Hope Springs Eternal: Seattle Mariners Open Season with Win over Oakland Athletics in Japan; Next Stop World Series?

What ever he hits, he destroys. (Cliff Welch/ICON SMI)

The Seattle Mariners are in first place in the A.L. West. The Seattle Mariners, are in first place, in the A.L West?

That’s not a phrase we’ve grown accustomed to hearing over the last decade, and it isn’t one we’ll likely hear much more this year (although thanks to the quirky scheduling of MLB the M’s will hold at least a share of the division lead until at least April 5th), but it does feel good to say, no matter the qualifiers.

It wasn’t a convincing win by any means (unless it convinced you that the Mariners will struggle to score runs for Felix again), and you can’t take too much away from one game, but Seattle’s 3-1 win did allow us to form some early impressions:

  • Eric Wedge micromanages like I play croquet; he doesn’t. The stubborn skipper left Michael Saunders in to face a tough lefty in Brian Fuentes (not physically tough mind you, he looks pretty doughy, but he does hold lefties to a .078 lower OPS than righties) rather than going to the bench for Casper Wells. It doesn’t cost the Mariners this game, and I’m not asking Wedge to suddenly turn into Tony LaRussa,  but it would be nice to see him play the match-ups a bit more frequently.
  • The heart of the order needs to perform more like a heart, and less like an appendix. Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, and Mike Carp combined to go 0-13 at the plate last night in a showing far too reminiscent of the nightmare that was last year’s 4-5-6 hitters. Yes it’s just one game, but an already dwindling fan base isn’t going to put up with another season of 2-1 losses and weeks without home runs.
  • The Oakland A’s sold out a home game! Yes, Oakland was the home team in Japan. No, they won’t sell out another home game this year (other than tonight’s second game in Japan). So long Oakland, hello San Jose!
  • Dustin Ackley is the West Coast version of Chase Utley. The Mariners second baseman showed the world (or at least everyone awake at 3 a.m.) why so many baseball pundits had high hopes for him coming into the season. The second overall pick in the 2009 draft clobbered a home run to right-center off noted ground baller Brandon McCarthy, stole a base, and drove in the go-ahead run in the win. He’s got some work to do on defense, but that Ackley cat can flat-out hit.
  • The Mariners run the bases, like they’ve never been on base. Maybe it was just early season jitters last night, but the Mariners had a pair of base running gaffes (Michael Saunders getting thrown out at third on a ball hit in front of him and Brendan Ryan getting caught stealing second) that a team with limited run scoring ability can’t afford to make.
  • Ichiro isn’t finished just yet. The least prototypical number three hitter in baseball thrilled the crowd in his home country with four hits including a key RBI single in the 11th. The 38-year-old Suzuki struggled mightily in 2011, and a strong year from the M’s elder statesman could go along way towards a turnaround season for Los Marineros in 2012.

What new things will we learn about the Mariners in game two of this whirlwind ride known as the 2012 season? Tune in to Root Sports at 2 a.m. tomorrow morning to find out!

Fun with Photoshop: “I Lust for (Jack) Cust”

Mariners Monthly Roundup: June “If Only We Played in the NL Central” Edition.

Cliff Lee's tremendous month of June won't make it any easier to say goodbye.

Record: 14-13  (Overall 33-44)

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

 

Top Hitter: It’s almost by default that Ichiro claims his place as the team’s top hitter because no one else on the Mariners seemed to know what they were doing at the plate in June. The ageless Suzuki just kept plugging along, hitting .321 in the month with 2 HR’s, 14 RBI’s and 8 stolen bases. Considering that Seattle has a team batting average of .239, Ichiro might be more valuable to the Mariners than he ever has been. Whatever he’s getting paid, he’s worth it. Can you imagine this offense with Ichiro?

Top Pitcher: If June truly was Cliff Lee’s last month as a Mariner he made the most of it. The most coveted trade chip in all of baseball posted a 4-1 record with a 1.76 ERA and an unbelievable four complete games (his 36/2 strikeout-to-walk ration wasn’t too shabby either). Though Lee won’t be able to lead the Mariners back to the playoffs (not single-handedly at least), he should bring in a hearty bounty of prospects from whichever contender acquires his services (Minnesota, St. Louis and the New York Mets are all in the mix). Thanks for the memories Cliff; maybe someday we’ll be reunited once again. Maybe…

Biggest Surprise: Finally given a chance to play everyday, Michael “the Condor” Saunders has shown why he was one of the most highly regarded prospects in the Mariners’ organization, connecting for a team-high five home runs in the month of June. The 23-year-old is still struggling to find consistency at the plate and needs to cut down on the K’s (37 in 112 AB’s) but he provides some hope that the M’s might not be terrible forever.

Biggest Disappointment: Rob Johnson (.200 BA) and Sean White (7.58 ERA) are not major league caliber players. Not today, not ever. Don’t tell me that there are no players in our farm system capable of what those two bumbling idiots are doing at the big league level. Please do something about them Seattle front office. Please?

Griffey Watch: N/A…insert sad face here.

Happy Trails: The Ian Snell Experiment (0-5, 6.41 ERA) wasn’t anymore successful in 2010 than it was last year. The Mariners showed amazing patience with the struggling pitcher, but finally had enough after Snell showed no signs of turning things around, and designated him for assignment. Shockingly, no other team was willing to take a chance on him. Color me surprised…

Injuries: Erik Bedard (shoulder surgery, 60-day DL–early July return); Mark Lowe (lower back inflammation, 15-day DL); Shawn Kelley (right elbow inflammation, 15-day DL); Mike Sweeney (old age, 15-day DL): Rob Johnson (inability to catch balls thrown his way, no known cure).

Lingering Questions: Will Russell Branyan lead the Mariners in home runs for the season despite not joining the team until late June? Will King Felix continue to pitch at a high level once Cliff Lee is traded? Should fans continue to show up to Safeco Field if Rob Johnson is still the starting catcher? What’s Ken Griffey Jr. up to?

July Schedule: 4 @ Detroit, 3 vs. Kansas City, 4 vs. New York, All Star Break, 4 @ Los Angeles, 3 vs. Chicago, 4 vs. Boston, 4 @ Chicago, 2 @ Minnesota.

Overall Grade: (B) It only took until June, but the Mariners finally posted their first winning month of the season–one game over .500!! Despite a strong finish to the month, Seattle actually lost ground in the division as Texas was hotter than, well, Texas on a summer’s day. The 1-2 punch of Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez finally lived up to the hype, but not even dominating performances from those two aces could obscure just how badly the offense has performed all season. With virtually no chance to catch the Rangers in the division, it will be interesting to see what big names the Mariners consider moving at the trade deadline, and what pieces they can acquire to build for 2011 and beyond. This is Jack Zdrunciek’s best shot to prove that he is not Bill Bavasi part deux. No pressure though…

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.

Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas’ Retirement Leaves a Big Hole In Baseball’s Heart.

At 6’5″ and 260 pounds, Frank Thomas was one of the most intimidating hitters in the history of baseball.

Perhaps no athlete in sports better embodied his nickname than Frank Thomas. Dubbed “the Big Hurt” by his teammates and the media, the gargantuan Thomas (a former tight-end at Auburn) towered over the baseball landscape as the best right-handed hitter for nearly a decade. The two-time MVP possessed a rare combination of prodigious power and plate discipline that made him one of the most feared sluggers of the 1990’s.

Along with Ken Griffey Jr. and Juan Gonzalez, Thomas was part of a group of young stars that led a revival of the home run during the early 90’s, peaking in the strike-shortened 1994 season in which he hit 39 longballs in only 399 at bats. Thomas finished his career with 521 home runs, good enough for 18th all-time, though the Big Hurt’s game was much more than just big flys.

A disciplined hitter who led the American League in walks four times, Thomas’ knowledge of the strike zone was nearly unparalleled among his peers. His 1,667 walks rank 9th all-time, and combined with his .301 batting average, result in a robust .419 career OBP (21st all-time, just behind Mickey Mantle and ahead of Stan Musial and Edgar Martinez).

Though the later part of his career was marred by injuries (joining Griffey Jr. in the “what if” club), the Big Hurt still finished 15th all-time in OPS, 25th in slugging, 22nd in RBI’s and 26th in extra-base hits. Sure he made David Ortiz look like John Olerud at first base, and yeah he ran with all the grace of a bewildered water buffalo, but Thomas owned home plate with a modern-day Thor’s hammer. Frank Thomas didn’t just hit baseballs…he destroyed them.

Even more impressive than all the numbers Thomas accumulated is the fact that he played baseball the right way, refusing to substitute shortcuts or supplements for hard work. Despite being a home run hitter in the scandal-filled steroids era, the Big Hurt has never been linked to PED’s and was one of baseball’s most outspoken players about steroids, calling for strict punishments of convicted cheaters.

Frank Thomas retired from baseball as one of the 15-20 greatest hitters of all-time. His numbers alone make him a Hall-of-Fame candidate, but it’s his integrity that ensures he will go in on the first ballot. Happy trails Big Hurt; baseball was a better sport because of you.

Ken Griffey Jr. is the Most Important Player in Baseball. Here’s Why.

At 40-years-old, Ken Griffey Jr. is primed for the most important season of his career.

Ken Griffey Jr. is no longer “the Kid”. He won’t be climbing walls and stealing would-be home runs or depositing 40+ souvenirs into the outfield stands in 2010. Junior will huff and puff trying to score from second on a single, struggle to catch up with above-average fastballs and will likely spend more time on the bench than he does on the field. Yet, despite all the shortcomings of his 40-year-old body, Ken Griffey Jr. has never meant more to the Seattle Mariners or the sport of baseball than he will in 2010.

The Mariners enter the season as a threat to win the AL West and a dark horse (though that term is forever soiled by the latest Nickleback album) to make a deep postseason run. The roster has been completely overhauled by new GM Jack Zduriencik and the additions of Cliff Lee, Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley give Seattle an even more talented roster than the one that went 85-77 last year. However, no offseason move was more important to the Mariners and their fans than bringing back Griffey for the 2010 season.

Junior completely transformed the Mariners last year, turning a dugout that looked like a crypt into somewhere more fun than an episode of MXC. For the first time in years Seattle players looked like they were having fun in 2009 (heck even Ichiro smiled, and he was diagnosed with a rare condition that makes it extremely painful to show any emotion) and it’s impossible to overstate how important chemistry was to the Mariners’ success last season.

Ken Griffey Jr. makes me want to be a better man.

Griffey will once again be counted on as the unquestioned leader of the Mariners in 2010, and will have his work cut out for him with the addition of the mercurial Bradley, a talented but troubled player who needs to perform at a high level if Seattle is to succeed in a competitive AL West. If the Mariners do manage to win their division (because the Wild Card will come out of the AL East), Junior is one of just a handful of players on the team with any prior postseason experience and the only remaining link to the Mariners’ magical 1995 season.

Griffey is part player, part coach and part class clown—and Seattle needs him to fulfill all three roles if the team hopes to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Junior is integral to the success or failure of the Mariners in 2010, but he is even more important as a symbol of hope for the still tarnished sport of baseball.

Though Major League Baseball would like to continue to sweep the issue of steroids under the carpet, Mark McGwire’s return to the game has once again brought the taboo topic to the forefront of fans’ minds. Nearly every prolific home run hitter from the last two decades (Barry Bonds, McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, etc.) has been linked in some way to steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs…but not Ken Griffey Jr.

He stands above the fray as a man who played the game of baseball the right way, and by not aging gracefully, Griffey in fact aged gracefully. Junior’s head didn’t grow while he was in his 30’s and he peaked when he was 28 or 29, not 38 or 39 (cough Barry Bonds cough). Ken Griffey Jr. is the lone source of light in the darkness that envelops the steroids era and has shown other players and the young kids that look up to him that success can be found without the help of a needle. Griffey took the responsibility of being a role model seriously, and if there is anything that baseball can salvage from the past twenty years, it’s thanks to Junior.

Hopefully baseball fans give Griffey the farewell he deserves this season. He’s done more for the game than we may ever know.

Bud’s Top Ten Players for 2010 (Part 1)

Aroldis Chapman is set to become a household name in 2010.

As a dual member of baseball’s brain trust and the sportswriting community, I am often approached by strangers on sidewalks or in stores who ask questions like: Why do you use so many commas in your writing? What are your thoughts on Cliff Floyd’s Hall-of-Fame candidacy? Did you ever take any courses on grammar or the English language? Why do people think Dane Cook is funny? And of course, which ten players are you most looking forward to watching in 2010? Well, I can provide little insight on most of their queries (Floyd did hit 34 HR’s 2005 for what it’s worth), so here is a look at Bud’s Top Ten Players for 2010 in some particular order:  

10.) Aroldis Chapman: Genetically engineered by Cuban scientists (think Ivan Drago or Yao Ming) to become the greatest left-handed pitcher of the 21st century and beyond, the 21-year-old Chapman might not throw a pitch in the majors next season, but the hype surrounding him is reaching New Moon levels. As a lefty who consistently throws in the high-90’s, Chapman could be a long-term impact arm for whatever team (Blue Jays, A’s, Angels, Red Sox or Yankees) ponies up the cash for him. How Chapman fairs in the minors in 2010 will go a long way in determining whether he’s worth the $20-25 million he’s likely to get (which he will of course mail back to Castro to support the resistance) or if he’s just another overpriced bust.  

9.) Alex Rodriguez: With Kate Hudson by his side in 2009, A-Rod captured his first World Series title and performed like a king in the postseason despite a nagging hip injury–but now she’s gone. While his body might be fully healthy in time for 2010 his heart will likely still be on the mend, and many baseball pundits wonder if he will be able to perform at last year’s high level without the flaxen-haired feline by his side. He’s on pace to reach 600 HR’s next season and could make a legitimate push for his fourth MVP with an absolutely stacked Yankees lineup, but can Alex do it with a heavy heart? I just don’t know. 

You've Gotta Love This Guy!

8.) Ken Griffey Jr:  My Seattle Mariners bias aside, Ken Griffey Jr. is one of the greatest all around players in the history of baseball and should receive a fond farewell everywhere the M’s play this year, ala Cal Ripken Jr. in 2001. This is the last time fans will be able to see the sweetest swing in baseball and the smile so big and bright that it brought joy to millions around the world. Is that a bit of an exaggeration? Not if you are from the Pacific Northwest it isn’t, the “Kid” will always have a special place in our hearts. Hopefully the Mariners can send Junior out on a high note…perhaps with a trip to their first World Series ever?  

7.) Joe Mauer: Coming off the greatest offensive season ever by a catcher last year, Joe Mauer is poised for even bigger things in 2010 (like dating Scarlett Johansson, curing polio and signing a billion dollar contract—seriously, pay him whatever he wants Minnesota). Mauer captured the AL MVP award last year despite missing a month of the season and the sky is the limit for Minnesota’s 26-year-old savior as the Twins move into their brand spankin’ new stadium. With Justin Morneau protecting him in the lineup and having all of this offseason to recover from nagging injuries, will Mauer make another run at hitting .400 in 2010? If he can stay healthy and continue to hit home runs in bunches, Mauer needs to be mentioned in the same breath as Albert Pujols and Adam Everett as one of the best hitters in baseball. Yeah, he’s that good.  

Will 2010 be Felix's last season in Seattle?

6.) Felix Hernandez: Though it seems like he’s been around longer than Methuselah, Felix Hernandez won’t turn 24 until April and has already established himself as one of the top right-handed pitchers in baseball. Hernandez narrowly missed out on capturing the Cy Young award last year (19-5, 2.49 ERA, 217 K’s) and will have even more incentive to perform in 2010 with free agency looming. If the Mariners aren’t able to sign King Felix to a long-term contract sometime soon the team may be forced to move him at the trade deadline in order to recoup their losses. Can you imagine the bidding war for Felix between the Yankees and Red Sox? I think New York would throw in the Statue of Liberty if it brought Hernandez to the Big Apple. Please don’t go Felix, please! 

Coming Soon: Players 5 through 1!

Handing Out the Hardware: Baseball’s Best & Brightest of 2009

Joe Mauer, and his sideburns, are runaway winners for the 2009 AL MVP.

Joe Mauer, and his sideburns, are runaway winners for the 2009 AL MVP.

AL MVP–Joe Mauer (C-Minnesota): No matter what millions of Derek Jeter apologists may say, the AL MVP is a no brainer. Joe Mauer missed the first month of the season with a bad back, but from May on was the best hitter in all of baseball. The Twins’ All-Star catcher captured his third AL batting title in four years, finishing the season with a .365 average.  Mauer also enjoyed a tremendous spike in his power numbers with a career high 28 HR’s and 98 RBI’s, leading to an AL-best .587 slugging percentage. He walked more times than he struck out (76 BB’s vs. 63 K’s) and lead the league by a country mile in both OBP (.444) and OPS (1.031). As if that wasn’t enough, Mauer continued to play Gold Glove caliber defense behind the plate and led a depleted Twins team to a surprising AL Central title. Without Joltin’ Joe, Minnesota is likely a sub .500 team; without Jeter the Yankees are still one of the AL’s elite clubs. Quite simply, Mauer was more valuable to his team than any other player in the American League. If that doesn’t make him the MVP, what does?

NL MVP–Albert Pujols (1B-St. Louis): While he might not have captured the first Triple Crown since 1967, Pujols was still dominant from start to finish and continued to prove why he will go down in history as one of the game’s greatest sluggers. Phat Albert led the NL is HR’s (47), runs, slugging, OBP and OPS, while finishing third in the league in both RBI’s (135) and batting (.327). He spent the majority of the season getting pitched around (115 BB’s) but always seemed to come through with a clutch hit when St. Louis need it, and his numbers with the bases loaded were simply mind boggling (.588-5 HR-35 RBI-2.171 OPS). Pujols’ third MVP in five years showed once again that it’s Albert’s world and we’re all just living in it.

Zach Grienke overcame pitching for Kansas City and became baseball's best pitcher in 2009.

Zach Grienke overcame pitching for Kansas City and became baseball's best pitcher in 2009.

AL Cy Young–Zack Greinke (SP-Kansas City): Despite being tormented throughout his childhood for having a last named that rhymed with stinky (helping us understand his issues with social anxiety disorder), Zack Grienke was anything but in 2009, pitching brilliantly for one of baseball’s worst teams. The 25-year-old righty had one of the best opening months in history (5-0, 0.50 ERA, 44 K’s) and never looked back, finishing the year 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA and 242 K’s. Don’t let the win-loss record fool you, Grienke was the best pitcher in the majors all year and was reminiscent of a young Pedro Martinez circa 1998. The sky is the limit for Grienke after finally living up to his enormous potential in 2009 (and fulfilling the propechy set forth in the Book of Mary); what will he do for an encore next season?

NL Cy Young–Chris Carpenter (SP-St. Louis): The race for the NL Cy Young was probably the closest in all of baseball, with three pitchers who could make a strong argument for the award. Tim Lincecum was his usual dominant self for the Giants, but winning only 15 games really hurt his chances at back-to-back awards. Adam Wainwright was outstanding in leading the Cardinals to the postseason, but he was outshined by his own teammate, the revitalized Chris Carpenter. Carpenter, who hadn’t pitched a full season since 2006 because of arm troubles, looked better than ever in 2009, going 17-4 with a 2.24 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. The right-hander already captured the league’s Comeback Player of the Year award, but Carpenter will need more room in his trophy case after the best season of his career–and the finest of any NL hurler in ’09.

AL Rookie of the Year–Andrew Bailey (RP-Oakland): Although hidden out in the West Coast on a mediocre Oakland team, Andrew Bailey proved that Billy Beane hasn’t completely lost his marbles by setting a rookie record for saves with 26, good for 9th in the AL. The former Wagner Seahawk soared all season long, striking out more than a batter per inning and finishing the year with an impressive 1.84 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. At only 25-years-old, it appears that Oakland has found a long term solution in the back of their bullpen with “Rich & Creamy” Bailey.

Tommy Hanson baffled NL hitters all season long.

Tommy Hanson baffled National League hitters all season long.

NL Rookie of the Year–Tommy Hanson (SP-Atlanta): The National League had a trio of talented rookie hurlers as Randy Wells, J.A. Happ and Tommy Hanson all turned in stellar freshman campaigns. Despite a late start, Hanson deserves the award after showing why he was regarded as one of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball. The Braves next staff ace wasn’t called up until June 7th, but made the best of his time in bigs, with an 11-4 record, 2.89 ERA and 116 K’s in 127 innings. Although only 23-years-old, Hanson demonstrated the poise of bomb squad technician and was instrumental in Atlanta’s last season push for a playoff berth. Look for continued improvement from John Smoltz version 2.0 in 2010 as he teams up with Jair Jurrjens to form one of the National League’s best 1-2 punches.

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.

Mariners Monthly Roundup: April “Oh My God Are We Actually in 1st Place?” Edition

He's not actually so bad after all.

Erik Bedard was stellar in April.

Record: 13-9

AL West Standings: Seattle, Texas 2 GB, LA 3 GB, Oakland 4 GB

Top Hitter: Many of the Mariners’ projected top hitters have struggled in the early going with Jose Lopez, Adrian Beltre, Ken Griffey Jr and Franklin Gutierrez all hitting under .255. The catalyst for the offense in the first month was offseason acquisition Endy Chavez, known for his glove but not necessarily for his bat. Despite his Nicole Richie-eqsue physique, Chavez has been coming up big for the Mariners’, whether batting leadoff or in the number 2 hole behind Ichiro. In addition to getting on base at a good clip, Chavez has  been a threat on the basepaths stealing five bases to go along with his .305 average. A defensive whiz in leftfield, Chavez will prove an invaluable member of the M’s on both sides of the ball if he can continue to anchor the top of the lineup with Ichiro.

Top Pitcher(s): Two surprises have headlined the Mariner’s pitching staff thus far and are a big reason why the team is near the top of the majors in ERA (despite the best efforts of Carlos Silva). Even though he was roughed up in his last start Jerrod Washburn is pitching like a man on a mission after posting a 5-14 record last season. Washburn nearly matched last season’s win total in April alone, going 3-1 with 3.42 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. He has been complemented nicely in the rotation by the reemergence of Erik Bedard. Bedard pitched well last season but because he spent so much time on the disabled list, he had little effect on the M’s horrific 2008 pitching numbers. He is once again looking the ace that Seattle had hoped for, and through April is sporting a 2-1 record, 2.61 ERA and has 32 Ks in only 31 innings. Felix Hernandez, the one consistent pitcher for the M’s last year, has led the staff since day one and after the first month of the season is 4-0 with a 2.38 ERA and 36 Ks. Is the Cy Young talk far off? If these three can continue to deliver quality starts the Mariners should stay in contention all season long.

Chavez has been a big reason for the M's great start.

Chavez has been a big reason for the M's great start.

Biggest Surprise: The calendar has turned to May and the Mariners are still in first place…enough said. Let’s just hope we’re saying the same thing come September.

Biggest Disappointment: Although he has been a positive influence in the clubhouse and on attendance, Ken Griffey is playing much more like the senior rather than the junior version these days. Always one for seizing the moment, Griffey started the year strong by homering in his first game and still has about as many walks as strikeouts, but otherwise has struggled mightily at the plate. If he continues to hit at his current clip, Junior will be a major liability in the Mariners’ hunt for the AL West title, leaving manager Don Wakamatsu with a very tough decision about what to do with the aging slugger.

Injuries: The pitching staff has been missing starter Ryan Rowland-Smith since Spring Training. Rowland-Smith started the year with triceps tendinitis, but is expected to resume throwing soon and could return the first week of May, taking the place of Chris Jakubauskas (much to the delight of announcers everywhere). Catcher Kenji Johjima was placed on the 15-DL due to hamstring issues and is also expected to return in early May. Chad Cordero, a free agent signing in the offseason, is slated to throw batting practice soon and could join the roster in within a week or two if his right shoulder soreness improves.

May Schedule: 3 vs. Oakland, 2 vs. Texas, 2 @ Kansas City, 3 @ Minnesota, 3 @ Texas, 3 vs. Boston, 4 vs. Los Angeles, 3 vs. San Francisco, 3 @ Oakland, 3 @ Los Angeles.

Overall Grade: (A-) The Mariners have greatly exceeded expectations thus far despite a sub-par offense and some early issues in the bullpen. If Wakamatsu can figure out an effective lineup this squad could still be playing come October.