Five Questions: Seattle Mariners

Last year some Mariners fans believed glory was returning to the Pacific North West for the first time since the days of A-Rod. An astonishing run in late summer saw the Mariners get to within one game of the Angels approaching September and with the “big mo”. It was not to be and a series of reverses saw the team finish six games back of the Halos.

Emboldened by their division challenge, the front office decided to bet the house on repeating in 2008. To the horror of many M’s fans they traded Adam Jones, George Sherrill and a couple of other prospects for one of the best pitchers in the American League, Erik Bedard. Will that be enough to inch Seattle over the line? Will the King finally live up to his moniker? Will the rains stop? Read on to find out.

1. Can King Felix become a genuine ace in 2008?

I don’t know about you but Felix Hernandez has been somewhat of a disappointment since he became a regular big league fixture a couple of years ago. Given his age and performance that may seem a little unfair, but that would be to ignore the hyperbole surrounding the King when he first appeared on the scene.

This is from the Hardball Times back in 2005:

I watched Felix Hernandez’s second major-league start Tuesday night. I tuned in, excited to see the pitcher I ranked the second-best prospect in baseball heading into this season, and came away from the game in awe, convinced I had just seen The Next Big Thing …

The 19-year-old phenom Mariners fans call “King Felix” has the total package on the mound. He works with a mid-90s fastball that simply overpowered Minnesota hitters at times, features an incredible breaking ball that the boys over at USS Mariner have taken to calling “The Royal Curveball,” and last but not least has a change-up that is absolutely amazing as a third pitch…

Considering how polished and dominant Hernandez has looked in two major league starts and the minor league track record he has, all at the age of 19, anything less than 200 wins would be disappointing. That’s silly to say, but it’s tough to think otherwise at this point.

And here are his stats:

Year    Age     W       L       IP      ER      HR      BB      SO      K/BB    ERA     WHIP
2005    19      4       4       84.3    25      5       23      77      3.35    2.67    0.996
2006    20      12      14      191     96      23      60      176     2.93    4.52    1.335
2007    21      14      7       190.3   83      20      53      165     3.11    3.92    1.377

See what I mean? 2005 was a solid start and portended great things. His ERA was sub-three and the hyperbole was justified. By contrast 2006 saw a spike in both walks and home runs, which lead to an ERA of 4.52, barely better than league average. Last year he started well, going toe to toe with Daisuke Matsuzaka before succumbing to injury, which derailed his progress for the next three months.

In the context of the hype a 3.92 ERA was disappointing. So what about 2008?

The THT projections suggest a 3.55 ERA with a regression in home runs. That would be a good, though not spectacular return. For King Felix to live up to his potential we need to see a Cy Young contending season. That’ll involve him staying healthy all year and posting a sub three ERA.

We’ve seen flashes of this potential last year. Now is the time to covert. And you know what … I suspect he may just do it.

2. Is Bedard an injury worry?

Let’s start with a simple stat: innings pitched. Here are Bedard’s innings pitched in each year of his career (since 2004):

2004  137.3
2005  141.7
2006  196.3
2007  182.0

In 2004 he remained healthy, if not especially effective with a 4.59 ERA. In 2005 he emerged as a different pitcher, posting an ERA of 2.08 before hitting the DL in May with a strained MCL. 2006 was a good year health wise, but last year the injury gremlins struck again as he strained a rib muscle missing the six weeks of the season.

In 2002-03 he had Tommy John surgery too. So should Seattle fans be concerned that their star hurler has not thrown over 200 innings?

Any pitcher who has had the injury record of Bedard will illicit an aura of worry. Tommy John surgery is firmly in the past and the data tell us that once a pitcher has recovered from the procedure he isn’t a greater injury risk than any other pitcher. However, the pulls and strains are more of a concern, as they suggest more fundamental issues with mechanics.

A pitcher’s health is a fickle subject. For the Mariners to be able to claim the Bedard deal a success he’ll need to stay healthy. Any time on the DL in 2008 will be a cause for concern. The time has come for Bedard to deliver a 200-inning season.

3. Will Putz run out of err … putz?

J.J. Putz has been phenomenal over the past couple of years. In case you need reminding of his line here it is:

Year    Ag      SV      IP      HR      BB      SO      ERA     WHIP
2006    29      36      78.3    4       13      104     2.3     0.919
2007    30      40      71.7    6       13      82      1.38    0.698

After a breakout 2006, many pundits were expecting some regression in 2007. Those in the know recognized that Putz had added a splitter to his arsenal, which perfectly offset his fastball. As a result his 2007 exceeded even the most lofty expectations. Will he three-peat in 2008? Here are the THT projections for Putz:

IP      HR      SO      BB      ERA     WHIP
71      5       77      18      2.68    1.01

We expect his WHIP to climb, which naturally implies a higher ERA. Personally, I’d expect Putz to be somewhere between this forecast and his 2007 line. No worries there then but what about the rest of the ‘pen?

4. How will the M’s replace Sherrill?

Sherrill’s departure leaves an obvious gap for a southpaw set-up man. Although no one will replace the lefty’s 2.36 ERA of last year, expect one of either Eric O’Flaherty and Cesar Jimenez to step into the role, with O’Flaherty the most likely candidate. Either way his ERA for 2008 could be 2 points higher than Sherrill’s last year. Ouch—some gap.

Sherrill aside the other useful arm among the relief corps is Sean Green the 29-year-old posted a 3.84 ERA last year. However, he is woefully inexperienced having only hurled 100 innings at the major league level, which mean that 2008 projects are conservative. Someone, somewhere needs to step up to carry the ball to Putz or he won’t get 40 save opportunities let alone 40 saves.

If only the M’s hadn’t traded Rafael Soriano for the dreadful Horacio Ramirez then they’d have their man.

5. Will John McLaren dodge the bullet?

As we saw with Mike Hargrove, the Mariners have a reputation for not being particularly trigger happy despite signs of incompetence. Only on the job for two and half seasons, Hargrove never posted a winning season, although when he handed the reins over to McLaren the “W” column was healthy.

The front office clearly expects to contend, but, most analyses peg the team at about 80 wins, which is obviously some way from contention. At least Hargrove was working from a position of reduced expectations. If McLaren fails to deliver he could get the bullet.

The jury is still out on McLaren. Although he annoyed some parts of the sabermetric community he did inherit Hargrove’s legacy so we don’t have enough data to properly judge him. However, Seattle fans are quick to point out that general manager Bill Bavasi is a bigger problem. Indeed when McLaren was confirmed as 2008 manager the bigger reaction was against Bavasi.

Bavasi has made some truly horrendous decisions from signing Richie Sexson, dealing Soriano and, recently Adam Jones. If anyone deserves to be shot it is he.

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