Is the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl Berth a Harbringer of What’s to Come in Baseball this Season?

Sorry Nationals' fans, not even Drew Brees' magic touch can get you to the World Series in 2010 (or '11, '12, ad infinitum).

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, watching Jersey Shore 24/7 or hanging out with Tiger Woods in a “Sex Rehab” center in Mississippi, you probably know by now that the New Orleans Saints will be playing the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV on February 7th. Moreover, with all the hype and news coverage that comes with a game of such magnitude, you probably also know that this will be the first Super Bowl appearance ever for the New Orleans franchise (who no longer can be called the “Aint’s”). That leaves only four teams in the NFL that have never been to the big game; the Detroit Lions (shocker), Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. So, does the Saints magical run to the big game give hope to fans of long-suffering baseball teams as it does to the above football teams, or is it simply another painful reminder of how little they’ve accomplished in their pitiful existences?       

Entering their 39th season, the Rangers still have not made a World Series appearance.

Heading into the 2010 Major League Baseball season there are only three teams that have never reached a World Series; the Washington Nationals (including their time in Montreal), the Texas Rangers and, of course, my beloved Seattle Mariners. That’s right, even the four expansion teams created in the last 17 years (Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays) have all made World Series appearances, with the Marlins winning twice and the Diamondbacks once. How frustrating is that if you’re a Nationals, Rangers or Mariners fan? Heck, I’d assume those teams are even more embarrassed than that guy in Viagra commercials who tries to work up the courage to talk to his doctor about ED (though his real problem might not be ED, but the fact that his reflection talks to him).  The Montreal/Washington franchise has been in existence since 1969, the Texas Rangers since 1972 and the Seattle Mariners havecompeted in Major League Baseball since 1977 (these dates do not include the two separate Washington Senator franchises that spawned the Montreal and Texas teams). Even a blind squirrel finds a nut occasionally, but these teams somehow have not been able to reach a World Series in over 30 years of existence. Will that change in 2010?      

Now, before I go any further into depth about the three teams, let’s eliminate the Nationals from the conversation all together, because let’s face it—it’s going to take a lot more than a miracle for Washington to make the World Series next year (or ever for that case). They’re just like the little engine that could, except they can’t (also see: Royals, Kansas City and Pirates, Pittsburgh).      

The addition of Cliff Lee makes the Mariners a serious threat to capture the AL West this year.

The Mariners and Rangers, on the other hand, both had strong offseasons that could put them in contention to make a deep run in the playoffs in 2010. Texas had a solid 2009 season with the emergence of young pitchers like Scott Feldman and Matt Harrison and added a talented hurler in Rich Harden to their roster to complement an offense led by Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Michael Young. The Mariners were one of the biggest surprises in all of baseball last year, finishing 85-77, and reloaded their roster this offseason with Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley and 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee. The two teams will have their work cut out for them in an increasingly difficult AL West, but it’s not hard to believe that either Texas or Seattle could capture the division. Of course, having never reached a World Series, neither Texas or Seattle has a particularly strong postseason track record. Which one has the best chance to break through this year?     

The Rangers have been one of the sorriest organizations in baseball over the past 40 years (but no one’s blaming George Bush). Not only have they never reached a World Series, but the franchise has also never even won a single playoff series. Texas didn’t reach the postseason for the first time until 1996 and have a lifetime 1-9 record (all against the Yankees) in the playoffs. Quite simply, they stink.     

Expect plenty more dog-piles from the M's in 2010. The magic is back in Seattle.

Seattle had a similarly putrid start as a franchise, failing to post a winning record until 1991 and not making their first postseason appearance until 1995 (but what an appearance it was). However, whereas the Rangers have never won a playoff series, the Mariners have made three trips to the ALCS, falling to the Indians in 1995 and the Yankees in 2000 and 2001. Seattle’s overall record in the postseason is a respectable 15-19 (.440 winning percentage) which compares favorably to the New Orleans Saints 4-6 postseason record (.400 winning percentage). Like the Saints, the Mariners have enjoyed a modicum of postseason success, yet have been unable to get over the hump and reach their sport’s biggest stage. That is, until 2010 rolled around.  

The stars have aligned for Sodo Mojo in 2010. Bet it all on the Mariners to reach the World Series for the first time this season…my logic is infallible.

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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.

Noteworthy News: Wrapping Up the Latest Deals from Baseball’s Winter Meetings

The Rangers sent Kevin Millwood to Baltimore, then signed free-agent Rich Harden the next day.

 1) Texas Rangers trade Kevin Millwood and cash to Baltimore Orioles in exchange for Chris Ray: The Texas Rangers have been one of baseball’s busiest teams in the  offseason thus far, and they continued that trend by sending former Opening Day starter Millwood and $3 million dollars to the Baltimore Orioles for relievers Chris Ray and Ben Snyder. Millwood was solid in 2009, going 13-10 with a 3.67 ERA but the Rangers were looking to free up salary to sign free-agent Rich Harden (a deal which has since been completed). The 27-year-old Ray is a former closer who struggled to return from elbow surgery last season but has saved 33 games as recently as 2006. The deal gives Baltimore a proven veteran pitcher controlled through 2011 to mentor younger starters David Hernandez, Brian Matsuz and Chris Tillman. 

2) Boston Red Sox trade Mike Lowell and cash to Texas in exchange for catching prospect Max Ramirez: The Red Sox freed up third base for next season, possibly in order to sign Adrian Beltre, with today’s trade of Mike Lowell to Texas. The Rangers plan to use the injury-prone Lowell as a DH and first baseman (potentially a platoon partner with Chris Davis). Lowell, a major liability in the field due to hip problems, appeared in just 119 games last year but still hit .290 with 17 HR’s and 75 RBI’s. The Red Sox have also agreed to pay most of Lowell’s $12 million dollar salary for next season if the league approves the deal. In return Boston receives Max Ramirez, a 25-year-old catcher and former Atlanta Braves top prospect, who will likely serve as Victor Martinez’s backup unless the Red Sox decide to shift Martinez to first. 

The Astros hope Feliz's strong defense will help them return to the postseason.

 3) Houston Astros sign free-agent third baseman Pedro Feliz: Feliz spent the last two years as the primary third baseman for Philadelphia but with the Phillies acquisition of Placido Polanco, the 2008 World Series champion was left looking for work and Houston happily obliged. The Astros already have Geoff Blum manning the hot corner but would prefer to use his versatility all over the field rather than play him full-time at third. Feliz is a solid defender at third base but is starting to become a liability at the plate after hitting only .266 with 12 HR’s and 88 RBI’s last season. Already 34-years-old, Feliz doesn’t have much in the way of upside and won’t turn a team from pretender to contender, but is a solid if unspectacular pickup (1 year/$4.5 million) for a team on a budget like Houston. 

4) Pittsburgh Pirates sign free-agent shortstop Bobby Crosby: An underachieving team signing an underachieving player doesn’t sound like a traditional recipe for success, but so is life for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans. Crosby has been in steady decline since winning the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2004 and struggled last year with injuries and inconsistency (.223-6 HR’s-29 RBI’s). The Pirates hope that he can challenge Ronny Cedeno for shortstop and possibly recapture some of his past success, but at only $1 million for next year Pittsburgh isn’t taking that big of a gamble on him…what’s new in Steeltown? 

5) Atlanta Braves trade relief pitcher Rafael Soriano to Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for pitcher Jesse Chavez: One of the top right-handed relief pitchers in the National League last season, Tampa Bay acquired Soriano with the idea plugging him in as their full-time closer in 2010. While splitting the closer’s role with Mike Gonzalez in Atlanta last year, Soriano posted a 2.97 ERA and struck out 102 batters in only 75 innings. The Rays had a full-blown closer by committee bullpen in 2009, and if Soriano can stay healthy Tampa Bay will be one step closer to challenging the Yankees and Red Sox for AL East supremacy. The Braves decided to move Soriano after he accepted their arbritation offer which would have cost the team between $7 and $8 million dollars next season if they had kept him. In return, Atlanta acquires an average bullpen arm (Chavez went 1-4, 4.07 ERA in 2009) at a steeply discounted price. 

Randy Wolf snagged almost $30 million dollars from the Brewers. Is he worth it?

 6) Milwaukee Brewers sign free-agent pitcher Randy Wolf: Looking to add stability to their rotation behind ace Yovanni Gallardo, the Brewers have reached an agreement with Randy Wolf on a three-year, $29 million dollar contract. The left-handed Wolf was the Dodgers most consistent pitcher last season, winning 11 games to go along with 160 strikeouts and a 3.23 ERA. However, before last year Wolf only had two other seasons with an ERA below 4.00, and is moving from one of the league’s best pitcher’s parks to one of the worst. The Brewers desperately needed starting pitching, help, but it remains to be seen whether Wolf is the right choice long-term. 

7) Texas Rangers sign free-agent pitcher Rich Harden: The ultimate high-risk, high-reward player on the market, Harden is one of the game’s most dominating starting pitchers—when he’s healthy. The deal promises Harden $7.5 million next season with a club option of $11.5 million for 2011. Harden went 9-9 with a 4.09 ERA last year for the Cubs, striking out 171 batters in only 141 innings. Unfortunately, last season was just the third time in his seven-year career that Harden pitched more than 140 innings, and only once has he made more than 30 starts in a single year (2004). If he can stay off the disabled list this could be a major coup for the Rangers, if not, it’s just a very expensive mistake.