Saturday, December 23, 2006

Looking Ahead: Seattle Mariners

2006 W-L Record: 78-84
2006 pW-pL Record: 78-84
Runs Scored: 756 (13th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 792 (9th in AL)

Free Agents: Carl Everett, Gil Meche, Eduardo Perez, Joel Pineiro

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Richie Sexson
2B -- Jose Lopez
SS -- Yuniesky Betancourt
3B -- Adrian Beltre
LF -- Raul Ibanez
CF -- Ichiro Suzuki
RF -- Jose Guillen
C -- Kenji Johjima
DH -- Jose Vidro?

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Felix Hernandez
Miguel Batista
Jarrod Washburn
Horacio Ramirez
Jake Woods?

2007 Proj. Closer: J.J. Putz

Well, it's no secret that the Mariners need some work. They especially need someone to goose their offense or something; even considering their park, they aren't scoring runs and don't look to be scoring many more in the near future. Compound that with a front office who's made a name for itself this offseason by making really bad trades, and I don't think there's any reasonable way to see the M's as contenders in 2007.
It's always tough to recover from a 99-loss season, but it's even tougher when Plan A pretty much turns out to be a failure. The M's tried to aggressively improve their team by paying out big money to Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre. With those two in the lineup, the Mariners managed to score exactly 1 run more in 2005 than they did in '04. The improvement to a 69-93 record was due mainly to the relative improvement in the pitching staff.
But we'll get to that later. The M's are stuck with the Beltre and Sexson contracts, although neither look quite as bad as they did at the time. Seattle made the same mistake many teams are making, in that they were paying a player to match their peak performance on a yearly basis. That just doesn't happen. And while Beltre and Sexson are both good enough, neither one has been enough to lift the Seattle lineup out of the doldrums. This is an object lesson for teams looking to improve a really bad team through one or two big splashy signings.
In between these decent but expensive corner infielders, the M's are playing a punchless pair of glovemen. Yuniesky Betancourt, the shortstop, had the reputation as a good-glove/no-hit type and pretty much lived up to the hype (289/310/403). Even worse, Betancourt's glove wasn't as good as expected. FRAA rates him at an ugly -13 FRAA. Other metrics aren't as negative; his 5.4 fielding Win Shares were 6th in the AL. Either way, it's pretty clear that young Betancourt has to carry a Gold Glove if he wants to keep the starting job.
Jose Lopez has more promise with the bat than Betancourt, although it should be noted that he's never really produced at the major league level (career 265/300/392) and has never been able to bring his bat with him from Tacoma. He's still young yet, so the M's shouldn't be in any hurry to get rid of him.
Unfortunately, his defense may force the issue. Lopez has never been great with the glove, but his -18 FRAA in 2006 made him an utter liability. And unlike Betancourt, this may not be a mirage; Lopez doesn't have Betancourt's pedigree with the glove, and the other defensive metrics seem to support the idea that he's not that good (his 2.8 defensive Win Shares rank 11th among AL second basemen). Lopez is the kind of guy who would be tolerable if you were getting your production elsewhere, but he could get pushed by the middle-infield prospects in the system, especially if the team can't get a good upgrade anywhere else in the infield.
The outfield situation is a lot less depressing, but still troublesome. The only sure thing is Ichiro. Ichiro was most closer to form in 2006, hitting 322/370/416 with such strong defense that he was shifted to center field to replace Jeremy Reed, another disappointing prospect (doesn't that sound familiar?). I'm not really sure how the shift to center will affect Ichiro's defense, but it will make his offense more valuable. And besides, this team has a whole lot to worry about besides Ichiro -- well, except for his impending free agency (after 2007).
We're likely to see Raul Ibanez manning left field, which isn't phenomenal news, but it's good for this team. Ibanez is still productive (289/353/516) and reasonably priced, at that. The M's could use a few more of those.
In right field, the M's took a gamble and acquired Jose Guillen. Guillen has often been compared this offseason to Carl Everett, the team's abortive DH solution from last year. But I'm more optimistic about him than some. He does have the attitude, yes, but he's also younger than he seems (31 next year) and still has the chance to be productive. His 2006 was a loss, yes, but he hit well in cavernous RFK Stadium in 2005 (283/338/479). And even if some of that is lost in translation, the M's are only committing $5.5 million to him, with a mutual option for 2008. So even if Guillen fails, the M's won't be in too much trouble; they can shift Ichiro back and go with Reed in center or promote Jones from the minors.
The other productive/cost-effective player in the lineup is catcher Kenji Johjima. Johjima profiled as an above-average hitter, and that turned out to be accurate (291/332/451). Concerns about his defense were apparently ill-considered. The ascension of catching prospect Jeff Clement could create some conflict here, but having too many catchers is a good problem, and the M's haven't had too many of those lately.
The M's were looking for an upgrade to DH Ben Broussard. But somewhere along the line . . . I don't know, I guess the "up" part was lost in translation, and the Mariners eventually made a strong downgrade by trading away relatively valauble prospects Chris Snelling and Emiliano Fruto for Washington's Jose Vidro.
I spoke about the Vidro trade recently, so you can visit the link to get my reaction. Suffice to say, the Mariners don't need to be paying old guys to clog up a lineup that's already proven to be pretty inadequate.

And that's about it. The Mariners had the second-worst offense in the AL last year, and I can't find any evidence that they're about to improve by any significant amount. They've already got plenty of money committed to Ichiro, Beltre, and Sexson. They've got some productive guys that are relatively cheap, such as Johjima and Ibanez. And they've got some unproductive guys who are relatively cheap (Vidro). Most of their young hitters are either a year or two away from making a big impact or have such a low ceiling that it's not worth getting too excited.
Example: Baseball America recently rated the Top 10 Prospects in the Seattle system. Most of them are pitchers, and most of them are in the low minors.
The only real hopes for 2007 are #1 Adam Jones and #2 Jeff Clement. Both have made it to the major leagues, but both appear as though they need more minor league seasoning. Jones could easily come up if Jose Guillen explodes, but with the acquisition of Kenji Johjima, there's no pressing need for Clement, a catcher.
For a franchise in such desperate straits, you need better production from your farm system, so that there is no pressing need to spend money on free agents. But the M's farm system has fallen on hard times in recent years, with the long line of injured pitching prospects especially ugly. There's not a lot of help coming up from below, and there's not a lot of help available from the free agent market. Unless the Mariners get really lucky in one of those two areas, they're not going to threaten the Angels or Athletics anytime soon.

It would be nice if I could turn around and make glowing comments about the Mariners' pitching staff. After all, neither Oakland nor the Angels are a whole lot better offensively; they may have much better upside, but the A's only outscored Seattle by 15 runs last year; the Angels by only 10.
But while both of those teams have a fine pitching staff to back them up, the Mariners have squat. There is some room for optimism, and it's very possible that they can improve over 2006. But there's just not enough here to compensate for the lineup.
The M's should be able to count on better production from ace Felix Hernandez. We all got a bit ahead of ourselves with the whole "King Felix" coronation and forgot that it's not that easy with a 20-year-old kid. But the good news is that Felix's peripherals were still strong in '06. His 4.52 ERA just doesn't jibe with his 60:176 BB:K ratio and 23 HR allowed in 191 IP. Felix Hernandez circa 2005 is still there, but we're going to have be a bit more patient before engraving his Cooperstown plaque.
The M's did make one move this offseason that should somewhat help the team. They overpaid to get Miguel Batista, but never the less, they're getting a pretty reliable LAIM. His BB:K ratio is troubling, but then it's always been that way. Seattle shouldn't expect a strong #2 in Batista, but if they're just hoping for a solid innings-eater at the back of the rotation, then they've got their man.
The trouble is that there are no good arms to support King Felix. Batista is a slightly overpaid LAIM, and Jarrod Washburn is an even more-overpaid one (2006: 4.67 ERA, 55:103 BB:K). Both men are capable of a surprise year where they pitch like a #2, but that's wishcasting; the more realistic scenario sees them both as supporting actors.
The M's don't have a lot to back these guys up. The most likely candidates are Horacio Ramirez (acquired in another bad trade), Jake Woods, Cha-Seung Baek, and Ryan Feierabend. None of them have much breakout potential, leaving the M's in bad shape if their 1-2-3 starters don't work like clockwork.
It should be noted that the M's have been rumored to be in the Barry Zito hunt. It doesn't seem likely that Zito will land in Seattle, which is probably best for the M's. They don't need to pay any more superstar salaries to non-superstars. If they were right on the cusp of contending, maybe; but they sure as hell aren't.

The bullpen was seriously weakened by the loss of Rafael Soriano (for Horacio f'n Ramirez?!), but the M's do still have J.J. Putz to close. Putz seems a lot younger than he really is. He'll be 30 years old next year despite only pitching three full seasons in the majors. But they were good seasons. His 2006 campaign established him as one of the best closers in the league. Putz managed a 13:104 BB:K ratio and a 2.30 ERA, saving 36 games for the M's. Both the ERA and the K rate are way out of line with his previous major league production. Putz certainly has the stuff of a dominant closer, but we should be suspicious that his 2006 results were such an aberration.
Soriano would have been a great setup man/insurance policy, but apparently the Mariners decided they'd rather have a bad starter with a history of injuries. And now that Soriano's gone, there aren't many sure things in the Seattle 'pen. Young Mark Lowe had a good debut in the majors last season and should have a bigger role in '07. Young Jon Huber seems to have taken well to his conversion to relief, and while he doesn't have a high ceiling, he could be useful. Julio "Mr. Flyball" Mateo will return in '07, as will George Sherrill and Jake Woods (if he's not a starter). This isn't a bad group of guys, but neither is it in any way intimidating.

The addition of Washburn and now Batista to the pitching staff has added a lot of salary without adding a whole lot of upside. Both pitchers would be great guys to supplement a good group of young starters, but they're miscast as #2 guys, and they're especially overpaid for a team with little hope of making the postseason. Add to that the loss of prospects in Mr. Bavasi's December to Dismember trades, and you've got to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find much optimism for this pitching staff, or this franchise, for that matter.

Offseason Game Plan:
Well, since the offseason is mostly over, it's too late for me to tell Bill Bavasi to exercise caution. That bus has left the depot.
I would have encouraged the Mariners to explore trading away players like Sexson or even Washburn if they felt they could get a good return in prospects. Instead the Mariners are getting rid of the few prospects they have to make a completely unrealistic run for the 2007 postseason. This smacks of a desperate man afraid to lose his job. And in fact, I wouldn't expect Bavasi to finish the season as the team GM, unless lightning strikes or they find a faith healer who specializes in pitching arms.

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