Heaven Isn’t Too Far Away: The Authoritative 2010 Seattle Mariners Season Preview.

Are the Seattle Mariners bound for baseball heaven in 2010?

It was the year 1989 when Warrant penned their classic hair-metal ballad “Heaven”—a song that helped their album go platinum and pushed the band to the forefront of the rock-and-roll consciousness. That very same year another chart topper emerged into the national spotlight—a young ballplayer by the name of Ken Griffey Jr. who energized a sleepy city and brought direction to a long lost franchise.   

Now in the third decade of a storybook career, Griffey has one last, final last chance to bring a title to a championship-starved town and add the only thing missing from an otherwise spotless resume. Does he have enough left in his 40-year-old body to will the M’s across the finish line? Are his teammates up to the challenge?   

The Mariners took a major step forward last season, finishing with an 85-77 record on the strength of breakout stars like Felix Hernandez and Franklin Gutierrez. Seattle’s GM Jack Zduriencik sensed that 2010 could be a banner year for his team and he spent the offseason creating a championship caliber ballclub, headlined by the additions of former Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee and speedster Chone Figgins. Do the Mariners have enough ammunition to compete in a deep and talented division or are they once again destined for disappointment? Here’s what they’re bringing to the table in 2010:  

Starting Nine (Projected 2010 stats from ESPN.com)   

Rightfield: Ichiro Suzuki (.307-6 HR’s-49 RBI’s-29 SB’s-.350 OBP)   

Second Base: Chone Figgins (.281-4 HR’s-46 RBI’s-35 SB’s-.375 OBP)   

Leftfield: Milton Bradley (.285-15 HR’s-58 RBI’s-.394 OBP)   

Designated Hitter: Ken Griffey Jr. (.239-14 HR’s-41 RBI’s-.341 OBP)   

Third Base: Jose Lopez (.279-24 HR’s-90 RBI’s-.308 OBP)   

Centerfield: Franklin Gutierrez (.280-20 HR’s-68 RBI’s-14 SB’s-.333 OBP)   

First Base: Casey Kotchman (.274-9 HR’s-53 RBI’s-.342 OBP)   

Shortstop: Jack Wilson (.250-4 HR’s-40 RBI’s-.293 OBP)   

Catcher: Adam Moore/Rob Johnson (.250-6-22/.243-5-30)   

The Mariners need Griffey to hit like a kid again in 2010.

Thoughts: While it’s not exactly Murderer’s Row, the M’s lineup should be an improvement over the squad that managed to score only 640 runs last season. Seattle might not have a single player top 30 home runs this year, but playing in spacious Safeco Field the team is better suited to rely on speed and gap power anyway, and it appears the M’s finally have a squad suited for that style of play with Ichiro and Figgins leading the way atop the lineup. The two combined for an astounding 408 hits, 202 runs and 68 stolen bases last year and should cause nightmares for opposing pitchers.

Bradley has the potential to be a solid #3 hitter with decent pop and good patience but he’s anything but a sure thing mentally or physically. Griffey is expected to be in better shape than 2009 after offseason knee surgery and Gutierrez should continue to mature as a hitter after showing marked improvement last year. Lopez wouldn’t draw a walk if you offered him $100,000 for each base on balls, but he’s at least adequate for Seattle at third base and will be an improvement over the injury-riddled Adrian Beltre of last year. The bottom third of the order is better suited for play in the deadball era and will need to exceed expectations in order to avoid letting the rest of the team down.  

Ryan Garko and Eric Byrnes should provide some energy off the bench and talented youngster Michael Saunders is waiting in the wings with the Tacoma Rainiers if Bradley gets stupid or injured (or both at the same time). Hopefully Seattle can avoid handing out too many at-bats to the offensively challenged Jack Hannahan and Ryan Langerhans (both of whom have more holes in their swings than the plot of an M. Night Shyamalan movie). Their lineup clearly isn’t going to carry the Mariners to the pennant, but it ought to be good enough to keep games close…and that’s all Seattle’s pitchers will need.  

Pitching Staff (Projected Stats from ESPN.com)   

1) Felix Hernandez (17 wins-2.95 ERA-1.21 WHIP-203 K’s)   

2) Cliff Lee (18 wins-3.33 ERA-1.22 WHIP-180 K’s)     

3) Ryan Rowland-Smith (10 wins-4.06 ERA-1.31 WHIP-111 K’s)   

4) Ian Snell (7 wins-5.05 ERA-1.59 WHIP-96 K’s)   

5) Jason Vargas/Doug Fister/Luke French (????)   

Can the Hyphenator build of his late season success and complement Felix and Cliff?

Thoughts: The pitching talent drops off precipitously after Hernandez and Lee, and if they could, the team would probably pitch those two every other day (Dr. James Andrews has advised against it). The Mariners have to hope that Erik Bedard makes a speedy recovery from offseason surgery or the club might have to pursue another arm at the trading deadline to stay in contention.  

King Felix will be hard pressed to improve upon his 2009 season, but at only 23-years-old (24 in April), nothing is out of the question for the talented Venezuelan (he’s the odds on favorite for the 2010 AL Cy Young Award). Lee should be able to thrive in a pitcher’s park with a strong defense up the middle, and his impending free agency at the end of the year should provide him with all the motivation he needs. Rowland-Smith is a serviceable number three starter who could turn some heads after a strong finish to 2009. After Rowland-Smith however, things get a little bit murky. 

Ian Snell was consistently inconsistent after being acquired from the Pirates last year and unless he drastically cuts down on walks he’ll never be anything but a headache for the Mariners. Fister, Vargas and French all had moments of brilliance in 2009, but none of them have taken the bull by the horns and grabbed the #5 spot with their performances in Spring Training. Seattle has the best 1-2 punch in all of baseball with Hernandez and Lee and they’ll need to lean heavily on them with question marks throughout the rest of the rotation. A healthy Bedard is paramount to a deep postseason run. 

Bullpen:   

Closer: David Aardsma   

Set-Up: Mark Lowe, Brandon League, Shawn Kelley, Kanekoa Texeira, etc.   

It's everything I always hoped it would be.

Thoughts:  Just like last year, the bullpen should be the real strength of the club. David Aardsma was one of the biggest surprises in baseball last year, and even with the expected regression in 2010, should be an above-average closer for the M’s. If he struggles, the newly acquired Brandon League has the stuff to close games, as does Mark Lowe. Texeira (thankfully no relation to the Yankees’ Mark) has looked sharp all spring and should help to bridge the gap in the 7th or 8th inning. If there is one facet of the team that I’m not worried about, it’s the bullpen.

Fearless Forecast: Call me hopelessly optimistic, but something about this Mariners’ squad has me more excited for Opening Day than I can ever remember. The team has a good mix of veterans and rising stars and a boatload of positive momentum after a surprising 2009 season. The clubhouse chemistry should remain intact with Griffey still aboard, although it may suffer some with the loss of Carlos Silva (aka Felix’s BFF).

The Mariners aren’t great in any one area of the game, but they are solid across the board and should be able to take advantage of a down year for the Los Angeles Angels and capture the AL West in a hard fought battle. With King Felix, Cliff Lee and Erik Bedard leading the rotation Seattle would be unstoppable in a postseason series, because as is proven year after year, pitching wins championships. And finally, after all these years and countless tears, Ken Griffey Jr. and the Mariners will bring a World Series title home to Seattle.

For once Mariners’ fans, heaven isn’t too far away.

Advertisements

The Hunt for Reds in October: Is Cincinnati Ready to Join the Playoff Party?

Joey "the Canadian Crusher" Votto is the centerpiece of a talented Reds' lineup.

Despite having the endearingly clueless (unless of course you invested heavily in Mark Prior or Kerry Wood rookie cards) Dusty Baker at the helm, Cincinnati’s strong finish to last season convinced many that the Reds were ready to take a step forward and compete for the NL Central in 2010.  

The team went a combined 20-11 in September and October and enjoyed a strong season against their divisional rivals (46-34). Led by a stable of quality young arms and homegrown talent in the field, the Reds have been a chic pick by baseball pundits this Spring to sneak into the postseason. But, does the team have enough weapons to compete with St. Louis and Chicago and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2000? Let’s take a closer look at everyone’s favorite Cinderella for 2010, starting with their pitching:   

Although phenom Aroldis Chapman probably won’t see significant major league action in 2010, the Reds still boast a strong starting rotation of established arms and up and coming stars—the team finished 7th in the NL with a 4.18 cumulative ERA last season. Veterans Bronson Arroyo (15-13, 3.84 ERA) and Aaron Harang (6-14, 4.21 ERA) mentor a terrific triumvirate of young arms consisting of Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Edison Volquez. All three have shown the potential to be staff aces but have struggled with inconsistency and injuries; they’ll need to step up this season if the Reds want to match the duo of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis.  

Johnny Cueto has all the makings of an ace, and the Reds need him to perform at a high level in 2010.

Cincinnati’s bullpen is rock solid, with All-Star closer Francisco Cordero (39 saves, 2.16 ERA) and specialists like the ageless Arthur Rhodes (1-1, 2.53 ERA) and Nick Masset (5-1, 2.37 ERA) ready to put the game on ice. If their relief corps can continue to perform at a high level and Volquez, Bailey and Cueto live up to their potential, the Reds should have the pitching to compete with just about anybody. Can their offense keep up?  

Calling Cincinnati’s 2009 lineup pedestrian would be an insult to pedestrians. Their anemic offense finished 15th in average, 11th in runs, 15th in OBP, 13th in slugging and 13th in OPS out of 16 NL teams, and was a major reason why the Reds were outscored by 50 runs last year. Their lineup certainly isn’t devoid of talent, but Cincinnati will need more production from top-to-bottom this year in order to support the starting rotation.  

A full season of Joey Votto (.322-25 HR-84 RBI’s in 469 AB’s) should help the offense, as will steady vets Brandon Phillips (.276-20-98-25 SB) and Scott Rolen (.305-11-67), but young players like Jay Bruce (.223-23-58) and Drew Stubbs (.267-8-15-10 SB) need to stay healthy and live up to their potential if Cincinnati is going to take a step forward in the National League. Question marks also remain at shortstop (rookie Drew Sutton), catcher (an aging Ramon Hernandez) and leftfield (some combination of Wladimir Balentien and Jonny Gomes); those three positions will go along way in determining the Reds’ success or failure.  

There’s a lot to like about Cincinnati heading into 2010. They have a solid young nucleus of pitchers and bats and have done an amazing job of creating quality major league players through their farm system. The Reds have burgeoning flamethrowers in Homer Bailey and Edison Volquez and potential MVP candidates in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, but they still need more time to develop and more firepower to compete with St. Louis and Chicago in the talented and balanced NL Central. Cincinnati has a chance to finish above the .500 mark for the first time in ten years, and should use the momentum heading into 2011, because it’s unlikely that the Reds will make the playoffs this season; not with the depth of their division.

Cinderella’s slipper doesn’t quite fit Cincinnati…at least not this year.

Torii Hunter Channels Jimmy the Greek, Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh: Angels Outfielder Calls Latin Players “Imposters”.

Though Torii Hunter may have been on to something, he picked a poor way to tackle a taboo subject.

In what may have been a rare case of an athlete’s comments actually being taken out of context, Torii Hunter repeatedly put his foot in his mouth in a recent interview with USA Today about racial diversity in baseball. Hunter was discussing the number of African-American players in baseball when he made the following comments:   

“People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they’re African-American. They’re not us. They’re impostors. Even people I know come up and say: ‘Hey, what color is Vladimir Guerrero? Is he a black player?’ I say, ‘Come on, he’s Dominican. He’s not black.”   

But unfortunately, he wasn’t done there:   

“As African-American players, we have a theory that baseball can go get an imitator and pass them off as us. It’s like they had to get some kind of dark faces, so they go to the Dominican or Venezuela because you can get them cheaper. It’s like, ‘Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?’ … I’m telling you, it’s sad.”   

Needless to say Hunter’s comments created a media firestorm that caused him to backtrack from what he said and apologize profusely. But amidst his unfortunate choice of words in regards to Latin players, was Hunter addressing a real issue in baseball?   

Yes and no.   

Just to be clear, Vladimir Guerrero is Dominican, not African-American.

Hunter’s one salient point in the interview concerned the fact that fans have the tendency to lump all dark-skinned players into the same category, which is unfair to all parties involved. Clearly the ethnic experience of an African-American player is going to be different from that of a player from Venezuela or the Dominican Republic, and those differences need to be recognized. Baseball is the most international of any American sport and it benefits from having the best players from all around the globe. The unique fusion of different cultures makes baseball a melting pot very representative of American society as a whole. What Hunter was likely trying to say is that the differences between African-American players and Dominican players should be acknowledged and celebrated by fans, rather than trying to create a homogenous sport. 

If Hunter had stopped at that point and used a different word than imposters his comments probably wouldn’t have generated such a backlash, but saying that baseball is trying to pass of Latin players as African-Americans is a bit paranoid and completely off-base. Baseball doesn’t care about the color of skin its players have, but it does want the most talented players, and for the past few decades a steady stream of superstars has been coming out of Venezuela (Felix Hernandez, Johan Santana, etc.), Puerto Rico (Carlos Beltran, Ivan Rodriguez, etc.), Cuba (Aroldis Chapman) and the Dominican Republic (Sammy Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero, etc). Hunter seems concerned and maybe even jealous about the lack of African-American players in baseball (just over 10% in 2008–the most in over a decade) but the simple truth is that for quite some time African-Americans have been drawn to football and basketball, which offer quick money and more glamorous lifestyles without having to toil away in the obscurity of the minor leagues. A lack of African-American players in baseball does not make the sport racist anymore than the lack of white players makes basketball racist.  It’s a matter of talent, not race.

Hopefully Torii Hunter sticks to talking about what he knows from now on…baseball.