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2012 Mariners Preview: Mariners 2012: Check Back Next Year, Again

Jason Thornbury

Jason Thornbury

Thornbury is a senior editor at RotoWire. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he has also worked in sports television and radio, including co-hosting RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM.

2012 Seattle Mariners Team Preview

Two roster-building strategies surfaced this offseason in Marinerville: 1) spend lavishly on a big bat, i.e., Prince Fielder; 2) spread the big-bat money around the diamond to modestly upgrade several positions. The Mariners went with door No. 3 -- keep the loot in the bank.

The team's one significant acquisition -- uber-prospect Jesus Montero -- not only cost an All-Star pitcher, but, more significantly, must overcome a demoralizing left field that makes Safeco Field, according to the latest Bill James Handbook, the most difficult ballpark in the American League for right-handed batters to hit for average and the second hardest in which to homer.

So add Montero to a long list of youngsters for whom the Mariners will keep their fingers crossed the next eight months -- Justin Smoak, Mike Carp, Casper Wells, Kyle Seager, Hector Noesi, Michael Saunders, Trayvon Robinson, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, etc. The Mariners used last season as a 162-game tryout for many of those prospects. Only Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda removed all doubt. And Pineda is gone. Thus, considering the team's non-attempt at fixing its historically deficient offense, 2012 likely will be the second round of tryouts.

Last year, we said check back in 2012. Wash, rinse, repeat. Check back next year, again; a notion the Mariners are sure to make their team motto any day now.

Offseason Moves:

Traded pitchers Michael Pineda and Jose Campos for catcher Jesus Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi.

Losing the All-Star Pineda is tough, but the trade makes sense for an organization stocked with pitching prospects and short on hitting prospects. Questions surround Montero's defense behind the plate, which likely will get him plenty of at-bats at DH this season. The biggest hurdle for the right-handed hitting Montero, though, likely will be Safeco Field, which is death on righties. Noesi doesn't show plus velocity, and has to rely on his control to succeed, but that could be enough to find success at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. Noesi likely will pitch as Seattle's fourth starter this season. Campos, 19, was one of the better prospects in the low minors for the Mariners. The 6-foot-4 right-hander likely will move to High-A ball for the Yankees this season.

Traded pitcher Josh Lueke for catcher John Jaso.

Jaso will split time with Miguel Olivo at catcher. The position probably won't be a strict platoon, but Jaso will see plenty of action as the polar opposite of Olivo -- the former has little power but gets on base at a good clip while the latter hit 19 homers last year but posted a .253 OBP. Jaso is also better behind the dish. Lueke has promise as a relief pitcher, but the Mariners have various middle-relief options.

Signed pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma to a one-year contract.

Iwakuma is considered to be Japan's best pitcher behind Yu Darvish. He missed two months last season in Japan with a shoulder ailment but finished the season healthy. When he's on his game, Iwakuma has proven capable of using his forkball to generate plenty of swinging strikes and groundballs against NPB competition. The key to his MLB success will be continuing to command his forkball with the slightly larger Major League baseball. Iwakuma doesn't have a great strikeout rate (just 6.8 K/9IP last season), but could provide quality innings as Seattle's No. 2 or 3 starter.

Signed pitcher George Sherrill to a one-year contract.

Lefty-killer Sherrill returns to Seattle as the left-handed setup man for closer Brandon League. Last season with Atlanta Sherrill posted a 32:1 K:BB vs. lefties. Should injury befall League, Sherrill could close too, though he's not nearly as tough on right-handed batters (his OPS against is 200 points higher vs. RHB than LHB).

Signed pitcher Shawn Camp to a one-year contract.

Camp likely will be the right-handed setup man. He had a tough year last season with Toronto, but the Mariners hope he'll find his form from 2009-10, while benefiting from a pitchers' park in Safeco Field.

Singed pitcher Hong-Chih Kuo to a one-year contract.

The Mariners hope they're getting the dominate reliever of 2010 not the washout of 201 who had significant health and performance issues. Kuo will be in the mix for the right-handed setup job, but he has a lot to prove in spring training.

Signed infielder Munenori Kawasaki to a minor-league contract with a spring training invite.

Kawasaki left Japan to play with his favorite player, Ichiro Suzuki. He's expected to win an infield utility job in spring training. Kawasaki hits for average and has speed (31 stolen bases last year).

Signed third baseman Carlos Guillen to a minor-league contract with a spring training invite.

The only way Guillen makes the team is if the Mariners decide in spring training that Kyle Seager is not ready for everyday third-base duty or if the Mariners jettison Chone Figgins. The latter doesn't appear likely. So, if Guillen has enough left in the tank, the Mariners could decide to send Seager back to Triple-A for more development, in which case Figgins will start at third with Guillen the backup.

Signed pitchers Kevin Millwood, Oliver Perez and Aaron Heilman to minor-league contracts with invites to spring training.

The fifth spot in the rotation is seemingly Millwood's to lose in spring training. He'd benefit from Safeco's anti-homer ways, and the Mariners could use a veteran type in the rotation until prospects Danny Hultzen and/or James Paxton are ready this summer. Perez is a fallback option if Millwood implodes. Heilman will compete for a bullpen job, though with both Camp and Kuo on major-league deals, he's a long shot.

Selected pitcher Lucas Luetge in the Rule 5 draft.

Luetge profiles as a lefty specialist. Left-handed batters hit .175 against him at Double-A Huntsville last season in the Brewers organization. As a Rule 5 pick, Luetge must stay on the major league roster all season or be offered back to Milwaukee.

Lost catcher Josh Bard, pitcher Jamey Wright, designated hitter Wily Mo Pena, infielder Adam Kennedy and pitcher Dan Cortes to free agency.

None will be especially missed.

Projected Lineup/Rotation:

Lineup (vs. RH/LH)

1. Dustin Ackley, 2B
2. Ichiro Suzuki, RF
3. Jesus Montero, DH
4. Mike Carp, LF
5. Justin Smoak, 1B
6. Kyle Seager, 3B
7. Franklin Gutierrez, CF
8. John Jaso/Miguel Olivo, C
9. Brendan Ryan, SS

Manager Eric Wedge seems committed to at least experimenting with moving Ichiro out of his customary leadoff spot, which then likely would go to Ackley whose on-base skills and ability to work the count profile well in the top spot. After that, the order is open to anyone's guess. The above lineup alternates lefties/righties for the most part, but, again, it's just a guess. Against left-handed pitchers it gets even more convoluted. There are any number of combinations that could be used and probably will be.

Rotation:

1. Felix Hernandez
2. Jason Vargas
3. Hisashi Iwakuma
4. Hector Noesi
5. Kevin Millwood/Blake Beavan/Charlie Furbush/Danny Hultzen/James Paxton

The fifth spot is where the spring training action will be this year. Michael Pineda wasn't expected to make the team out of spring last year, but he forced the Mariners' hand by blowing away the competition. The same could happen with Hultzen this year. If so, he's be every bit the fantasy pick that Pineda was at this point last season. The same goes for Paxton, though the Mariners probably won't want to start the season with two rookies in the rotation. Beavan and Furbush are the in-house fallback options, while Millwood is insurance in case everyone flames out. Noesi is not guaranteed a spot either if he struggles in spring training.

Closer: Brandon League

League took the closer reins last season from an injured David Aardsma and went on to finish third in the American League with 37 saves. He's back this year, only without the "interim" tag. George Sherrill is the left-handed setup man and has closer experience should League hit the injury shelf.

Notes of import, fantasy and otherwise

Will Ichiro bounce back?

The conventional wisdom is at age 37, Ichiro Suzuki lost a step. He didn't seem slower on the basepaths, though, where he stole 40 bags, the fifth highest total of his career, on an 85.1-percent success rate, his third highest mark. And while Ichiro's 36 infield hits were off his 2010 pace, they were still more than he legged out in 2003 and 2005 and nearly the same as he had in three other years. It would only be natural if he lost some speed, but he was also very unlucky last season. His BABIP checked in at a career-low .295, far off his career pace. Ichiro is 38 this year, but it wouldn't be shocking if, with a little more luck, he rebounded from last year's disappointing season to return to being a .300-plus hitter.

Who wins the left-field job?

Mike Carp got the early endorsement this offseason from manager Eric Wedge, but Casper Wells could end up claiming the job because of his superior defense. Wells hit six home runs in his first 15 games with the Mariners last season while batting .340. But then injuries surfaced and he had just three hits (one homer) in his last 15 games before his season ended to medical issues. Carp had the opposite run, struggling initially before heating up, though his .345 BABIP, .72 contact rate and 19:81 BB:K hint at underlying issues. As those two battle it out, don't expect Michael Saunders or Trayvon Robinson to factor into the equation, at least early in the season.

Who are Danny Hultzen and James Paxton?

Both are aiming to replicate what Michael Pineda did last year - earn a rotation spot with a huge spring training. Hultzen, the second-overall draft pick last year, has excellent command and features two plus pitches with his changeup and fastball, which sits in the 93-95 mph range, and also throws a slider. The 6-4 Paxton, who made his pro debut last season, has a strong fastball/curveball combination and is a groundball machine. The Mariners likely won't open the season with two rookies in the rotation, but both will see Seattle sometime in 2012. And both are the reason the Mariners felt comfortable parting with Pineda. Keep them on your radar.

Strengths:
Felix Hernandez. The Cy Young winner is the only sure thing on this Mariners roster.

Weaknesses:
Offense. The Mariners traded for a potential power bat in Jesus Montero, but otherwise did nothing to improve a roster that in back-to-back seasons has produced two of the four worst offenses in the last 30 years, as measured by OPS.

Rising:
Jesus Montero - Montero will get regular at-bats in Seattle, both at catcher and designated hitter. He has great bat speed and excellent strength and could develop into a 25-plus home-run threat and .300 hitter. The only sticking point is Safeco Field -- how much will it hurt the right-hander?

Falling:
Miguel Olivo - Olivo blasted 19 homers last season and, surprisingly, hit well at Safeco Field. His .253 OBP leaves much to be desired, though, and the Mariners brought in John Jaso, who should take plenty of at-bats from Olivo even if he doesn't platoon, which is likely. Montero also will get some run behind the plate, costing Olivo.

Sleeper:
Dustin Ackley - Ackley totaled 29 extra-base hits and 40 walks in 90 games last season, the latter mark ranking third among rookies despite the limited number of plate appearances. Second base is all his, and he might lead off this year too, which could mean more chances to run -- he stole six bags without being caught last season.

Supersleeper:
Danny Hultzen - Hultzen will be in Seattle at some point in 2012. The 6-2 lefty will get a shot in spring training, but the Mariners likely will want to A) delay his service clock and B) get him some professional experience. Hultzen signed late, so his only pro action came in the Arizona Fall League where he posted a 1.40 ERA in six starts with an 18:5 K:BB in 19.1 innings. The Mariners wouldn't have traded Michael Pineda if they weren't so high on Hultzen.

Top Prospects

Jesus Montero - Montero was the Yankees' top prospect, and after a highly successful late-season trial in New York, he was set to slot as the everyday DH and backup catcher in 2012. However, he was traded to Seattle and now will likely see everyday duty at DH and/or catcher. Montero has great bat speed and excellent strength and could develop into a 25-plus home-run threat and .300 hitter. Behind the plate, he continues to work on his defense, but he's still well below average and it remains to be seen if he will be a full-time catcher down the road. Montero may need to make some adjustments as he settles into full-time major league duty, but the raw power and hitting ability are for real, and he's one of the early favorites for the American League Rookie of the Year honors. His value increases exponentially as long as he plays enough behind the plate to continue to qualify at catcher.

Danny Hultzen - The second-overall pick in the 2011 draft, Hultzen was one of the top college pitchers in nation last year at Virginia. The 6-foot-2 left-hander has excellent command and features two plus pitches with his changeup and fastball, which sits in the 93-95 mph range, and also throws a slider. Hultzen signed late, so his only professional experience came in the Arizona Fall League where he posted a 1.40 ERA in six starts with an 18:5 K:BB in 19.1 innings. Nevertheless, Hultzen goes to spring training with a shot at making the big-league club. It would surprise if he earned a rotation spot this early, though scouts say he's already major-league ready. He'll likely get some minor league seasoning before getting the call this summer. Keep an eye on his progress as he makes for a nice sleeper.

Taijuan Walker - Named the organization's top prospect by Baseball Prospectus, Walker is a 6-foot-6 right-hander who could be about a year away from Seattle. The 19-year-old dominated at Low-A Clinton last season, striking out 113 in 96.2 innings with a 1.54 GO/AO and a .202 opponents' average. A 2010 supplemental pick out of high school, Walker was named the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Walker is just 19 and needs more seasoning, but he's not too far away. He could go to spring training in 2013 with a shot at a rotation spot. Keep an eye on his progress this season.

James Paxton - Paxton made his pro debut last season at Low-A Clinton and blew away the competition with 80 strikeouts in 56 innings. He then made a seamless transition from the Midwest League to Double-A Jackson in July, totaling 51 strikeouts in 39 innings with a 1.85 ERA. The 23-year-old lefty has a strong fastball/curveball combination and induces his share of groundballs, posting a 1.53 GO/AO last season. Paxton enters 2012 with a shot at the major league rotation in spring training. The Mariners likely will let him percolate at Triple-A Tacoma to at least start the year. Don't be surprised, though, if he's in Seattle by summer. Keep track of his progress and get ready to pounce, as the 6-foot-4 Paxton has tremendous upside.

Nick Franklin - Franklin's 2011 was derailed by a couple of fluke injuries. First he suffered a concussion when a teammate's backswing smacked him in batting practice. Then he had a nasty bout of food poisoning that caused him to drop 10 pounds. Franklin played in the Arizona Fall League to make for the at-bats he missed. After a huge 2010 at Low-A Clinton, Franklin didn't show as much power at either High-A High Desert or Double-A Jackson last season. He's still wearing the “shortstop of the future” label, but the position is much more crowded than it was a year ago for the Mariners and he has more to prove. If Franklin impresses this season, which likely will start at Double-A, a September callup could happen.

Francisco Martinez - Martinez was the big prize in last season's Doug Fister trade with Detroit. Martinez hit .310 after the trade at Double-A Jackson with an .807 OPS. Overall, he walked 23 times compared to 104 strikeouts as his plate discipline needs work. The third baseman was considered one of the Tigers' top prospects before the trade, though his power is still developing. It'll be at least a year before he's ready to contribute at the major league level. This is big year for him to make significant strides.

Vinnie Catricala - A 2009 10th-round pick out of Hawaii, Catricala was named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year last season. Catricala first gained notoriety at High-A High Desert where he showed a good batting eye with 33 walks to 45 strikeouts and posted a .996 OPS. After a mid-season promotion, he proved his production was no fluke of the hitter-friendly California League as he not only kept pace but outperformed his Cal League numbers with a 1.052 OPS at Double-A Jackson. His 48 doubles and 77 extra-base hits between both stops each ranked second in the minors last season. Catricala, who according to scouts has limited range and a weak arm, has yet to settle on a position after splitting time at third base, first base and outfield last season. Catricala should land a promotion to Triple-A this season with a possible September call-up if he keeps hitting.

Alex Liddi - Liddi earned a callup to Seattle last season and turned in a good showing with three homers and three doubles in 40 at-bats. Liddi has demonstrated that his power is legit, but his contact rate so far at the major league level is below-average. He totaled 17 strikeouts to three walks in those same 40 at-bats. The Mariners likely will have an opening at third base this spring, but until Liddi cuts the K's (he had 170 strikeouts in 138 games at Triple-A Tacoma last year), he'll be hard pressed to win the job.

Chance Ruffin - Ruffin was the "player to be named" in last season's Doug Fister trade with Tigers. The 2010 first-round pick is expected to have a bigger bullpen role this season after making 13 appearances for the Mariners last year, mostly in middle relief. In addition to a plus-curveball, Ruffin has excellent movement on his low-to-mid-90s fastball but would benefit from improved command within the zone. He could find himself in a setup role this season and at some point down the road it's conceivable he could work his way into the closer conversation.

Brad Miller - The ACC Player of the Year out of Clemson, Miller was the 62nd overall pick in the 2011 draft. He has superb plate discipline despite an unconventional stance. He does not project to hit for much power, though, and could end up moving from shortstop. He hit .415/.458/.528 in 14 games in his pro debut at Low-A Clinton last season.