2013 Mariners Season Preview
As the Mariners are settling into spring training and gearing up for the 2013 season, I can’t help but get excited. Of course, I say this every year, but there are a lot of new faces suiting up for the Mariners and with arguably the best farm system in the MLB it’s easy to get a little optimistic about the M’s future. Will we win the West and make a deep post-season run? No, probably not. But with guys like Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, and Mike Zunino flying through our farm system and most likely getting ready to see big league action this season, I’m already beginning to get a little giddy. Over my next few posts, I’m going to breakdown the Mariners roster on both sides of the ball. Today it’s all about the “offense.” (I put quotations around “offense” because I’m not so sure that hitting .234 as a team last year qualifies us as having an “offense”)
I’d like to start with a bold statement, because I’m a bold guy. 2013 marks the first season in 13 years that Ichiro will not be in a Seattle uniform…good! Don’t get me wrong, Ichiro did a countless amount of great things for this team during his tenure with Seattle. But if you have a pulse and have watched any Mariners games in the last 3 or 4 years, you know that it was well beyond time to trade Ichiro. Not only did we free up some money and a spot on the roster for young talent to come in, but we got rid of what I believe was a cancer in the clubhouse. I just never really saw Ichiro show any sign of him wanting to be a part of the team, whether be it learning how to speak English after 12 years of playing for us or just seeming like he wanted to ever help the younger guys out with something and be a leader in the clubhouse. It appeared as if he just wanted to do his own thing and I’m glad we no longer have to deal with that.
Alright, now that we got that out of the way, here are my thoughts on our offense and what needs to happen for this team to be successful.
Starting off 2013 we will have Jesus Montero behind the dish. Don’t get used to seeing this Seattle fans. Montero is very young and swings a decent bat, but the guy is just not cutting it defensively. And that’s okay. Montero can handle the job until our first round draft pick Mike Zunino is ready to be our full time catcher. I can’t speak highly enough of this kid and cannot wait to see him become our everyday guy behind the plate! Montero’s offensive production is barely good enough to keep him around and with his young age there is a lot of potential for more “Montero-Mashes” in Seattle but if he is going to want to stick around and play on a daily basis once Zunino is called up (which could be by the All-Star break, if not sooner) then he will have to work on being a 1B or DH.
This position really has been IMO the biggest reason for Seattle’s lack of success over the past several years. The Mariners have put a ridiculous amount of hope in Justin Smoak and this HAS to be the season where they decide what they will do with him. Last year, Smoak was sent down to AAA and showed some significant improvement when he returned to the bigs. This made things that much more difficult heading into the offseason. As a guy who is fed up with Smoak getting third and fourth chances to perform at 1B, I was pretty disappointed he found his swing at the end of last season because now it makes it hard to decide where to go from here. The Mariners brought in Kendrys Morales in the Jason Vargas trade with Anaheim and have also expressed interest in having Jesus Montero become a first baseman once catcher Mike Zunino is behind the dish full-time. I suppose only time will tell, and the player with the best bat on opening day will get the majority of the starts at 1B. I can only assume Eric Wedge will take a strategy from fellow Seattle coach Pete Carroll and have it be an open competition circa 2012 Seahawks training camp (Anyone remember when a 5’10, 3rd round draft pick beat out our big free agent QB for the starting spot!?)
With a team being in such a continuous rebuilding stage such as the Mariners, we as sports writers get a bit of a break because most positions are similar in the sense that there isn’t anyone who’s spot in the lineup is set in stone. My thoughts on second base are very similar to my thoughts on first base (and short stop, and catcher, and third base…see a pattern here?) The preview for the Mariners fate at second base is simple: Dustin Ackley needs to step up. Ackley looked good when he got called up midway through the 2011 season but his production took quite a decline in his first full season with the M’s last year where he only batted .226 with 12 homeruns and 50 RBI. I will definitely give Ackley a little more slack than I have given Smoak, but I just have a feeling that with the direction Wedge and Jack Zduriencik are taking the Mariners, Ackley will be on a short leash and has to prove that he belongs as the Mariners second baseman. I sure hope he does bounce back from his sophomore slump last year, because I think the potential is definitely there for Dustin to be an everyday second baseman and maybe be our leadoff hitter on a daily basis.
I think this is the toughest position to write about for the Mariners. Brendan Ryan is arguably the best defensive shortstop in the MLB. But last season he struggled very much to even bat his weight. What do you do with a guy who is a gold glove candidate every single year, yet he barely gets on base 2 out of 10 at-bats? Well, Ryan’s case is similar to Ackley and Smoak in that he will be on a short leash, but his might be the shortest of anyone on this roster. With the Mariners abysmal team batting average last year, it seems Ryan might have even slipped through the cracks and went unnoticed. But with Seattle bringing in some bats this season, that average should climb and anyone hitting under the Mendoza line will be exploited. If Brendan happened to be the worst hitter in a lineup full of guys that are producing, I think his defense alone would convince people to keep him around. But with the other 8 guys in the lineup unable to get on base, Ryan looks like just another struggling player whose time in Seattle could be cut off pretty soon. I’m looking forward to seeing how top SS prospect Nick Franklin does this spring and throughout the minors because if he lives up to the hype, and Ryan continues to struggle at the plate, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the Nick Franklin era begin right around the all-star break.
To me, this position is less of a problem-position than the rest of the infield. Kyle Seager stood out last year in a struggling lineup, hitting .259 with 20 HR and 86 RBI. By no means is that all-star quality, but as a diehard M’s fan, I will take it! He can handle the hot corner on the defensive side as well. I also really liked Alex Liddi in what little plate appearances we saw from him last year so I think the Mariners are in pretty solid shape at third base. Like I continue to say, if the rest of the lineup steps up and produces, Kyle Seager will be just fine, even if he has the same stats as 2012.
I believe that the outfield will carry the Mariners on offense in 2013. Management took a big step forward by bringing back the self-proclaimed “Beast” Mike Morse. Why they let him go is beyond me…but seemed to be a theme with the previous GM (i.e. Adam Jones, Shin Soo Choo). Seattle also went out and took a risk on OF Jason Bay when it seems no one else would. Up until last Friday, I thought signing Bay was the most typical “Mariners Move” they could do, sign a 34 year old veteran who has hit a combined 26 HR in his previous 3 seasons with the Mets. It looked like we just wanted to embrace being the laughing-stock of the MLB. Then Bay stepped up and hit a bomb in his first AB as a Mariner this spring. Granted, it is only spring training, but who knows, maybe he can turn it around and have one last decent stint in his major league career. Jack Z also went and brought back the 40 year old Raul Ibanez who showed he can still swing the bat last season with the Yankees. I viewed this as less of a “Classic Mariners Move” because I’m not so sure they brought Raul in specifically for his bat but more for the fact that he is very comfortable with Safeco Field and can be a great leader in the clubhouse for some of the younger guys.
Returning for Seattle in 2013 are Franklin Gutierrez, Eric Thames, Casper Wells, Michael Saunders, and Carlos Peguero. These guys really excite me and with the addition of Morse, Ibanez and Bay it looks like it will be a competition for those 3 outfield spots. We all know what Guti brings to the table, if he is healthy. And that is a BIG “if.” He manages to have the worst luck in the MLB when it comes to injuries, but if he stays healthy, he is an automatic Gold-Glove candidate with good speed and a decent bat. Saunders had a good-not-great 2012 season, hitting .247 with 19 HR and 57 RBI. I liked what I saw from Saunders with his glove and am looking forward to how he plays this season. Eric Thames was acquired near the trade deadline last season from Toronto and I loved every bit of his play. His stats won’t jump out to anyone, but if you got a chance to see him play, maybe you know what I’m talking about regarding his potential. He has good speed and his arms look like they are about to bust out of his sleeves. When Thames connects with a ball, it’s going to go a long way…it’s just science. Wells and Peguero will both be fighting to make the 25 man roster coming out of spring training and will probably see some a amount of innings with AAA Tacoma. That’s okay with me because it shows that we have a great amount of depth in the outfield and won’t be in any serious trouble if someone goes down with an injury (knock on wood Guti!) Ideally, I’d love to see Morse in left, Guti in center, and Saunders in right with Bay giving Morse a break in left and Thames relieving Saunders or Gutierrez. This allows Ibanez to be a last resort in the outfield and rest his old bones so he can be a pinch-hitting specialist and a part-time DH.
It is no surprise to anyone who follows sports that the Seattle Mariners have fallen in love with Felix Hernandez and both sides wish to finish what they started. Felix was inked to a 7 year, $175 million contract deal which makes him pretty much a Mariner for life. Barring any injuries (knock on wood Guti!) the King will be our opening day starter for each of those 7 years. Not much else needs to be said for King Felix because he is always going to be in a conversation with a small handful of guys for the title of “Best Pitcher in Baseball.” But unfortunately, Felix cannot pitch every day of the week. So what about the other 5 guys?
I want to start with the top prospects that we have in our farm system. Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker are ranked very high among all MLB scouts as 2 of the most impressive pitchers in the minor leagues and this should be very exciting for Mariners fans. How awesome can these guys make our rotation filling in behind Felix!? There is a slim chance that one or both of these guys make the opening day roster as management wants to take their time with them and not rush the process so we can protect their arms but I’d be pretty surprised if neither of them see action by August or so. How impressive can they be? Well veteran Mike Morse said recently in an interview that Walker blew several fastballs around 97 MPH by him in practice and was so shocked when he found out he was “19 or something.” I can’t wait to see how that velocity transfers over when he gets the call-up!
Hisashi Iwakuma proved in 2012 that he is more than capable of being a major league starting pitcher. Run support from the offense was scarce last year, so any pitcher that finished with a record above .500 deserves a pat on the back. Iwakuma finished 9-5 with a 3.16 ERA in just 16 starts in the 2nd half of the season. With additions to the offense, look for him to get a little better run-support and turn some of those no-decisions into W’s. Blake Beaven and Hector Noesi both struggled last year, with Beaven having more success but still finishing with an 11-11 record and an ERA over 4.00 and will be fighting for a spot in the rotation this spring. I’d be pretty shocked if Noesi makes the big league roster, but Blake could have a solid spring showing and still earn a spot as a 5th starter.
The M’s signed old veteran Jon Garland to a minor league deal this offseason. I actually liked this “Classic Mariner Move” because there is a decent reward and very little risk by signing him to a minor league deal. It is my belief that Jack Z brought Garland in as a hope that he could perhaps be the 2013 version of Kevin Millwood who had a great year in 2012 for his age. Garland is injury-prone and didn’t pitch much last year but had a solid 2011 season with the Padres so it will be interesting to see how his spring goes and if he can earn a spot in the rotation.
I feel like I’m slacking here because I don’t have much to say on the other 2 guys that could fill out our rotation, Joe Saunders and Brandon Maurer. Saunders at least has a record to judge whereas Maurer is just a rookie. Saunders went 9-13 with a 4.07 ERA in 2012 which is hardly adequate, and with a $7 million deal, I sure hope management knows something I don’t because that doesn’t exactly jump out as a striking deal. I don’t really know anything about Maurer other than he struggled early on in his minor league career but figured things out over the last season or two and is regarded to be the guy that turns makes the “Big 3” of Hultzen, Walker, and James Paxton the “Big 4.”
I’m not sure if I’m the only one out there or not, but I was pretty pleased with the Mariners bullpen last season. We have a solid core of young pitchers who mesh well and do a great job of setting up Tom “The Bartender” Wilhelmsen who had a great 2012 as his first season as a full-time closer. Lucas Luetge led the way with 12 holds and Charlie Furbush proved he as a little more to offer other than the best name in the MLB with his 53 strikeouts in 46 innings. Throw the big guys Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor into the mix with their mid-to-high 90’s fastballs and our bullpen should be in great shape to hold their opponents and set up The Bartender for closing time over and over.
Check back on SeattleSportsCentral.com for updates throughout spring training as we get closer to opening day and get a better handle on who’s performing and fighting for a spot on that 25 man roster as well as how the Seahawks are gearing up for the NFL draft in April.