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Mariners' Team Preview: Year of the DH

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.

2013 Seattle Mariners Team Preview

After whiffing on their biggest offseason pursuits (Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher, Justin Upton), the Mariners settled for consolation prizes - Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez, Mike Morse. That all three, in addition to Jesus Montero, are suited to the same role - DH - likely will require manager Eric Wedge to hire a Yoga instructor to find any flexibility in the lineup this season.

The Mariners certainly have more power than they've seen in recent years, and with the Safeco Field fences moving in, that could pay off. Enough to stay out of the AL West cellar? Maybe - but only thanks to the addition of the Astros to the division.

Perhaps the real hope is to show the league that Seattle is no longer a place where power goes to die. That in turn might help the Mariners actually land their big offseason pursuits next winter.

Of course, if the power surge doesn't manifest, there's always the San Francisco Giants' formula for winning in a pitchers' park. That seems to be working rather well.

Offseason Moves

Traded SP Jason Vargas to Anaheim for 1B/DH Kendrys Morales.

The Mariners wisely avoided giving the arbitration-eligible Vargas a long-term deal. And rather than risk a hiccup in 2013, they traded Vargas when he still had decent value. Morales goes to spring training as the starting designated hitter and likely will see significant at-bats at first base as well. He proved healthy last season after missing nearly two years with a broken leg and should help provide the Mariners lineup the muscle it's been missing for years.

Traded C John Jaso in a three-way deal to acquire Mike Morse from Washington.

Morse will start in left field and can back up first base if necessary. Even with the Safeco Field fences moving in, Morse's right-handed power likely will take a hit after he swatted 31 homers in 2011 and 18 in 102 games last season. His fielding also is a major downgrade to the Mariners outfield. Losing Jaso, Seattle's best hitter last season, hurts, though he only played 108 games last season in a backup role.

Traded OF Trayvon Robinson to Baltimore for IF Robert Andino.

Andino will be the main infield backup, capable of playing up the middle and third base. Robinson had no future in Seattle with his below-average contact rate and weak outfield arm.

Signed OF/DH Raul Ibanez to a one-year, $2.75 million contract.

The Mariners signed Ibanez for his "veteran leadership," apparently willing to compete with 24 players this year. It's not that Ibanez doesn't have life in his bat, but he is a bad fit on a team stocked with DH types. He'll manage to get some starts at designated hitter from time to time, but it's hard to see what else he'll do. And going from Citizens Bank Park and Yankee Stadium, where he played the last two seasons, it's highly doubtful he approaches the 20 and 19 home runs he hit in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

Signed SP Joe Saunders to a one-year, $7 million contract.

Saunders essentially replaces the traded Jason Vargas in the rotation. They are similar pitchers - low-strikeout, good control, soft-tossing lefties. The main difference is Vargas is a flyball pitcher while Saunders keeps the ball on the ground, which should play well at Safeco Field. On the other hand, Saunders has significant platoon splits and, last year at least, turns into a flyball pitcher against right-handers, which could make things interesting against a right-handed heavy lineup.

Signed C Kelly Shoppach to a one-year, $1.5 million deal.

Shoppach will back up Jesus Montero at catcher. Shoppach's time on the roster could be short, however, as the Mariners are expected to call up catching prospect Mike Zunino by mid-season.

Signed OF Jason Bay to a one-year, $1 million contract.

It's hard to see how Bay makes the team. With bench spots going to a backup catcher, backup infielder and Raul Ibanez, one spot remains for a backup outfielder. Fourth outfielders, though, are usually rostered more for their defensive skills than their bats. So even if Bay has a huge spring at the plate, it would surprise if he was picked over the much superior-fielding Casper Wells, who is out of options.

Signed SP Jon Garland to a minor-league contract.

The Mariners took a flier on Garland, who will find out in spring training if he has anything left after 2011 shoulder surgery that kept him out all last season. If he does, he could be a back-of-the-rotation starter.

Released IF/OF Chone Figgins.

It's hard to keep a job after hitting .181/.262/.271, but at least Figgins will receive what is probably the largest unemployment check in America - $8 million owed him by the Mariners for 2013.

Projected Lineup

1. Dustin Ackley, 2B
2. Kyle Seager, 3B
3. Jesus Montero, C
4. Kendrys Morales, DH
5. Mike Morse, LF
6. Justin Smoak, 1B
7. Michael Saunders, RF
8. Franklin Gutierrez, CF
9. Brendan Ryan, SS

The middle of the order could go any number of ways. The Mariners likely will prefer to hit Montero lower with Morales and Morse in the 3-4 spots. But the above order gives a L-R-L-R 2 through 5. While Morales switch hits, he's better against right-handers from the left side of the plate. Smoke apparently will play first base as long as he hits. If not, then Morales will take the position with Raul Ibanez at DH against right-handers. Against lefties, Montero could DH, but that presents a problem if backup Kelly Shoppach is injured behind the plate - the Mariners would lose the DH.

Projected Rotation

1. Felix Hernandez
2. Hisashi Iwakuma
3. Joe Saunders
4. Erasmo Ramirez
5. Blake Beavan/Hector Noesi/Danny Hultzen/Taijuan Walker

Saunders is a good fit for this rotation as a low-risk, low-cost left-hander who plays well at Safeco Field as a groundball pitcher. He's not nearly as good vs. righties, though. In previous years, Safeco would mask that handicap, but this year could be different with the new outfield configuration. Hernandez will compete for another Cy Young, while Iwakuma and Ramirez likely will be undervalued in fantasy drafts. Watch the spring competition for the fifth spot, which could also involve prospects Brandon Maurer and James Paxton. Don't be afraid to roll the dice on any of the rookie quartet. Ignore Beavan and Noesi.

Closer:
Tom Wilhelmsen used a high-90s fastball to help him post a 1.76 ERA as the closer last season with a .163 BAA. The Mariners have two fireballing right-handers to set up for Wilhelmsen in Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps. If either looks like he could thrive in the closer role, it could make Wilhelmsen a trade candidate. Otherwise, Wilhelmsen will return to ninth-inning duty in 2013.

Key Bullpen Members:
The aforementioned Pryor and Capps will hold down the right side of the mound with their twin 100-mph fastballs. Their left-handed counterparts are Lucas Luetge and Charlie Furbush, neither of whom has a big fastball. Luetge generates plenty of swinging strikes by deceptively changing speeds with a sweeping slider that keeps batters off balance. Furbush has good control (2.3 UBB/9) and strikes out more than 10.0 K/9 despite only pitching in the low 90s.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

How much will Safeco's redrawn outfield help the Mariners offense?

It can't hurt. The biggest impact likely will be for right-handed power as the left-center wall will be moved in 17 feet, while the height of the left-field fence is halved from 16 feet to eight. But Safeco has been the most difficult place for right-handers to hit home runs the last three seasons, so the impact of the new set-up for the likes of Jesus Montero and the newly acquired Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales likely won't be dramatic. A Baseball Prospectus study predicted an additional 22 home runs would be hit at Safeco Field this year. The Mariners' study put the number between 30 and 40.

What happened to Dustin Ackley last year?

Ackley's 2012 season was a huge bust. He struck out much more than expected, but what was really surprising was his regression in power. His ISO fell to .102 after he posted a .144 mark as a rookie, and in nearly 300 more at-bats than in his rookie season, he had just seven more extra-base hits. For the source of his troubles, the Mariners point to a bone spur in his left ankle that prevented him from pushing off his back foot. He had offseason surgery and should be 100 percent healthy for spring training. A healthy ankle - as well as a less spacious Safeco outfield - can only help. And strikeouts were never an issue in the minors, so it's not too much to expect him to right that problem as well. He should come cheap in most drafts.

Will any of the Big Three make the rotation out of spring training?

First, make it the Big Four. Brandon Maurer stole the spotlight from the "Big Three" at Double-A Jackson last year en route to Southern League Pitcher of the Year honors. Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi look like fallback options for the fifth spot in the rotation. If Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker or Maurer impresses this spring, the fifth spot is his. Walker is the better long-term prospect, which might make the organization cautious about promoting him to the bigs so early (age 20). Hultzen was the team's top pick in the 2011 draft out of college and has an edge over Paxton. Maurer, despite his accomplishments last year, probably has more to prove in the minors, namely health. Bet on Hultzen, but watch the situation closely in spring training.

Strengths

Bullpen. The M's bullpen looks to be in great shape with a dependable, hard-throwing closer in Tom Wilhelmsen and quality setup men from both sides of the mound. And Oliver Perez looks to have revived his career as the long man in the pen.

Weaknesses

On-base skills. The highest OBP from 2012 on the team belongs to Mike Morse with a whopping .321. That's a problem. The bench is also questionable with Raul Ibanez occupying a space to solely pinch hit (and for whom? Brendan Ryan?). An extra-inning game or injuries will be trouble with only one backup outfielder and one backup infielder.

Rising:
Michael Saunders entered spring last season with a ticket to Triple-A already punched, but two factors breathed new life into his fledgling major-league career. First, he went outside the organization and hired a private hitting instructor who helped him change his approach at the plate and hit the ball to all fields, both for average and power. Second, Franklin Gutierrez got injured, which opened a spot on the roster for Saunders. He made the most of the opportunity, falling one home run short of a 20/20 season all the while playing standout outfield defense. He improved his contact rate by nearly 10 percent from the previous year, though more improvement would be good to see and would help his mediocre batting average. He goes to spring training this year with an outfield spot secured, and with more playing time this season (139 games last year) perhaps 25/25 is realistic.

Declining:
Raul Ibanez. Too obvious? Sorry. Ibanez will be 41 in June, can't hit left-handers (all of his 19 homers last season came off righties), moves from a near-extreme hitters' park in New York to an extreme pitchers' park in Seattle, can't be relied on in the field and doesn't have an everyday position.

Sleeper:
Hisashi Iwakuma finally got his chance to join the rotation in July last year, when the Mariners jettisoned Hector Noesi, and he more than held his own. He has good control (2.65 BB/9) and a decent strikeout rate (7.39), posting a 2.65 ERA in 16 starts. While his season home/road split is stark, as a starter he fared much better (2.56/2.80 ERA, .243/.254 BAA), and as a groundball pitcher (65.4 percent) he shouldn't be impacted by Safeco Field's reconfiguration this season. In addition to his two-year, $14 million contract signed shortly after the season ended, Iwakuma enters spring training with a rotation spot locked up and looks like a good fantasy value this season.

Supersleeper:
Mike Zunino, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, goes to spring training with a shot at making the big-league club. Seattle signed Kelley Shoppach to back up Jesus Montero, but Zunino could force the issue with a big spring. More likely, he bides his time at Triple-A until Super Two status passes in mid-June before he's called up. Zunino still needs to polish his game behind the plate, but there's little doubt his bat is nearly ready.

Top Prospects

Mike Zunino, C - See above.

Taijuan Walker, P - Walker had an inconsistent 2012 campaign, not extremely surprising for a hurler at the Double-A level who only turned 20 in August. After dominating the first two months of the season, Walker struggled in summer and late in the year, finishing with a bloated ERA. The most curious part of his numbers was the massive decrease in groundballs induced. Despite those concerns, he was still hitting 98 mph late in the season, and the Mariners liked the development of his breaking pitches too. It's too optimistic to expect the 6-foot-6 right-hander to make the Seattle squad out of spring training, but he's an elite talent who could see the bigs by the end of this year.

Danny Hultzen, P - Hultzen's ascent to the majors did not go as quickly as most probably expected. The Mariners had no reason to push the 2012 second overall draft pick, though, and it turned out he needed a bit more seasoning than the conventional wisdom predicted. He mowed through Double-A Jackson with a 1.19 ERA and a 2.5 K/BB, but control issues cropped up when he arrived at Triple-A Tacoma after a midseason promotion - 43 walks in 48.2 innings. If he proves those walks were a fluke, he could land a rotation spot this spring as his mid-90s fastball allowed him to post a strong strikeout rate last season. Watch the situation closely in spring, and be ready to move if he lands a job because despite the Triple-A walks, his upside is still quite high.

James Paxton, P - Paxton's path to the majors was a bit steeper last year than perhaps first thought heading into spring training. A knee injury caused him missed time and problems early in the year. He struggled with control and saw his command within the strikezone lacking as well, unable to consistently hit his spots. Once he got healthy, though, he looked every bit the top-prospect pitcher most expected. In the second half, he posted a a 58:22 K:BB ratio over 11 starts with a 2.40 ERA at Double-A Jackson. Paxton overpowers batters with a mid-90s fastball, but it was the development of his curve and changeup last season that really impressed. He heads to spring training this season with a legitimate chance of making the big-league rotation. The Mariners, though, have other in-house options, which likely will leave Paxton at Triple-A waiting for his chance in Seattle.

Nick Franklin, P - After posting a strong .896 OPS in 57 games at Double-A Jackson to begin last season, the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League provided a new challenge for Franklin that likely will lead the Mariners to return him to Triple-A Tacoma for the start of 2013. Perhaps the most pressing issue for Franklin is that his contact rate dipped to 75 percent at Triple-A, six percent lower than his first-half results at Jackson. He improved into August and September, however, and then posted a .941 OPS in the Arizona Fall League. Just where he eventually fits with the Mariners remains to be seen. The knock on the "shortstop of the future" is his range, which is perhaps why the organization had him play more games at second base than short at Triple-A and in the AFL. In November, the Mariners traded for Robert Andino to provide backup infield duty, likely quashing any shot Franklin had at the Opening Day roster.

Brandon Maurer, P - Maurer stole the spotlight from the "Big Three" at Double-A Jackson last year en route to Southern League pitcher of the year honors. While high-profile prospects Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker grabbed the headlines, Maurer used four pitches, including a mid-90s fastball, to prove he is a legit prospect after some early-career arm troubles. The 6-foot-6 Maurer has good command and, perhaps most important, stayed healthy all year, throwing 137.2 innings. Whether Maurer is destined for mid-rotation status or a bullpen role largely depends on his ability to avoid the elbow and shoulder problems that plagued him in 2010 and 2011.