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.

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Completing the Puzzle: Who Do the Mariners Need to Target in Free Agency?

Jason Bay has ties to the Pacific Northwest, but is he a good fit for the Seattle Mariners?

Though the Mariners signing of free-agent third baseman Chone Figgins  shows that they are serious about competing for the division, baseball’s Winter Meetings have come and gone and the team still has plenty of holes left to fill if they want to have a realistic shot at winning the AL West.

Texas has been busy all week, signing free-agent Rich Harden and acquiring Chris Ray and Mike Lowell (still pending) through trades, turning up the heat on Seattle to keep pace.

The Oakland Athletics were one of the most improved teams in all of baseball during last season’s second half, and figure to be even better in 2010 with all the experience their young players gained down the stretch.

Los Angeles lost Figgins and may be unable to resign their ace Jon Lackey, but the Angels are still dangerous after winning the division by 10 games last year despite battling injuries to key players the entire season.

All four teams in the AL West have a legitimate shot at winning the division next year, with no clear front-runner at this point in the offseason; what will it take for the Mariners to come out on top in 2010?

The addition of Figgins fills Seattle’s need for a third-baseman, but the Mariners still need help at first-base, catcher, left-field, designated hitter and in their rotation (more on this in a later post). Statistically one of the worst offensive teams in the American League last season, Seattle’s superb pitching staff carried the team all year, leading the AL with a 3.87 team ERA. While the pitching will likely regress a bit next year due to the losses of Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn, it’s clear that the Mariners main focus this offseason needs to be on adding offensive firepower; this may prove to be an expensive proposition with four positions yet to be filled.

After Endy Chavez’s season-ending injury the Mariners got virtually no production out of leftfield, with the trio of Bill Hall, Michael Saunders and Ryan Langerhans performing well below replacement level. Jason Bay is imminently available after being unable to come to terms with the Red Sox and has strong ties to the Pacific Northwest, but is seeking a contract in the range of 4-5 years and $60+ million dollars, a deal that would leave the Mariners out of cash and still needing a first baseman, catcher and right-handed DH. Additionally, there are concerns about whether a one-dimensional player like Bay, who hits for power but provides little else, would be worth a long-term investment in a park like Safeco Field that caters towards pitching.

Free-agent outfielder Matt Holliday offers more versatility than Bay but would need a similarly hand-cuffing contract to come aboard (he is represented by Scott Boras after all). A more budget friendly option is former Seattle Mariner Mike Cameron, who despite turning 36 last season, is still a plus defender in the outfield who offers good power and patience at the plate. The Mariners could probably ink Cameron to a one-year deal, limiting the risk if he performs poorly, which would also give Saunders another year to develop in Triple-A Tacoma. Other players to consider in left-field include Randy Winn, Jonny Gomes or Josh Willingham.

A breakout performer last year, Seattle would be happy to bring Branyan back at first base in 2010.

The Mariners got surprising production out of first base last season, with Russell Branyan taking advantage of his first chance to play full-time by slugging 31 HR’s and driving in 76 runs. The early indications seem to suggest that Seattle plans on bringing Branyan back for at least one more year, although he would probably be due a substantial raise over the $1.4 million dollars he earned in 2009. Branyan stated all season long that he owed it to the Mariners to resign with the club because they were the only team willing to give him a full-time role, but it remains to be seen whether that will hold true if another team offers him a lucrative deal.

If Seattle loses Branyan to another team they could replace him internally with Mike Carp, who performed admirably in a short trial last season (.315 in 54 AB’s), or they could pursue free-agent Nick Johnson. Though injury prone, the 31-year-old Johnson has one of the best batting eyes in the game (.426 OBP in 2009) and is a solid defensive first baseman who could fit comfortably into the Mariner’s lineup as their number three hitter. There has also been some speculation that Seattle would consider shifting second baseman Jose Lopez (a defensive liability up the middle) to first base and moving Matt Tuiasosopo (a third baseman in the minors) to second, a possibility now that the hot corner has been filled by Figgins.

Catcher was another gaping hole for the Mariners in 2009, with a disappointing season from Kenji Johjima and young catchers Rob Johnson and Adam Moore struggling to adjust to big league pitching. With Johjima back in Japan, the battle for starting catcher in 2010 will boil down to Johnson and Moore unless the Mariners try to acquire a catcher via free agency or trade. Johnson received praise from the pitching staff for his game-calling abilities but he hit only .213 with 2 HR’s and 27 RBI’s. Moore saw limited action with the Mariners, spending the majority of the season in the minor leagues, hitting a combined .287-13 HR’s-56 RBI’s between Double and Triple-A. S

eattle has been mentioned as a possible destination for free-agent catcher Miguel Olivo, a defensively-challenged backstop who hit 23 HR’s in only 390 AB’s last season. While Olivo has never shown the ability to draw a walk, he has consistently produced good power numbers and is the best player available in a very thin catching market. If the M’s could sign him to an incetive-laden one-year deal, Olivo is probably a worthwhile gamble; if he wants a multi-year deal Seattle is better off allowing Johnson and Moore to develop in the majors.

Could the former Mariner killer become a killer Mariner?

Designated hitter may have been the most popular position for Seattle in 2009, with clubhouse favorites Mike Sweeney and Ken Griffey Jr. manning the post, but it certainly wasn’t the most productive. Griffey’s back and figures to get the majority of at-bats against right-handed pitching; the Mariners hope he can rebound from a sub par return to the Emerald City last year (.214-19 HR’s-57 RBI’s). Seattle needs to find a player who hits left-handed pitching well to platoon with Griffey, but this year’s free agent crop is very thin in terms of quality hitters.

The M’s might have to take a flier on someone coming off an injury or a bad season. Some possible candidates include Xavier Nady, Olivo, Carlos Delgado or even longtime thorn-in-the-side Vladimir Guerrero. While Guerrero’s power has dipped in recent years, he would still be a significant upgrade over Sweeney as a part-time DH, and could become a solid run producer with Ichiro and Figgins at the top of the lineup.

As of today there are still 266 free agents available for the Mariners to sign, so despite the team’s need to fill multiple holes in their lineup, there’s no need to panic–yet. The Rangers’ lastest moves have upped the ante, but Jack Zduriencik has shown himself to be a very capable baseball man, and will work tirelessly to make Seattle a frontrunner for the 2010 AL West title.

The Mariners certainly have issues to address, but the pieces to build a title contender are out there; now it’s just up to the Mariners and their front office to fit them all together.

Mariners’ Monthly Roundup: September & October “Great End to a Surprisingly Successful Season” Edition

Mike Sweeney enjoyed his best month as a Mariner in September.

Designated hitter Mike Sweeney enjoyed his best month as a Mariner in September.

Record: 17-13 (85-77 overall)

Final AL West Standings: L.A. Angels  (97-65); Texas Rangers (87-75); Seattle Mariners (85-77); Oakland Athletics (75-87)

Top Hitter: Though best known as the nicest guy in baseball, Mike Sweeney proved in September and October that he still has something to offer at the dish, hitting .339 with 3 HRs and 8 RBIs in just 53 at-bats. The wily veteran provided a number of clutch hits, including a go-ahead two-run single against the Oakland A’s on October 1st. Sweeney finished the year with a .281 average, 8 HR’s and 34 RBI’s. Along with Ken Griffey Jr., the gregarious Sweeney was instrumental in changing the Mariners’ clubhouse from a funeral home to an environment that bred success.

Top Pitcher: The best just kept getting better as Felix Hernandez went 6-0 in September and October with 1.52 ERA. The 23-year-old phenom allowed just one HR in his last 7 starts of the year and had an astounding 0.97 WHIP over the season’s last month. Though he will probably finish second in this year’s AL Cy Young race, Hernandez has given Seattle fans plenty of reasons to be excited about the M’s chances in 2010. King Felix tied for the league lead in wins (19) and finished 2nd in ERA (2.49), 3rd in WHIP (1.14) and 4th in strikeouts (217). Yeah, he’s that good.

Biggest Surprise: On a 3-1 pitch in his second at-bat of the game against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 27th, Matt Tuiasosopo hit a fastball into the left-field stands for a HR, making Mike Blowers look like Nostradamus in the process. Blowers, a former M’s third baseman, predicted in the pregame show that Tuiasosopo would hit his first career HR, and against all odds Tui came through. The story quickly made its way through the blogosphere and onto ESPN, making Tui’s HR the highlight of a very fun season of baseball for the Mariners (besides of course that Griffey guy returning to Seattle).

Biggest Disappointment: Russell Branyan was having the best season of his career before a herniated disk in his back forced him to miss the year’s last month. The Mariners clearly were a different team without his bat in the middle of the lineup and will likely try to bring him back as either a DH or first baseman for next season. Despite not playing in September, Branyan still led the Mariners with 31 HR’s for the season and finished second on the team with 76 RBI’s. The M’s faith in Branyan was not misplaced.

It was a storybook ending to Griffey's return as a Mariner.

What a way to end a magical season in Seattle.

Griffey Watch: Ken Griffey Jr. finished the season with a flourish, hitting HR’s in 3 of his final 5 games and rapping a single in his last at-bat of the year. Though statistically one of the worst seasons of his career, Junior provided timely hits and much needed leadership to a young Mariners’ team looking for an identity. If he is willing to accept a reduced role in 2010, Seattle would love another season with the franchise’s most popular player.

Overall Grade: (A) The Mariners ended 2009 on a roll, with a 17-13 record in September and October that brought their season mark up to 85-77. Considering the team lost 101 games last season, the quick turnaround orchestrated by Jack Zdrunciek and Don Wakamatsu is nothing short of spectacular.  The strong play of youngsters like Mike “Magic” Karp, Matt Tuiasosopo and Doug Fister, along with the continued emergence of players like Felix Hernandez, David Aardsma, Jose Lopez and Franklin Gutierrez, gives the Mariners a strong foundation to build upon moving forward. Two thousand and nine was a great season for the Mariners; here’s hoping 2010 holds something special for Seattle. Hats off to the Mariners for a tremendous year, it sure was a lot of fun to watch.