Deal With the Devil: Will Seattle Regret Not Trading Cliff Lee to the Yankees and What Is Josh Lueke’s Future in Seattle?

Will Josh Lueke ever be allowed to pitch for the Mariners? Should he be?

If you haven’t been paying attention to the Mariners lately (instead choosing to enjoy life and not indulge in masochistic urges) it’s likely that you missed the latest controversy surrounding the team–and it has nothing to do with play on the field.        

Flashback to July, when the Mariners had a deal in place to trade Cliff Lee to the New York Yankees for a package of prospects including top-hitting catcher Jesus Montero, only to nix the trade at the last-minute in order to take a “better” offer from division rival Texas. At the time it seemed like a major coup for the Seattle front office, as they acquired powerful switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak and a former first round pick in pitcher Blake Beaven. However, after the initial euphoria lifted, things quickly began to unravel.        

One of the lesser known players in the trade, reliever Josh Lueke, had been convicted of a horrific crime–one that the front office was apparently clueless about (despite the fact that a simple Google search would bring up the information from Lueke’s case). Team president Chuck Armstrong and general manager Jack Zduriencik both claimed not to know the extent of Lueke’s criminal record, even though former pitching coach Rick Adair said he told the front office everything he knew about Lueke on and off the field. This set off a back and forth between the Seattle front office (who claimed to have been misled by the Rangers) and Texas (who stated that Lueke’s background was common knowledge and that they had offered to take him back) and eventually led to the firing of professional scouting director Carmen Fusco, a personal hire of Zdurinciek and a 35-year baseball veteran. Selling Fusco as the scapegoat didn’t quell the controversy though, and serious questions continue to linger about the M’s front office and the future of Jack Zdurienciek in Seattle.   

There’s no denying that Lueke is a talented pitcher (5-2, 1.86 ERA and 94 K’s in 63 innings at three minor league stops in 2010) but there are plenty of questions surrounding the Mariners’ decisions making in the process and what Lueke’s role with the organization will be moving forward. Seattle certainly needs help in the bullpen (apologies to Chris Seddon and Jamey Wright) but is bringing aboard a pitcher with Lueke’s history worth the potential damage to the organization’s reputation–especially an organization that has been so outspoken about domestic violence? The team had a chance to call-up Lueke when rosters expanded but balked at the opportunity, likely due to the outrage surrounding the “discovery” of his crimes. Will the response of fans be any different if the Mariners wait until next season to promote Lueke?  

Despite the fact that Lueke has paid his debt to society (spending 40 days in jail), it doesn’t change what he’s done and it won’t change how he’s viewed by fans and the community. If the organization knew about his past and still completed the trade with Texas it’s clear that the Mariners puts winning above all else, and if that’s the case,  they had better start winning (maybe we could become the baseball version of the Cincinnati Bengals). If Seattle truly didn’t know about Lueke’s criminal record (highly, highly unlikely) then the organization still has a responsibility to be upfront with their fan base about the situation and act accordingly, even if that means trading away or cutting Lueke. The Mariners made a colossal P.R. mistake by bringing aboard Lueke and the organization needs to act fast in order to save face–this isn’t an issue that will just go away if it’s ignored. 

No matter how this issue plays out, it’s clear that the Seattle front office isn’t the model of perfection we though it was, and that Jack Zduriencik might not be the man to lead the Mariners back to the playoffs. This whole firestorm could have been avoided if Seattle had just followed through on their trade with New York, but it appears that by trying to burn the Yankees, the Mariners torched themselves. 

Only time will tell…

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The Kids Aren’t Alright: What’s Wrong With Michael Saunders?

Michael Saunders has been more inconsistent than my bowel movements after eating a Double Down.

When Ken Griffey Jr “retired” earlier this season, young left fielder Michael Saunders became my favorite player on the woebegone squad. What can I say—I’ve got a thing for lefties who spend their summer days flirting with the Mendoza Line.    

Though he wasn’t a top draft pick (11th round of the 2004 draft) Saunders combination of power and speed allowed him to move steadily through the Mariners’ farm system, reaching the majors last season to fill the void left by Raul Ibanez. Saunders struggled mightily in his first chance in the show (.221-0 HR’s-4 RBI’s-6 walks/40 strikeouts) as his long swing was exposed by big league pitchers. Still, at only 22, there was still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Saunders heading into 2010.    

Saunders’ role with the team was temporarily in question when the Mariners acquired Milton Bradley in the offseason to play left field and DH, but it didn’t take long for him to get the call from Tacoma when Bradley was neutralized with a variety of injuries and mental instability. Despite continued contact issues, Saunders flashed the power that made him such a highly regarded prospect, hitting seven home runs in 106 May and June at-bats for a power starved Mariners’ team. He even went deep twice against southpaws, highlighted by a go-ahead home run against Red Sox ace Jon Lester. While his slugging dipped in July, Saunders showed improved plate discipline, drawing 11 walks against 16 strikeouts and posting a .380 OBP for the month. It seemed that the light had come on for Saunders and he was on the verge of a breakout season. But then, just as suddenly as he found his groove, Saunders hit a wall. Literally.   

The Condor will have to continue to develop at the plate if he wants to help the Mariners back to the playoffs.

In an August game against the Texas Rangers, Saunders collided with the left field wall trying to keep a home run in the park, and injured the same shoulder that he had labrum surgery on earlier in his career. Though the injury wasn’t serious, Saunders was shelved for around two weeks before returning to the lineup on August 31st. Since that time, the Condor just hasn’t been able to take flight, hitting a paltry .161 in September with just one extra base hit in the month (he hasn’t hit a home run since July). Reports from the clubhouse seem to indicate that Saunders’ shoulder is feeling fine, so what does he have to do in order to stay an important piece in the Mariners’ rebuilding effort?   

Part of Saunders’ regression is due to bad luck, as he carries a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of just .267 on the season (last season his BABIP was .329, the league average is around .300). Saunders has the wheels to leg out base hits, but he hits too many pop ups (16% of his flyballs don’t leave the infield) and flyballs (0.57 groundballs for every 1 flyball) to utilize his speed. While part of the low BABIP is out of  Saunders’ control, he would benefit from a shorter, compact swing which would allow him to make more consistent, solid contact (his 16 percent career linedrive rate is well below the MLB average of 19%). A shorter swing would also allow Saunders more time to react to pitches, neutralizing his two biggest weaknesses (fastballs inside and breaking balls away) and giving him a better chance to hang in against lefties. 

Saunders certainly has the talent to become an above average left fielder (think .270-20 HR’s-70 RBI’s-20 SB’s) and I hope that the Mariners give him a chance to play full-time in 2011, because let’s face it, they probably won’t be contending for the AL West title anyway. Saunders needs to make some adjustments in order to raise his average and provide value to the Mariners at the plate (he’s already a solid defensive player), and the best way to do that is to get at-bats at the major league level (especially against left handers, so they won’t have to platoon him in the future). If the Mariners want to climb out of the cellar next season, it will be on the strength of young players like Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Michael Pineda and Saunders–the days of overpriced free-agents in Seattle are over. 

Mark my words, the Condor (and the M’s) will soar. Just not in 2010…

Mariners Monthly Roundup: August “Mediocrity Reigns” Edition.

 

Despite being surrounded by a bunch of yea-hoos, Ichiro has continued his indomitable march towards history.

Record: 12-14 (Overall 51-80)       

A.L. West Standings: Texas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle       

Top Hitter: After slumping below .250 in July, Ichiro rebounded to post a .307 average in August including a two home run game at Yankee Stadium (they were against Javier Vasquez however, so they don’t really count). Though Ichiro’s had a down season by his standards (on pace for career lows in HR’s, runs, triples and his second lowest OPS) the Mariners top-of-the-order mainstay is still on pace for a record 10th straight 200 hit season. In a season so wrought with disappointment, it’s nice to have someone to look forward to. Bless you Ichiro. Bless you.  

Top Pitcher: Who’d you think it was gonna be, Sean White? Felix Hernandez continued a dominant season with his best month of the year, posting a 3-2 record with 0.82 ERA, .137 batting average against and 51 strikeouts in 43 2/3 innings. Despite suffering through some of the worst run support in baseball, King Felix has planted himself firmly in the Cy Young discussion by ranking 1st in innings, 2nd in ERA, 1st in K’s, 4th in WHIP and 3rd in complete games. Felix’s value to this team can’t be overstated–without him they would be utterly unwatchable. As is they’re just mostly unwatchable…  

Biggest Surprise:  Brandon League arrived in Seattle during the offseason in a controversial trade that sent talented but erratic starting pitcher Brandon Morrow to Toronto. The hard-throwing Hawaiian was supposed to be one of the best set-up men in all of baseball, but in the first half of the season he posted a 3.86 ERA and was responsible for many of the Mariners’ most painful defeats (“Oh, we’ve got a three run lead? I guess I’ll walk the bases loaded and then cough up a gopher ball). Since the All-Star break though, League has been in the zone, including August where he posted a 0.60 ERA in 15 innings. I’m not saying it was a good idea to trade Brandon Morrow, but it is nice to know that we weren’t entirely fleeced. Right? Right?  

Biggest Disappointment: Jose Lopez brings less to the table than Bob Cratchit. Why the Mariners are still giving at-bats to someone with a .605 OPS is beyond me, because Lopez has been a black hole all season long. There’s little doubt that he’ll be gone at the end of the season; why wait till then to give Matt Mangini or Matt Tuiasosopo a chance?  

Injuries: Erik Bedard (out for season–hypochondria); Milton Bradley (15-day DL–patellar tendonitis–underwent surgery August 17th); Shawn Kelley (15-day DL–elbow inflammation–appears headed for Tommy John surgery); Jack Wilson (out for season–hand surgery).  

Lingering Questions: If the Mariners win a game, and no one is watching, does it still count? Can Felix win a Cy Young with a losing record? Adam Moore can’t possibly be as bad as Rob Johnson, can he? What medication should I take for Mariners’ Season(al) Depression? 

September Schedule: 1 vs. Los Angeles, 4 vs. Cleveland, 3 @ Oakland, 3 @ Los Angeles, 3 vs. Boston, 3 vs. Texas, 3 @ Toronto, 3 @ Tampa Bay, 3 @ Texas, 1 vs. Oakland.  

Overall Grade: (C+) With new manager Darren Brown at the helm the Mariners weren’t completely awful in August, winning four series in a row before sputtering at the end of the month. Still, while the offense was marginally better than it had been, it was still the worst in baseball and made me question why I even bother to watch the M’s play.

Dave Niehaus, that’s why.

Sobering Stats from the First Half of Seattle’s Subpar Season.

Brandon League has been so bad in Seattle, that no photos exist of him as a Mariner.

The Mariners are so bad they don’t even deserve an introductory paragraph. Here’s a look at some of their craptastic numbers from the first half: 

–>At 35-53, the Mariners are 15 games behind Texas in the AL West. 

–> The Mariners’ opponents have outscored them by 79 runs–putting them in the same company as Baltimore, Houston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Arizona. Misery loves company… 

–> Seattle is hitting .238 as a team (only .225 if you don’t include Ichiro). Let that sink in; or try not to think about it at all. 

–> By himself, Ichiro is responsible for 16.9% of the Mariners’ hits. Sure he’s the leadoff hitter, but still… 

–> Jose Lopez, the team leader in RBI’s, is on pace for 68 total. Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers already has 77. 

–> Seattle catchers have combined for more passed balls than hits. It’s not true, but the fact that is seems feasible tells you everything you need to know about the Mariners’ 2010. Where’s Tom Lampkin when you need him? 

–> The Mariners are 28th in batting average, 28th in home runs, 29th in runs and 29th in hits…out of 14 teams. 

–> Ryan-Rowland Smith, Ian Snell and David Aarsdma have a combined record of 1-20. 1 and 20. 

–> Despite the fact that the M’s sit at 35-53, which is a palindrome, Major League Baseball will not allow Seattle to flip their record. 

–> Cliff Lee is gone and he’s never coming back! 

Well, I guess the numbers don’t lie, the Mariners really do suck. Enjoy the All-Star break–which is really just a break from watching the Mariners play. 

And we all need that…

They Are Who We Thought They Were: Why the Mariners’ Continued Struggles Shouldn’t Surprise Anyone.

Watching the Seattle Mariners is like getting drilled by a fastball. It hurts.

Watching the Seattle Mariners is like getting drilled by a fastball. It hurts.

After yesterday’s excruciating loss to the lowly Orioles it’s time to face the facts–the Seattle Mariners season is over.    

Yes it’s only May, and no they aren’t mathematically eliminated, but have the Mariners given us any reason to believe that they are capable of going on a tear and catching Texas in the AL West? Have they given us any reason to believe they won’t finish in the cellar of the division?   

The first month and a half of  the season has been filled with bullpen meltdowns, fielding miscues and a lineup that would have trouble scoring runs at Double A. Not only are the Mariners losing at an alarming rate, but they aren’t even fun to watch (unless you are a big fan of failed suicide squeeze bunts–happy trails Eric Byrnes). For a team that came into 2010 with such great expectations, Seattle might be the most frustrating and disappointing team in baseball.   

The offseason was filled with talk of a World Series run and a storybook ending to the career of Ken Griffey Jr. New additions like Chone Figgins, Casey Kotchman and Cliff Lee were supposed to help Seattle return to the postseason for the first time in nearly a decade. All that speculation looks like a pipe dream now, as the Mariners sit at 12-21, already 6 1/2 games out in a weak division.    

The team is so boring to watch that Mariners players are falling asleep during games (allegedly) and besides recent call-up Michael Saunders there is little reason to believe things will change. The magic that was supposed to surround this team is nowhere to be found and not all the Mike Sweeney hugs in the world can do anything to change that.    

The Mariners looked like a contender on paper but have turned out to be the biggest frauds in baseball. Should we have seen this coming?    

Unfortunately yes. Despite all the optimism surrounding the team heading into 2010, the Mariners were a fatally flawed team. Here’s why:   

1) Mike Brumley’s IQ<60: Seriously, if there is one single person responsible for the M’s poor start, it’s the third base coach. If he isn’t on the payroll of the Athletics, Rangers and Angels, he should be. Brumley has looked clueless all season, sending runners who get thrown out my 15 feet, waving his arms around like a mad man and generally killing any chance the team has of scoring runs. Seattle is a team built with zero margin for error and yet they’ve run themselves out of more innings than I can count. Please fire him Mariners. Please?  

It would take approximately 100,000 Mike Brumley cards to buy a loaf of bread in Slovenia.

2) The Law of Averages: In 2009 the Mariners compiled an 85-77 record despite a negative run differential. The last time that Seattle had a winning record with a negative run differential was 2007; the following season they lost 101 games. The Mariners thrived in one run games last year, but they can’t catch a break in 2010, and are finally experiencing the regression they should have in 2009. Baseball is a game of averages and right now those averages are bitch slapping the Mariners. The team almost certainly won’t lose over 100 games again (I think…I hope…I just don’t know) but they also aren’t going to post a winning record. Happy trails Cliff Lee!   

3) Milton Bradley=Crazy: I won’t second guess the Mariners for trading away Carlos Silva (even as he thrives with the Cubs) but expecting Milton Bradley to play left field and hit cleanup all season long was doomed to fail from the start. There’s no doubt that Bradley is a talented hitter, but there is also little doubt that he has more bats in the belfry than Lady Gaga. I’m pulling for him to turn it around and have a strong year at the dish, but I certainly wouldn’t bet a gem mint 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card on it. The Mariners’ had less of a contingency plan going into 2010 than John Hammond did for Jurassic Park and they are paying dearly for it now.    

4) Catchers Who Can’t Catch (or Hit): How bad is the combination of Rob Johnson and Adam Moore behind the plate? Bad enough that I’m dreaming of the glory days of Kenji Johjima, Ben Davis and Tom Lampkin. Neither Johnson nor Moore has shown the ability to consistently hit major league pitching so they combine for a black hole in the lineup, which might be okay if they were stellar defensively—they’re not. The Mariners lead the majors in passed balls which have led to numerous unearned runs we can ill afford to spare. 

5) Clubhouse Chemistry Does Not Win Divisions: The impetus for the Mariners bringing in both Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney for 2010 was that good vibes and practical jokes would help Seattle return to the playoffs. Nevermind that both Griffey and Sweeney are one-dimensional at best and occupy two roster spots that are virtually worthless to the team right now because they’re great guys! And while manager Don Wakamatsu may be loved by the players, his handling of the bullpen this year makes Dusty Baker look like the Einstein of baseball, and it would be nice to see him show a little emotion from time to time (he’s quickly becoming baseball’s Art Shell). The Mariners roster was built to fail because it hinged on a mythical thing called chemistry rather than a very real thing called talent. Let’s hope the Mariners front office learn from their mistakes in 2010 and puts a product on the field in 2011 that resembles a major league baseball team, because the Mariners are anything but right now.  

Remember when Seattle was 9-7 and looking like a legitimate contender. Yeah, me either…

Mariners Monthly Roundup: April “Who Needs to Hit to Win the West” Edition

 

Franklin Gutierrez carried the Mariners offense in April. Can he keep it up all season?

Record: 11-12

AL West Standings: Oakland, Texas, Seattle, Los Angeles

Top Hitter: Well, being the top hitter for the Mariners is kind of like being the best Hinder cover band, but that shouldn’t take away from what Franklin Gutierrez did at the plate in April. The constantly improving 27-year-old hit .326 for the month with 2 HR’s and 13 RBI’s and was Seattle’s only real threat in the lineup. Guti came through with a number of clutch hits and is a major reason why the M’s are hovering around .500 instead of being in the AL West cellar after a dreadful offensive showing as a team in April.

Top Pitcher: Dazzling Doug Fister may have had to battle for a spot in the rotation during Spring Training, but he looked like a seasoned vet on the mound in April. The 6′ 8″ righty made the most of his home ballpark and defense with a 2-1 record and stellar 1.67 ERA. Though Fister doesn’t throw hard (high 80’s) he pounds the strike zone (only 5 walks in 27 innings) and makes opposing hitters beat him; they weren’t able to do so in the season’s first month (.208 batting average against). Fister took a no-hitter into the 7th inning against the Orioles on April 19th and gives the M’s a surplus of starting pitching if he can keep up his strong start.

Biggest Surprise: See above.

Biggest Disappointment: Milton Bradley was supposed to the Mariners’ cleanup hitter in 2010 but responded by hitting only .211 in April and continuing to act like a 12-year-old. Something tells me he is due for a big blowup after watching a called third strike with the bases loaded against Tampa Bay; just a hunch I guess.

Doug Fister looked like an ace in April. But can the offense keep pace with the M's staff?

Griffey Watch: Far be it from me to second guess one of the greatest players in the history of baseball, but it looks like Ken Griffey Jr. should have left while he was ahead after the 2009 season. Through the first month of the year Junior was hitting just .228 with only one extra-base hit (a double) and 4 RBI’s in 57 AB’s. He can’t catch up to even pedestrian fastballs and spends most of his time looking lost at the plate. Jack Zdurinciek and manager Don Wakamatsu will have a tough choice to make with Griffey if he doesn’t start hitting, and soon.

Home Run Tracker: Nine (9). That’s not a typo. The entire team hit nine home runs in one month. Somebody better call Avista because the power is out in Seattle.

Injuries: Erik Bedard (shoulder surgery, 15-day DL–possible late May return); Jack Hannahan (strained groin, 15-day DL–Triple A rehab)

Lingering Questions: Will Cliff Lee’s return energize the Mariners? Will anyone besides Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro hit? How long will it be before Mike Sweeney’s hugs lose their charm? Can someone please hit a home run? Just one?

May Schedule: 2 vs. Texas, 3 vs. Tampa Bay, 3 vs. Los Angeles, 3 @ Baltimore, 3 @ Tampa Bay, 2 @ Oakland, 2 @ Toronto, 3 vs. San Diego, 2 vs. Detroit, 3 @ Los Angeles, 1 vs. Minnesota.

Overall Grade: (B-) The Mariners should be thanking their lucky stars that the rest of the AL West struggled through April because Seattle did not look like a playoff team in the first month of 2010. Their pitching is once again among the game’s best but the offense looks even worse than last season–and they were bad in 2009. The return of Cliff Lee should help the M’s, but unless the team starts hitting they’ll find themselves out of contention by the end of May. Seattle needs to regroup fast in order to live up to their lofty expectations. Things could get ugly in hurry if they don’t…

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.