However, each season brings hope for a title and for the Mariners, and 2011 is no exception. The team has pieces in place that could ultimately lead them to a championship. It’s exceeding unlikely, but within the realm of reasonable probability.
So much has to go right for Seattle to find itself in that position however, that the most pressing questions for the team entering the regular season deal more with their future than their present. The Mariners are far more likely to end up using 2011 as a year to and set themselves up for a run in later years. Therefore, this season’s five questions for the Mariners are focused on the areas that have potential for impact down the road.
Can Bedard stay healthy?
The question is whether he can maintain his health, rather than regain it, and that’s an improvement over the last few troublesome years for Erik Bedard. This is his fourth season with the Mariners after coming over from Baltimore in an infamous trade. In the previous three years, Bedard has totaled just 164 innings for Seattle and none of them since 25 July 2009.
Nevertheless, Bedard has reportedly entered Spring Training this season as healthy as he gets. From his early showings, his repertoire looks intact. The question about him is rarely about his ability to perform; he is expected to pick up where he left off with a mid to high three FIP. What’s up for most of the debate is the number of innings that he will log. Even before the onset of serious shoulder problems, Bedard was never a work horse. He typically runs high pitch counts due to a lot of strikeouts and walks and has never pushed past 200 innings in a single season, the closest coming in 2006.
Of course, a comeback for Bedard is not only good news for the fans who like to watch him pitch at something besides a rehab outing. It is also good news for the Mariners organization that in Bedard have made a solid investment. Bedard agreed to a one-year, one-million dollar contract with Seattle back in December that carries with it a little over $6 million in possible performance incentives. Such a contract carries with it little risk and since there’s no option for 2012 attached, Bedard becomes an attractive trade chit for Seattle when July comes around—if he is having success. It’s not the team’s only option, but getting future value in return for Bedard would be a possible boon to a Mariner team that appears to have very few veterans that might fetch a meaningful return in trade at the moment.
Will 2010’s disappointments find their 2009 game?
Franklin Gutierrez and Chone Figgins both suffered huge drop offs in their performance last season. Both were also 6.1 WAR players in 2009. Gutierrez fell to 2.3 while Figgins to an even lower 0.6 WAR in 2010. Both suffered collapses on both offense and defense and almost certainly 2009 represented the peak seasons for both of them. Nobody expects either to post another 6+ WAR season. That’s not needed of course since neither is being paid anywhere close to that level.
Gutierrez makes $4 million this season with raises to $5.5 million and $7 million the next two seasons and a $7.5 million club option in 2014. Figgins makes $9 million this year and next. It drops to $8 million in his final guaranteed year of 2013, but there is a $9 million option for 2014 that vests with 600 Pas in 2013.
These are two players that have contracts guaranteed for three more seasons and reasonable chances at extending for a fourth. For Figgins, a return of his defense alone might be enough. He lost nearly three wins in value from his UZR alone. Give him those three wins back and he’s a significant asset at his salary level. That’s not realistic of course, since we shouldn’t project Figgins to repeat a peak defensive season two years later, but returning to his career UZR level at third base would be a two win increase for him and that’s still enough to make him more than worth his $9 million salary.
For Guti, the similarities continues. While he also experienced a peak fielding year in 2009 that will be nigh impossible to repeat, he has established a high baseline over the last couple seasons that gives hope for a little more value in 2011 than he accumulated in 2010 on the field.
At the plate however will be the biggest factor in determining the level of Franklin’s rebound. Despite a hot start to 2010, Guti faded badly posting a .269 wOBA from June 1 onward, compared to .376 before June 1. There were reports that he was plagued by a constant stomach issue that was just recently diagnosed and should be effectively managed with an adjusted diet. If so, that could signal the resurgence of his offensive skills.
When will the top prospects graduate, and will they make an impact?
Everyone and their pets make a top prospect list over the winter months and while there is typically a general correlation amongst all of them, the specifics often vary. That is less the case with the Mariners than almost any other team as nearly every list had Michael Pineda and Dustin Ackley as the top two prospects in the Mariner system.
(The lone exception was Mrs. Katinger’s gerbil Peckers, who opted to put Greg Halman at the top in a stunning display of ignorance that showed why gerbils have long been distrusted when it comes to prospect analysis.)
The only real debate has been which is first and which is second. Both are primed to make their debuts in Seattle this season. Pineda probably has the better chance of providing an immediate impact since pitchers can benefit from a lack of advance scouting reports and hitters being unfamiliar with their stuff. And due to Seattle’s lack of a clear cut fifth starter in the rotation, Pineda is also the much better bet to break camp with the Major League team and start his service clock.
Ackley is the near future at second base, but doesn’t profile as the sort of bat who is going to come up and immediately make a gigantic difference. His game is more of the on base and doubles nature and the Mariners right now have some adequate stop gaps. In addition, Ackley made the move to second base only after being drafted by Seattle so he would be unlikely to add a tremendous amount of value on defense initially.
Will former top prospects stick?
It’s not only about the newcomers on the scene though. The Mariners graduated top prospects Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak last season, though neither showed a breakout performance in his time with the big club. Both had high hopes attached to them in the past that have dimmed a bit with the lack of Major League production.
Additionally, if the Mariners harbor hopes of making 2011 anything more than a rebuilding year, they will need significant contributions from at least Smoak, if not Saunders as well.
I say Smoak because there is no impact depth at first base behind him. Neither Mike Carp nor Matt Mangini is going to develop into a powerhouse at the position. The Mariners next best shot at an in house first baseman could be Rich Poythress.
Meanwhile, Michael Saunders could be replaced by any of the many other outfield prospects in the Seattle system and it already looks like he has been passed by Milton Bradley for the starting job in 2011.
Getting solutions from Smoak and Saunders/whomever would trigger a big sigh of relief from the Mariner management team. They would solve the left field and first base positions for years to come and at a discount as they would have many years of club control left. Given that those two positions are typically where a lot of money gets spent for power bats, young players there would provide Seattle with an opportunity to use those financial resources elsewhere.
Who emerges in the bullpen?
David Aardsma begins the year on the disabled list and is expected to return sometime in April. He will be on some General Manager watchlists once he comes back, as his combination of salary and the Mariners’ 2011 competitive prospects makes Aardsma a probable trade asset. He will not be making much for someone starting to gain reputation as a solid closer, but enough so that the Mariners will have more pressing needs for those dollars.
In the meantime, Brandon League is the favorite to assume the closer duties. The big question surrounding him is whether he can regain his strikeout totals from 2009 or not. The development and use of a splitter was the impetus for the big rise in strikeout rate that year, but after moving to Seattle with Johermyn Chavez in a trade for Brandon Morrow, League has greatly diminished his use of the pitch with predictable results.
Two others who could announce their presence in a big way are Dan Cortes and Josh Lueke. Both are hard throwers that rack up strikeouts and ground balls. Cortes averages in the mid-to-high 90s and Lueke is a bit lower but still in the solid mid-90s.
Lueke punched out 106 hitters against just 20 walks and hit batters in 74.1 innings during a 2010 season split between four levels from Rookie ball to Triple-A, which he reached for the first time last season, so perhaps the Mariners want to see him repeat his success. By any on field indication, he looks ready for the big leagues. The only likely hurdle he has to clear is the off field issues and any media dealings associated with getting that accepted by the fans.
Dan Cortes took a big step forward once he switched from the rotation to the bullpen halfway through last season. The key factor in his blossoming stock was a cut down in his walks once transitioning to a relief role. Cortes made it all the way up to Seattle in 2010 so he is almost certain lock to break camp with the team.
Focusing on the bullpen may seem minor for a team coming off a 101-loss season, but the Mariners had baseball’s second worst pen in 2010 and if Cortes and Lueke can show that their 2010 success in the minors was no fluke, it allows the team the option of moving David Aardsma for younger and cheaper talent.
Without their success, the bullpen is likely to be a major hindrance yet again and no rebuilding team wants to throw money at their bullpen—unless you’re the 2007 Orioles.