Five Questions: Seattle Mariners

When the guys here approached me to write another Five Questions piece previewing the 2007 Seattle Mariners, I started to wonder how I was going to select just a handful of key questions from a roster that apparently was built by throwing darts at a board. While intoxicated. And blindfolded.

So, following an off-season so inexplicable that I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mariners announced plans to bring Steve Trout out of retirement and hand him a spot in the bullpen, let’s take a look at some of the questions surrounding this team and hope we can accurately represent how befuddling this team has really become.

1. Jose Vidro? Horacio Ramirez? Chris Reitsma? Jose Guillen? Jeff Weaver? Is there a plan here?

The Mariners, burned by years of watching big name guys fail to repeat their prior year performances, adopted a new strategy in 2007—acquire as many guys who sucked in 2006 as humanly possible. Okay, that might not have been exactly the plan, but it’s the best way to describe the results.

Over the winter, the team decided to spend a lot of money to try to make a run at a playoff spot in an apparently vulnerable division. After repeatedly being spurned by players everyone would want, they finally found people willing to take their money in the form of guys that no one wanted.

I don’t need to rehash how bad the Mariners’ winter acquisitions were in 2006. As a group, the five guys mentioned in the question combined for -4 Win Shares Above Bench last year. It’s a group of guys coming off seasons that were replacement level or worse, and the team handed them two spots in the everyday lineup, two spots in the rotation, and the primary right-handed setup man role. They also cost approximately $25 million in salary for the upcoming season, and the Mariners had to give away Rafael Soriano, Chris Snelling and Emiliano Fruto to help pry away this fantastic group of talent.

Besides being terrible last year, all those new players except Weaver have one other thing in common—they spent a large portion of the season injured. Ramirez battled a variety of injuries that cost him half the season, Reitsma and Guillen had surgery on their elbows, and Vidro was playing with the knees of a World War II veteran. The Mariners are essentially hitching their cart to the belief that these guys are contributing major leaguers when healthy, and expect all of them to take big steps forward.

We are, shall you say, a wee bit skeptical that the best way to assemble a roster is to overpay a group of injured guys coming off the worst years of their career, but this is the theory that Bill Bavasi and crew have essentially tied their baseball future to. Good luck with that, fellas.

2. Did the team do anything right this winter?

Maybe. While the overall reshaping of the roster was not ideal, the team did at least back up some of the questionable moves with a theme that has some potential to pay off—load up on groundball pitchers to complement the abilities of the defenders behind them. From Miguel Batista to Horacio Ramirez and Chris Reitsma, there was a clear pattern of the team targeting guys who get outs on the ground, since the Mariners believe that the Adrian Beltre-Yuniesky Betancourt duo gives them the best defensive left side of an infield in baseball.

This synergy between pitching staff and defenders is an often overlooked tool in building a team that is better than the sum of its parts, and was worked to perfection by the Mariners in 2001, when they stuck a pitching staff of flyball strike-throwers in front of an awesome outfield defense, anchored by Mike Cameron and Ichiro.

Now, one could argue that it would be better to acquire pitchers who are good rather than pitchers whose defenses can make them look good, but if you’re going to get bad pitchers, at least get bad pitchers who work with the pieces you already have in place. In this sense, we can be happy that the organization had some semblance of a plan when it went to rebuilding the pitching staff, and agree that the idea of putting a groundball staff in front of the current defense is a sound one. It’s just too bad that the pitchers they chose aren’t any good at anything besides getting ground balls.

3. How long do we keep calling him King Felix before he actually has to earn it?

After all the glowing reviews written about the kid with the golden arm, many of which I’m responsible for, expectations were pretty high heading into his first full major league season. For various reasons, ranging from his diet—endorsed by Bartolo Colon!—and his pitch selection, he was a pretty massive disappointment. Needless to say, a 4.64 ERA wasn’t what the Mariners or the fans had in mind after watching him dominate to end the 2005 season, and his inconsistency was frustrating to watch.

However, at the risk of sounding like a King Felix fanboy one more time, he should be significantly improved this year. Felix’s problems essentially can be tied to the home run; his 18.4% HR/F rate ranked as the worst in the American League. Thanks to the great work done by guys here at THT, we know that HR/F varies wildly from year to year. There’s no reason to expect Felix to be so home run prone again, and his peripheral statistics suggest that he was a frontline pitcher last year who had some things work against him that weren’t totally in his control.

Toss in the fact that he decided to get himself into a shape other than round this winter, and there’s reason to believe that the soon-to-be 21-year-old has decided to dedicate himself to the game and actively make himself better. His stuff is still the best of any starting pitcher in baseball, and with a little more focus and some maturity, he’s still as good a bet as anyone to steal the Cy Santana trophy away from Minnesota. Don’t give up on the King just yet.

4. J.J. Putz—great reliever or greatest reliever ever?

I’d actually pay a lot of money to watch Stephen Colbert interview J.J. Putz, who turned in one of the great relief seasons in recent history last year, but isn’t exactly a Rhodes scholar, shall we say. But it doesn’t take Colbert-like overstatements to explain the greatness of Putz in 2006. Just throw out stats like his 13-to-104 walk-to-strikeout ratio or his 1.81 FIP. Putz was the quintessential relief ace, a dominant end-game reliever who gave the Mariners a huge advantage in the ninth inning.

However, the greatness of Putz was perhaps the least predictable thing to happen in major league baseball in 2006. He was a 29-year-old with a track record of being a decent enough setup guy with some command issues and no out pitch. Needless to say, he wasn’t appearing on too many of those guys-to-watch lists.

However, during spring training, Putz worked with Eddie Guardado and developed a split-finger fastball that gave him a new weapon and allowed him to put American League hitters on notice. The devastating 90-mph splitter gave him a perfect complement to his 98-mph four-seam fastball, and the addition of a second pitch made all the difference in the world.

It’s unlikely that Putz will be able to repeat his 2006 dominance. The question, however, of how much of that greatness he can retain is critical to the Mariners’ season. If he shows that the new-found effectiveness is at least somewhat sustainable, he’s still one of the elite relievers in baseball. It would also help if his elbow would stop hurting.

5. So, the team has questions at almost every lineup spot, the rotation and the bullpen. Also, the entire front office has been put on the hot seat. And Ichiro is a free agent at years end. Is there anything with the team that isn’t a question mark?

I’m confident in saying that 12 months from now, Safeco Field will still be a cash cow, and the Mariners will still be rolling as though they were in the money-printing business. But beyond that, things are really up in the air, and the 2007 season could be a history-changing one for the team.

If the injured guys hook themselves up to a juvenation machine, Felix lives up to his nickname and the team stays relatively healthy, this is probably an 85- to 90-win team that could contend in a division that has no obvious frontrunner. With a pennant race in Seattle, the team likely convinces Ichiro to stick around Seattle and tries to build a championship team around the nucleus in place.

However, if too many of the question marks turn sour and the team gets off to a slow start, the bloodletting could begin early. Mike Hargrove’s job is on the line, and he’s not likely to survive the All-Star break if the team is waving the white flag once again. Bill Bavasi and his hand-picked front office aren’t going to get to run the team for another offseason of rebuilding, and Ichiro seems unlikely to re-sign with a perennial doormat.

It only takes a few things going right for the Mariners to challenge for a playoff spot and play respectable baseball this year. It only takes a few of those things going wrong, however, to cause a full -cale housecleaning of the baseball operations department and the likely exodus of the face of the franchise.

So, 2007 is the year of the crossroads for the Mariners. They’re either going to win with their unique brand of talent evaluation, or the franchise is going to go in an entirely different direction. No matter what, it won’t be a boring summer in the Pacific Northwest.

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