Let me get this out of the way, so there's no confusion: I'm genuinely excited to see the 2010 M's at the Safe this year. After seeing the team up close and personal in my first-ever Cactus League visit, there was a cool buzz around the players and an upbeat vibe coming from the fans.
Heck, even baseball pundits are raving about their rotation and potential to be a contending team.
Um, yeah. I don't get it. Do they see the same team I do?
I know what you're thinking: Here comes Mr. Gloomy Gus.
No, no! I'm excited to see the M's, all right, but the expectations on this team to contend are out of proportion to the one that's going to take the field.
Every team comes with ifs this time of year, of course, but the M's have quite a few—and a lot more than the average Mariners fan is willing to admit, I'm afraid. Given that, and that everyone is ready to hand Jack Z. the keys to the city for the moves he made over the winter, I think an honest assessment is in order.
The good thing is that Jack Z has set the M's up to win even if they fail. So that's a very, very good thing for the future. If the M's falter to before the break, they'll get great prospects/players for Lee and deepen the franchise's talent pool in the minors—something former shit-for-brains GM Bill Bavasi managed to fuck up beyond reproach.
Let's look at the key areas where the iffy issues arise.
Remember "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain"? Well, nothing weather related rhymes with Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee, and The Safe has a retractable roof, but the concept holds: The M's have suspect and inconsistent starters after these two.
The 3, 4 and 5 starters are going to have to chew up some innings to keep the 'pen from getting worn down. If Ryan Rowland-Smith and Ian Snell can post .500 records or just below, and keep the ERA in the low-to-mid 4s, then this team will compete. But I don't see it. Rowland-Smith is a serviceable #4 starter, but his stuff isn't dazzling and he wears down after 5 innings. Snell has a great arm, and all kinds of talent. If he can get his head straight and apply himself while coming off an injury, then he's a semi-breakout candidate. That's a big if, though.
After that, and like most teams, the struggle is to find a starter from the pool of Justin Vargas, Doug Fister (love the last name, not the game), Luke French (pitching like a Frenchmen this spring, all right—Jacques Pepin, to be precise) and Oriole-castoff Garrett Olson. And waiting in the wings is the oft-broken Eric Bedard (commonly referred to around these parts as Erica), who might back in June after he recovers from shoulder surgery.
This is not good news. The argument goes that this team is built around speed and defense. Being that, the pitching must play a significant role in keeping the score close. These back-end starters will keep the bullpen busy, likely too busy. This will put additional pressure on Felix and Lee to go deep into their games just to give the 'pen some rest. If those two can do that (and that's now an even bigger if now with Lee starting the season on the DL), then the wear and tear on the 'pen is slightly mitigated.
The Key Trio:
First base, third base and left field are the traditional power positions in baseball. At the very minimum, teams want 70 HRs from these 3 positions. Projecting Milton Bradley in LF, Chone Figgins at 3B and Casey Kotchman at 1b, and using their career highs in HR, they'll produce just 44, if we're lucky. Ouch. Not good.
True, the HR isn't the end all be all stat. So, if we have rabbits like Ichiro or Figgins on base, or both, and with The Safe's spacious and deep power alleys, then what the M's need are hitters with gap power. Kotchman and Bradley have that kind of power. Trouble is, both of them have only surpassed 30+ doubles in a season three times between the two of them. The rest of the time, both averaged under 25 two baggers during their careers, and there's nothing to suggest these two will produce bigger numbers. If they do, the lack of HR power is less of a concern.
One of the key pieces of the offense is Franklin Gutierrez. If Gutierrez, at the breakout age of 27, can produce a season along the lines of .298/25HR/93RBI/302B/20SB, then this minimizes the lack of power. However, if Gutierrez's numbers are on par with last year's (as fine as they were), the offensive production will be slightly worse than last year. Yes, worse.
This team produced just 640 runs while giving up 692. Without Russell Branyan's 31 HRs, and given Kotchman's career high of 14, that's already 17 runs less—at least. Figgins will be lucky to hit 6 HR. Bradley might be able to make up for that loss, if he can't keep his head straight and stay healthy. (The Mother of All Ifs.) So, the onus is on Guti to show some pop. If he can do that, then they'll repeat 640, which, honestly, ain't that great if you're spotting all your opponents at least 52 runs over the '10 season like they did in '09.
This is why I was disappointed with the M's failing to sign Jason Bay. Putting up numbers around .280/34/110, Bay would have put huge pressure on opposing pitchers to keep Ichiro and Figgins off base. Now, without that legit 3-hole power threat, not nearly as much.
To me, the additions of Bradley, Byrnes and Mike Sweeney, is like taking a handful of darts, putting on a blindfold, being spun around and then chucking them at a wall. Bay was a near bull's eye. We won't rue the day or anything, but it sure would've been nice to have Bay's bat in the 3-hole. But I digress....
I really, really like what's been done here. Bullpens are like offensive lines in football—thankless, unheralded but absolutely essential for winning games and contending. The addition of Brandon League is very solid as a 6th and 7th inning reliever. I really like Mark Lowe and David Aardsma to close games. They can both deal heat with great movement. I urge caution in thinking Aardsma can produce like he did in '09 because he's never had that kind of success before, but let's call him good with 35 saves. If not, there's Mark Lowe to close. And Kanekoa Texeiria is having an excellent spring. If he continues as he has, then the 'pen is one of the best in the AL.
I'm less enthused by Sean White, Shawn Kelley, Jesus Colome and Chad Cordero. If 2 of these 4 can have solid years, then I'm more optimistic. For now, I'm less so, and I won't be disappointed if they disappoint.
Again, I caution that the back end of the starting rotation will potentially cause each of these middle relievers to be in 45 games+ each. That's too many, and it doesn't bode well for keeping games close.
Why do people in Seattle hate on Jose Lopez? Because he lacks range on defense? Who cares. He plays 2B. Oh wait, the M's are shifting him to 3B. Hmm, okay, maybe I do care a bit more. Sort of. I'm no sabermatician, nor do I care to be one, but dollars to doughnuts says Lopey wins more games with his bat than he loses with his glove.
He's the Mariners only near-guaranteed threat to hit 20, and possibly 25+HRs. However, Lopez has a glaring weaknesses at the plate: an utter lack discipline, best displayed by just 24 BB in 653 plate appearances. That's horrific. (Which didn't scare me from drafting him because I'm an idiot.) But aside from Ichiro, he's the M's best and most dangerous hitter.
Yet the Mariners and their fans would like to see him go in a trade. Trade a power-hitting, 26-year old second baseman? Sorry, I don't get it.
If Lopey hits in the three hole, and he's not too distracted by his new duties at 3B and starts off quick, he'll be key in keeping the M's a contender before the July deadline.
As for the rest of 'em....:
Junior: Oh please, only overly sentimental Mariner ideologues thought he should come back. He'll be lucky to hit .210 with 13 HRs.
Eric Byrnes: If he can come close to producing like his '07 season, it'll be the happy end of Milton Bradley.
Ryan Garko: If he can hit lefties while coming off the bench, he'll be a valuable asset. Just don't count on it. The one-time blue chipper has underachieved throughout his career.
Matt Tuisasosopo: Very intriguing to see if he'll make the club, which is looking better and better each day. Tremendous potential. If Bradley or Byrnes fails to produce, the M's could shift Figgins to left, put Lopez back at 2B and start Tui at 3B. And don't be surprised if that happens, perhaps as early as late May.
Catcher: There is no "if" here, just pure suckage, offensively speaking. Defensively, they're passable.
Okay, so what do I predict? 82-80. Or 78-84. Somewhere in there, anyway.
Yup, no better, but no worse, either. Just probably not what M's fans are expecting given their breathless adoration for Jack Z.'s moves.
This summer should be fun, entertaining and put some butts in the stands—mine included.