Tube Socks Again? Merry Christmas from the Mariners!

Cust rhymes with bust? Uh-oh!

It’s that time of year again, when the instead of the shiny new remote control car we always wanted (Justin Upton, Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey III etc.) the Mariners decide to get us something a little more crappy practical: underwear, fleece pajama pants and tube socks! Here’s a look at what the M’s left under the tree for their fans this holiday season:

Jack Cust: With a limited amount of cash to spend this offseason (thanks for nothing David Aardsma’s hip) Jack Cust will likely be the Mariners’ biggest acquisition in both impact on the field and all-around girth. While Cust isn’t exactly a household name outside of the AL West, he is a suitable replacement (Cust posted a .272-13 HR-52 RBI-.395 OBP line in 2010) for Russell Branyan, and does two things that the Mariners struggled to last season: draw walks and hit home runs. If all goes as planned, the M’s new DH will start the year hot and allow me to cash in on my garage full of “I lust for Cust” t-shirts. Jackpot!

Miguel Olivo: It’s hard to belive that the Mariners could do worse at catcher in 2011 than the Rob Johnson/Josh Bard/Adam Moore monstrosity that they put on the field last season, but with the signing of free agent Miguel Olivo, it looks like they’ll give it a try. Olivo had a memorable first go-round as a Mariner during the 2004-2005 seasons in which he hit .200 and .151 respectively, so it’s easy to see why the front office was enamored with him. Olivo is a decent defender behind the plate but he never met a pitch he didn’t like (career 800/125 strikeout-to-walk ratio) and his power doesn’t translate well to Safeco Field. This is going to be a regular dumpster fire…

Brendan Ryan: It appears that Sauron, not Jack Zduriencek, is running the Seattle Mariners because with the addition of Brendan Ryan to a lineup that already includes Jack Wilson the M’s now lead the league in goblins. Why couldn’t we have at least signed a goblin that can hit? The St. Louis Cardinals were eager to jettison Ryan after a season in which struggled at the plate, hitting just .223 with 2 HR’s and 36 RBI’s, and the Mariners obliged (they hate offense after all) by sending away Mikael Cleto for the slick fielding utility man. Hopefully for M’s fans Ryan will simply serve as a stopgap until Dustin Ackley is called up because another season like the last may prove too much for the fragile Seattle psyche. WNBA Championships only do so much for a city.

Time to throw away the wrapping paper…and any hopes for a successful 2011 season.

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Mariners Monthly Roundup: July “From Bad to Worse” Edition.

Michael Saunders is one of the few sources of hope in a dismal season.

Record: 6-22 (Overall 39-66)     

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

Top Hitter: With virtually the whole team slumping in the month it wasn’t difficult for second-year outfielder Michael Saunders to walk away as the best hitter in July. The 23-year-old began to show the potential that made him one of the Mariners most highly regarded prospects, hitting .279 with one HR and 6 RBI’s in the month. More importantly, Saunders flashed improved plate discipline with a 16/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio, leading to a .380 OBP. He’s shown himself to be an above-average defensive player and if he can continue to develop as a hitter, Saunders should be a major part of Seattle’s rebuilding effort moving forward.     

Top Pitcher: Felix Hernandez picked up right where Cliff Lee left off in June, although thanks to an anemic Mariners’ offense, the King only won a single game in July despite a 2.54 ERA and 33 strikeouts against only 9 walks. Besides Erik Bedard Luke French Ryan Rowland-Smith Justin Vargas, Felix is the only sure thing on the Mariners’ staff right now, and the team will have plenty of holes to fill heading into 2010. This team would be completely unwatchable if not for the presence of King Felix.  

Biggest Surprise: Left for dead with the acquisitions of Justin Smoak and Russell Branyan, Casey Kotchman finally decided it was time to play like a big leaguer, hitting .318 with 4 HR’s and 10 RBI’s in the month. With Smoak currently in Triple-A and Branyan manning DH duties, Kotchman should see some significant playing time moving forward. He’s not part of the team’s future, but it would be nice to see him get a chance to play for another team–preferably in the division.    

Biggest Disappointment: Every player on the team not named Felix Hernandez. Also, I wish that Don Wakamatsu and Chone Figgins’ fight had escalated in a full-blown dugout brawl with Rob Johnson’s leg getting broken in the scrum. It’s little things like that which help keep interest up in a long season. And it’s been a loooooooooong season…   

Injuries: Erik Bedard (out for season–hypochondria); Milton Bradley (15-day DL–patellar tendonitis); Shawn Kelley (15-day DL–elbow inflammation); Ryan-Rowland Smith (15-day DL–overall awfulness–set to meet with Men at Work on Monday).   

Lingering Questions: Will the Mariners finish with the worst record in baseball? Will Ichiro be the only Mariner to finish the season hitting over .250? How long before the pitchers and hitters engage in a bloody civil war? Why do I keep watching if they bring me nothing but pain? Can Adam Moore possibly be worse than Rob Johnson? Should fans start showing up at the games with bags on their heads? 

August Schedule: 1 @ Minnesota; 3 vs. Texas; 3 vs. Kansas City; 3 vs. Oakland; 3 @ Cleveland; 3 @ Baltimore; 3 @ New York; 3 @ Boston; 3 vs. Minnesota; 2 vs. Los Angeles.     

Overall Grade: (F) I’m out of words to describe the abomination that is the Mariners, so this picture will have to do.

A Love Story Renewed: Russell Branyan Returns to the Mariners.

The Brawny Paper Towel Man is hoping to bring some power to an anemic lineup.

Casey Kotchman is bad, real bad. Michael Jackson.  

Now Mariners’ fans are mad, real mad. Joe Jackson.  

Seattle’s 2010 first basemen (Casey Kotchman, Mike “Magic” Carp–who will be dead weight until he learns an attack other than splash, Mike Sweeney, Matt Tuisiasopo, Ryan Langerhans, David Segui, etc.) have combined to be worse than Birdemic at the plate on a team that can ill afford to sacrifice any offense.  

So the Mariners admitted the error of their ways and gave their ex-first baseman a call. That must have been awkward:  

“Oh hey Russell, this is the Mariners. You know how we told you we didn’t want you back and that we had found someone better? Well, it turns out we were wrong, and when you left, we realized how much we needed you. So if you can ever forgive us, we need you back in our lives, and more importantly, back in the middle of our order. Whataya say?”  

Of course all of Branyan’s friends told him it was a mistake to get back with the Mariners (they don’t treat you well, they never buy you nice things, there’s no protection in the lineup, etc.) but he didn’t have much of a choice other than retiring or faking a back injury (no one’s accusing you of that Mike Sweeney). 

The move doesn’t make much sense because the Mariners are so far out of contention that ESPN doesn’t even list them in the AL West standings, but they didn’t give up anyone noteworthy (two prospects who I am too lazy to look up), and it never hurts to have someone in your lineup who can hit a ball over the wall…in fair territory. There’s not much rhyme or reason to it, but then again, this whole season hasn’t had much rhyme or reason.

Welcome back Russell. I never stopped loving you. Now go hit some home runs.

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 Draw First Blood in Free Agency: Seattle Close to Signing Chone Figgins

The Mariners made the off-season's first big splash with the signing of Figgins to fill their void at third.

Jack Zdrunciek wasted no time in letting Seattle fans know his intentions for the 2010 season—the Mariners are gunning for an A.L. West title. With the calendar turning to December and baseball’s annual winter meetings looming, the M’s are rumored to be in the final stages of a deal that would bring the 31-year-old Chone Figgins to Seattle to serve as the team’s third baseman for the next four seasons. Though terms of the deal haven’t been finalized, it is estimated that Figgins would receive around $9 million a year through 2013, with a potential option for the 2014 season. Seattle struggled all season at third base, with poor offensive production from an injury-riddled Adrian Beltre and his replacement Jack Hannahan, and the position was clearly a focus of Zdrunciek heading into the offseason.

Figgins’ signing is a true double-edged sword for the Mariners. Not only does Seattle add a talented and versatile veteran to their roster, but in doing so they also rob division foe Los Angeles of one of their most consistent and popular players. Figgins has spent his entire eight-year career with the Angels, serving as a super utility man before settling in at the hot corner, and is coming off his most productive season yet. The pint-size sparkplug was one of the game’s best leadoff batters in 2009, hitting .298 with 42 stolen bases and 114 runs scored. An extremely patient batsman, Figgins led the American League with 101 walks and will provide the Mariners with a vast upgrade over last year’s two-hole hitters (.294 OBP vs Figgins .395). While he will be replacing a Gold Glove caliber player in Beltre, Figgins’ good range and strong arm at third certainly won’t conjure up any images of Russ Davis; he’s a solid player across the board.  

Figgins will combine with Ichiro to form a dynamic duo at the top of the Mariners' order.

The Mariners were second to last in the AL in OBP, batting average, OPS and runs scored in 2009 and the arrival of Figgins should help to address those glaring needs. Though Figgins spent all of last season leading off it’s unlikely that he will usurp Ichiro at the top of the order. Instead, manager Don Wakamatsu will probably bat him directly behind Suzuki, giving Seattle one of the best 1-2 punches in the game (the two combined for 408 hits, 202 runs and 68 stolen bases last year). Now that the Mariners are set at the top of the order, the rest of the offseason will be spent looking for someone to drive in Suzuki and Figgins (Russell Branyan? Matt Holliday? Jason Bay?) and starting pitching to back up Felix Hernandez (Erik Bedard? Jarrod Washburn? Josh Johnson?). Zdrunciek and Co. are just getting started in their preparation for 2010, but this signing is certainly a strong start for Seattle.

From the outset this looks like a major coup for the Mariners, but the final grade of this signing hinges on two major factors: Figgins productivity at the end of the contract and what the Angels are able to get out of the 18th pick in next year’s draft (which they receive as compensation from the M’s). In the mean time Seattle fans should enjoy this deal as it shows the front office’s commitment to creating a competitive ballclub. Figgins isn’t the final piece of the puzzle, but he will play a major role in helping the Mariners challenge for a division title and a chance to return to the postseason for the first time since 2001.

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: August “Just Kind Of Hanging Around” Edition

King Felix showed no signs of slowing down in August.

King Felix showed no signs of slowing down in August. Is a Cy Young next?

Record: 15-14 (68-64 overall)

AL West Standings: L.A. (78-52); Texas 6 GB; Seattle 11 GB; Oakland 20.5 GB 

Top Hitter: Jose Lopez had a solid month of production at the dish (.258-6 HR-22 RBIs-10 2B) and Mike Sweeney took advantage of increased playing time (.333-2 HR-9 RBI-5 2B) but the best hitter on the team continues to be Mr. Consistency, Ichiro Suzuki. Despite missing 7 games with a calf injury, Ichiro hit his usual .340 with 2 HRs and 10 RBIs, in addition to swiping 3 bags and scoring 16 runs. Seattle’s offense went into a major funk without him at the top of the lineup and they were glad to welcome him back to the field last night. Suzuki is just 14 hits away from becoming the first player in major league history with 9 straight 200+ hit seasons and is also just 9 hits away from 2,000 in his MLB career. Yeah, he’s that good.

Top Pitcher(s): Felix Hernandez continued his breakout season with a sterling August that put him good position to make a run at the AL Cy Young Award (his teammates didn’t help the cause though, getting 1-hit by Zack Grienke). The flame-throwing right hander went 2-1 in the month with 2.70 ERA and 40 Ks in 40 innings. On the season, the 23-year-old Hernandez is 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA and 179 Ks in 185 innings, a vast improvement in all statistical areas from last year. Felix starts have become must-see TV, and Seattle has to begin worrying about whether he will stick around when he becomes a free-agent in two years. Translation: enjoy him while you can.

Langerhans doesn't go deep much, but when he does, game over.

Langerhans doesn't go deep often, but when he does...game over.

Biggest Surprise: Despite the fact that he’s hitting .211 on the season, Ryan Langerhans has provided Mariners’ fans with plenty of excitement. The soft-hitting lefty has drilled only 3 HRs on the season, but 2 of them are of the walk-off variety and both came in August (7th and 25th). An amazing 10-percent of his hits this season have been walk-off HRs, which becomes much less amazing when you consider Langerhans only has 20 hits on the year. At least he’s making them count.

Biggest Disappointment: Erik Bedard was shut down for the season on August 20th, adding further disappointment to his short tenure in Seattle. Bedard wasn’t bad when he pitched (5-3, 2.82 ERA in ’09) but rarely went deep into ballgames and struggled with injuries both seasons. With the continued growth of the players the M’s sent to Baltimore to acquire Bedard (Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, George Sherrill) this might go down as one of the worst trades in recent history (though not quite as bad as the Bartolo Colon for Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Cliff Lee deal).

Griffey Watch: Junior had his best month of the season in August, hitting  .246 with 4 HRs and 13 RBIs, which was highlighted by a pinch-hit walk-off single against the Chicago White Sox in the 14th inning of a thrilling 1-0 Seattle win. Griffey missed a couple of games at the end of the month with sore knees but is expected back in the lineup soon, and though Seattle is out of contention, should give fans a reason to attend M’s games during the last 5 weeks of the year. This may be your last chance to see one of the greatest ball players of all-time (currently sitting on 625 career HRs), so soak in his every at-bat, players like Griffey come along once in a generation.

Rookie Doug Fister has been a welcome addition to the M's staff.

Rookie Doug Fister has been a welcome addition to the M's.

Injuries: Endy Chavez (torn ACL–out for year); Russell Branyan (herniated disk in back–mid-September return, possibly out for season); Adrian Beltre (bruised testicle–should return September 1); Ichiro Suzuki (tight left calf–should return September 1); Carlos Silva (rotater cuff–set to begin rehab assignment, unfortunately); Erik Bedard (shoulder surgery–out for season).

Welcome Aboard: Doug Fister was called up from Triple-A Tacoma and did nothing but impress in his 5 August outings, going 1-1 with a 3.42 ERA and 18 Ks against 7 BBs. The 25-year-old is making a strong case to be a part of the Mariners rotation in 2010, and twirled a gem against the Angels last night (7.1 innings, 5 hits, 1 R). Fister takes a pitch-to-contact approach on the mound (2 walks or less in 4 of his 5 starts), relying on the M’s defense and the spacious confines of Safeco Field to keep hitters in check. So far, it’s worked.

September Schedule: 2 vs. LA; 4 @ Oakland; 4 @ LA; 3 @ Texas; 3 vs. Chicago; 3 vs. NYY; 2 @ TB; 4 @ Toronto; 2 vs. Oakland

Overall Grade: (B) The Mariners continue to hang around on the outskirts of the playoff picture and finished August with a winning record (15-14). Sure they aren’t the best team in the league, but this is a far cry from last year, and they are building some excitement towards the 2010 season. September should be a fun month, with expanded rosters giving fans a look at M’s of the future.