rookie fireballer whose sinking fastball should induce plenty of groundballs. He could start the year in Triple-A but likely will win a rotation spot in spring training. Still looming in the background is Erik Bedard, who is trying to return from shoulder surgery again this season. Don't expect him before mid-summer at the earliest, but if he can regain his past form, he would give the rotation a big boost.
Closer: David Aardsma/Brandon League
Key Bullpen Members: Aardsma's January hip surgery will keep him out until mid-April, which gives the closer job to League to start the season. If Aardsma returns healthy, he'll regain the job, sending League back to a setup role. The reliever to watch, though, is Daniel Cortes, a 6-foot-6 strikeout machine with a mid-to-upper-90s fastball, a power curve and a mid-80s slider who was once considered the top pitching prospect in the Royals' organization. He had control issues in the minors, but his ceiling is seemingly high if he gets a handle on that one weakness.
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:
1. Will the Mariners have an offense this season?
Fingers are crossed. Of course, they were crossed last year too. The Mariners need youngsters Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders and Adam Moore to quickly develop into everyday contributors, and they need bounce-back seasons from Franklin Gutierrez and Chone Figgins. Jack Cust, the only bat added this offseason, is the team's best power threat, but even he's no lock for quality production. Place your bets accordingly.
2. When will Dustin Ackley be in Seattle?
The Mariners appear content to start Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick in 2009, in Triple-A this year to delay his service clock. A big spring could change that plan, however. Ackley's power is still developing and his defense needs work, which is why more minor-league seasoning might be a good idea. Expect him in Seattle by summer, though.
3. What's Milton Bradley's role this season?
If he's still on the roster come Opening Day, Bradley will be a right-handed bat off the bench. He'll play some left field, but given his injury history most of his action likely will come relieving Jack Cust at designated hitter. It's still possible the Mariners dump Bradley, who was arrested on a felony charge of making a criminal threat in January. What's more, his confrontational history with new manager Eric Wedge doesn't inspire confidence in his future. Bradley needs a huge spring to earn more than occasional playing time. And then he'll need to stay healthy and emotionally stable. A tall order, indeed.
Defense. The Mariners should be improved defensively with Chone Figgins back at third base and with the addition of Brendan Ryan's elite glove. A healthy Jack Wilson will help as well.
Offense, specifically power. Jack Cust hit more homers last season than any returning Mariner. But he hit only 13, and his diminishing power won't be helped by Safeco Field (even though the ballpark isn't as tough on lefties as it is on righties). Coming off a good season in Colorado, Miguel Olivo figures to see a major downgrade this season going from the best hitting park in the majors to one of the worst for right-handers. If the young bats don't develop, the Mariners' offense will run as dry as it did last year.
Rising: Michael Pineda, SP - The organization's top prospect, Pineda enters spring training with a rotation spot all but assured. He dominated last season at Double-A and Triple-A, totaling 154 strikeouts in 139.1 innings. He walked just 34 for a 2.2 BB/9IP and a 4.5 K/BB. Pineda's fastball has good sinking action, and he improved the velocity last season, pitching in the mid-to-upper 90s. He also has a very good changeup and a developing slider. Pineda missed much of 2009 with an elbow injury, and the Mariners shut him down early last season and probably will have him on an innings limit this season. If the Mariners don't keep him at Triple-A to delay his service clock, expect him to break camp in the Seattle rotation with absolutely no pressure on his shoulders.
Declining: Jack Wilson, SS - Wilson is a walking DL report. He played in only 61 games last season in yet another injury-shortened season thanks to thumb, hamstring and hand injuries. Wilson's glove still shines at shortstop, but his bat still only offers empty at-bats. Wilson is in the last year of his contract and won't be back with the Mariners next season. If/when he gets injured this season, Brendan Ryan will take his place at shortstop and will probably captain the position in 2012 until, if all goes according to plan, prospect Nick Franklin arrives the following year.
Sleeper: Franklin Gutierrez, CF - Gutierrez's season of promise in 2009 turned into a season of major disappointment in 2010. Just when it looked like Gutierrez was primed to reach the next level, his average dropped nearly 40 points and his OPS by almost 100, and he hit six fewer home runs as well. On the positive side, he stole a career-high 25 bases and played Gold Glove defense in center field. His contact rate last season remained virtually the same as in 2009, but his BABIP dropped by 31 points. A little more luck and a better offense around him could result in a rebound for Gutierrez this year. If nothing else, his steals will come cheaply in fantasy drafts, and he's liable to push 30 bags this season if he improves last year's .303 OBP.
Supersleeper: Daniel Cortes, RP - Cortes is a strikeout machine (104 strikeouts in 101.2 IP last season) with a mid-to-upper-90s fastball, a power curve and a mid-80s slider who was once considered the top pitching prospect in the Royals organization. He struggles with control, issuing 5.52 BB/9IP the last two seasons in the minors. The Mariners moved him to the bullpen last season, though, and he got a handle on his control. Cortes likely will land a bullpen spot in spring training this year, and could find himself in a late-inning role with his big fastball and 6-6 frame. He's closer-of-the-future material, possibly sooner than later if David Aardsma is dealt at some point.
Here's the rundown on the rest of the team, not mentioned above
Felix Hernandez, SP - Hernandez turned in another dominating season last year, and this time he was rewarded with the American League Cy Young award. Hernandez, who finished second in Cy Young balloting in 2009, led the AL last season in innings pitched, ERA, H/9IP, quality starts, batting average against and OPS against and was second in strikeouts and third in complete games (both by one). Just as impressive, he continued to be a groundball/strikeout machine. Since he entered the league, no pitcher in baseball has struck out more batters per nine innings and gotten as many groundball outs as Hernandez. The only mark against him in 2010 was his 13 wins, fewest ever for a Cy Young winner. But an AL-low 3.10 runs of support was responsible for that.
Jason Vargas, SP - Vargas added a cut fastball last season and posted a career-high 62.5 first-strike percentage. He rolled through the first three months with a 2.80 ERA, but stumbled to a 4.76 ERA in the final three months as his BABIP normalized from .253 to .294. Vargas, though, benefited greatly from an absurdly low home-run rate. Vargas' 47.0 flyball percentage was fourth highest in the majors last season, but only 6.1 percent of his flyballs went for home runs. Playing in Safeco Field helped immensely as his home flyball rate was 48 percent and his home HR/FB rate was a mere 5.03 percent. Vargas is playing in the perfect park for his flyball ways, which explains his stark home/road splits.
Doug Fister, SP - Fister is a control artist (1.68 BB/9IP last season) who pitches to contact and therefore always needs some good defense and a bit of luck. He posted a 2.45 ERA in the season's first two months last year, but after a June DL stint, posted a 5.24 ERA the rest of the way. He was the same pitcher in both circumstances, though. The difference was his .236 BABIP in the first two months ballooned to .345 in the second half. In a perfect world, he's a No. 5 starter. In the Mariners' world, he could be the No. 2 starter depending on how the offseason works out.
Nate Robertson, SP/RP - Since posting a 3.84 ERA in 32 starts in 2006, Robertson's career has been plagued by ineffectiveness and injury. He received 18 starts last year with the Marlins, but was released after they got tired of his 5.47 ERA. He'll compete for the fifth spot in the rotation in spring training.
Luke French, SP/RP - French is a marginal starter at best with a bad K:BB (37:29) and a low K/9IP (3.79) who is capable of getting good results now and then under the right circumstances. His game log bears this out: after joining the rotation for good Aug. 1, he posted five starts with no more than two runs allowed and seven starts with at least four runs allowed. A flyball pitcher, French relies on good command and gets lit if he doesn't have it - his 11 second-half homers allowed came in six starts. The left-hander is only a legit candidate for the 2011 rotation because the Mariners have so few options.
David Pauley, SP/RP - Pauley earned a late-June promotion to Seattle after posting a 3.68 ERA at Triple-A Tacoma. He wasn't dominating the level, as his 56 strikeouts in 85.2 innings attest, but he kept his walks down (2.7 BB/9IP). Similar to his time in Seattle. His peripheral stats are far from impressive, but if he limits walks and induces groundballs, he can survive on the mound. He'll compete for the fifth starter's spot in spring training, though he's better suited to a long-relief role.
Erik Bedard, SP - Bedard missed all of last season coming off labrum surgery. He nearly returned to the Seattle rotation in July, but a setback ended that hope, leading to another shoulder surgery in August. When Bedard was healthy in 2009, he was effective, posting a 9.76 K/9IP in 83 innings. That's why the Mariners are willing to stake another low-risk deal on the hope that his injured shoulder can be rehabilitated.
David Aardsma, RP - The surprise late-December announcement that Aardsma needed surgery for a torn hip labrum killed any chance to trade the valuable closer, and the Mariners will be without their ninth-inning reliever come the season opener. Aardsma is expected to be out until mid-April. Brandon League likely will get the closer call. Aardsma had a rough start to the season last year, but from mid-June on he blew just one save in 20 opportunities with a 1.80 ERA and a .155 BAA. His season ended in mid-September with what was thought to be an injured oblique, now known to be a hip injury. Despite that, and an awful team around him that lost more than 100 games, Aardsma still converted 31 saves, seventh in the American League. As long as he's healthy and not traded mid-season to be a setup man, Aardsma likely will provide good fantasy value again this season.
Brandon League, RP - League had a bumpy season last year after coming to the Mariners in a trade for Brandon Morrow. League's 70 appearances far and away led the team, but he was good for an implosion every handful of outings. League saw his K/9IP rate drop to 6.4 from 2009's career high of 9.2. He also allowed nine of 26 inherited runners to score. With David Aardsma out with a hip injury until mid-April, League will have an opportunity to step in as the closer.
Garrett Olson, RP - Olson's future is only that of a middle reliever/spot starter, but he can be useful when he's not issuing free passes. Last season, he walked seven batters in his first 11 appearances (9.2 IP) after a June 1 callup from Triple-A Tacoma. After that, however, he issued only eight walks in his last 24 outings (28 IP). He also retired 11 of 14 inherited runners. He'll compete for a bullpen job in spring training. The Mariners don't have a lot of left-handed relief options, which helps Olson's case.
Shawn Kelley, RP - Kelley's a late-inning, right-handed reliever whose equally as tough on lefties as he is on righties. His season last year was cut short because of an elbow injury that eventually required surgery. In his first 17 appearances, he allowed five earned runs with 22 strikeouts and seven walks in 20 innings. Then the elbow acted up, and he allowed six earned runs with a 4:5 K:BB in his last five outings. Kelley, who features a mid-90s fastball and an outstanding slider, hopes to return in mid-summer. If healthy, he'll likely slot into a setup role again.
Miguel Olivo - Olivo followed his career year in 2009 with another productive season in 2010. He set career highs in batting average (.269), on-base percentage (.315) and walk rate (29.7 percent). At 31, he didn't find the fountain of youth but rather a .346 BABIP. Expect his numbers to regress as they did last season after the All-Star break (.193/.225/.313). Olivo signed a two-year contract with the Mariners in December, and the power numbers he put up at Coors Field (.556 SLG, 10 HR, 26 XBH) won't hold up at Safeco Field.
Justin Smoak, 1B - Smoak was the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee deal last season, heading to Seattle with the opportunity to be a middle-of-the-order power bat and first baseman for the foreseeable future. He struggled at times with Texas after his callup, and then the Mariners sent him to Triple-A after a .439 OPS in 16 games. He returned in mid-September and warmed up over the final 10 games with 15 hits, three doubles, three homers, nine RBI and seven walks. If he can carry that over to 2011, he'll be in fine shape. If not, he'll have plenty of time to figure things out as he has first base all to himself.
Brendan Ryan, 2B/SS - No one doubts Ryan's glove, which is one of the best in the league, but his hitting is certainly in question, and he never seemed in sync with manager Tony La Russa, either. It was better for all parties that Ryan was traded during the offseason to the Mariners. He hit a miserable .223/.279/.294 in 2010 but will get a fresh start as a utility infielder in Seattle with an opportunity to keep second base warm until top prospect Dustin Ackley is ready to move into the everyday role. Ryan will also handle the shortstop duties if the oft-injured Jack Wilson goes down again.
Chone Figgins, 3B - Figgins signed a big offseason contract with the Mariners last year and then endured perhaps his toughest year in the majors. Not only did he fail at the plate, but he struggled at second base, after moving from his previous primary position of third base. On top of that, a verbal fight with his manager in the dugout led to Don Wakamatsu's firing. Figgins hit a career-low .259 last season and tied a career high with 114 strikeouts. The strikeouts are offset by his 74 walks - though that number was down from his 101 walks the season prior - and while his contract rate remained unchanged from 2009, his BABIP dropped 41 points. Figgins improved in the second half last year, hitting .350/.402/.417 in September. All the while, he stole 42 bases, matching his previous year's output. Better luck at the plate and a clear head from returning to third base this year should help his game. He could be a cheap target for steals.
Ichiro Suzuki, RF - Suzuki produced routine Ichiro numbers last season, reaching 200 hits for an MLB-record 10th consecutive season and finishing fifth in the AL in stolen bases. The latter feat was especially heartening after he posted a career-low 26 stolen bases in 2009. Ichiro endured a 30-game summer slump (.236/.276/.268) but rebounded to hit .329/.361/.412 from Aug. 3 on. The slump depressed his final batting average, which probably depressed his owners who gauged his fantasy value with a high average in mind after he hit .352 in 2009. Ichiro is 37 this season but shows no signs of slowing - he led baseball in infield hits last season with 59, 20 more than the next closest player.
Michael Saunders, LF - Saunders was called up for good in May last season and spent the rest of the year trying to figure out major league pitching. A gimpy shoulder didn't help matters. He got hot briefly in mid-summer, but otherwise didn't prove much with his bat. He goes to spring training, though, as the team's left fielder in what could be a make-or-break year. Saunders' power is still developing, but he needs to be more selective at the plate (84 strikeouts in 289 at-bats). He'll be given every opportunity to win the left-field job for good, though the Mariners won't wait forever for his bat to come around.
Jack Cust, DH - Cust began last season in the minors, but was called up in early May and was a lineup regular the rest of the way. His decline appears to be in full-force, however, as he managed just 13 homers in 112 games (six of which came in a nine-game stretch on either side of the All-Star break), and his season was salvaged in part due to a .272 average. Getting out of Oakland would seem to mask some of the decline, but landing in Seattle as he did in the offseason as a free agent isn't the best spot either. He'll retain some marginal value in OBP-based leagues, but his declining power makes him a poor fit elsewhere.
Adam Moore, C - Just 228 at-bats into his career, Moore already appears at a crossroads. The organization was highly critical of his development last year, both behind the plate (seven passed balls in 59 games) and in the batter's box (.513 OPS) and signed Miguel Olivo in the offseason to be the starting catcher. What's more, Olivo signed a two-year deal (for $7 million), theoretically dooming Moore to the backup role and limited at-bats not just this year but next year, as well. But Moore needs consistent at-bats to develop, and the Mariners don't figure to toss aside their one-time "catcher of the future" so easily. If Olivo is merely motivation for Moore, well, there are cheaper ways to motivate.
Milton Bradley, PH/OF/DH - Bradley's 2010 wasn't necessarily the worst-case scenario for Seattle when it acquired the volatile, oft-injured, over-paid veteran. But it came close. Bradley missed two weeks in May with "stress-related issues," and then suffered season-ending knee surgery in July. When he did play, he managed only a .205 average and slugged just .348. This season, he'll relieve Jack Cust at DH and Michael Saunders in left field from time to time. Most often, though, he'll be a $12-million, switch-hitting pinch-hitter assuming he stays healthy and stress free.
Adam Kennedy, IF - Kennedy did nothing in his one season in Washington to make the team want a repeat performance, and he was duly cut loose. He signed with Seattle where he'll have a decent chance of making the final cut even though he hit just .249/.327/.327 in 342 at-bats last season - thanks to weak competition in an unsettled infield.
Josh Wilson, UTL - Wilson returns this season to man his utility-infield role. While his glove is dependable, his bat is anything but. Still, if/when Jack Wilson gets injured this season, Josh will have to contend with Brendan Ryan to take over at shortstop. Otherwise, he'll play around the infield diamond in a utility gig, though he'll have to beat out Adam Kennedy in spring training.
Ryan Langerhans, OF - The Mariners value Langerhans for his outstanding outfield glove. His severely impotent bat, however, keeps him from being anything more than a late-game defensive replacement. He signed a minor-league deal with the Mariners in December, and if he makes the roster in spring training, it will again be in a deep reserve role. He'll compete with Jody Gerut and Gabe Gross for the last bench spot.
Dustin Ackley, 2B - The No. 2 overall pick in 2009, Ackley will make his major league debut in 2011; the only question is when. The Mariners appear content to start Ackley in Triple-A this year to delay his service clock. A big spring could change that plan, however. After a just-decent season split between Double-A and Triple-A last year, Ackley dominated the Arizona Fall League, garnering MVP honors. He hit .424/.518/.758 with four homers and 10 doubles. He showed great plate discipline throughout the year with 75 walks to 79 strikeouts in 501 at-bats during the regular season and then 26 walks to 11 strikeouts in 66 AFL at-bats. Ackley's power is still developing and his defense needs work, which is why more minor-league seasoning might be a good idea. Expect him in Seattle by summer, though.
Nick Franklin - The 27th overall pick in the 2009 draft, Franklin looks to be Seattle's shortstop of the future. The switch-hitter drafted out of high school showed good speed (26 steals) and good defense last season at Low-A Clinton, but more impressive is that his power translated to pro ball as he hit a franchise-record 23 homers and 22 doubles. He could start the season at Double-A this year, but he needs to improve his plate discipline after posting a 50:123 BB:K in 513 at-bats last year. He's still a couple years away from Seattle, but Franklin is only 20 years old.
Alex Liddi, 3B - Liddi proved last season that the progress he showed in 2009 at High-A High Desert was not a California League statistical illusion. Liddi, who hit 72 extra-base hits in 2009, cracked 15 homers and 37 doubles with an .829 OPS at Double-A West Tennessee last year. He'll move up to Triple-A Tacoma this season, but his numbers could slide unless his plate discipline improves -- 145 strikeouts last season. Still, at 22, Liddi has time to develop. The Mariners added him to the 40-man roster in the offseason, and there's a chance he could find his way to Seattle at some point with his strong glove if a spot opens midseason, but there's no rush.
Mike Carp, 1B - Carp appears to be without a future in the Mariners organization after the club acquired first-base prospect Justin Smoak in the Cliff Lee deal last season. Smoak will start the season with the big-league club, leaving Carp to begin again at Triple-A Tacoma. Carp saw action in 14 games with Seattle last season but did a whole lot of nothing. At Tacoma, he belted 29 homers and 17 doubles. His season ended in late September with a partially torn muscle in his right foot, but he's expected to be healthy for spring training.
Greg Halman, OF - No one doubts Halman's power, which provided 33 homers and 21 doubles last season, but it is hard to project him as successful in the majors with a BB:K ratio that is otherworldly. Halman walked 37 times and struck out 169 times in 424 at-bats last season -- that's a strikeout every 2.5 at-bats. The last two seasons combined, he's drawn 66 walks and struck out 350 times. His tools are outstanding and no one will give up quickly, but unless he improves his strike-zone judgment and learns to hit off-speed pitches, there won't be a place for him at the major-league table. In 29 at-bats after a late-season callup with the Mariners last season, Halman had one extra-base hit, one walk and 11 strikeouts. He has the tools to be a 30-30 player (he managed to steal 15 bases for Triple-A Tacoma last year), but not until his strike-zone judgment improves.
Matt Tuiasosopo, 3B/UTL - Tuiasosopo is capable of filling in in an emergency, but he's not an everyday major leaguer or even an inspiring bench option. His glove is mediocre, his bat isn't a weapon and he doesn't run. Tuiasosopo got 127 at-bats in 50 games last season, including 33 starts, and hit .173 with a nine extra-base hits. The addition of infielder Brendan Ryan means Tuiasosopo's utility role will be gone when Dustin Ackley joins the team, and the Mariners have better qualified third-base candidates in the pipeline.
Matt Mangini, 3B - Mangini had a big year last season at Triple-A Tacoma with 53 extra-base hits and a .313 average. But the Mariners have plenty of third-base options, and Mangini's probably a year away from serious consideration. Improved defense will help his cause, though a position switch to the outfield might be useful, especially if the Mariners don't find an answer in left field.