The Mariners made a lot of noise this offseason, most notably bringing in Clifton Phifer Lee to be their second starter. They also replaced Adrian Beltre with Chone Figgins, traded for Milton Bradley, and signed Casey Kotchman to play first base. These moves, plus the presence of superstars Ichiro and Felix Hernandez, have caused many experts to pick them to win the AL West. Although they won 85 games last year, they were pretty darn lucky to have done so, as they were outscored by their opponents and had a Pythagorean record of 75-87.
The Mariners' run prevention was pretty darn impressive last year. The allowed only 692 runs last year, which was 40 runs better than runner up Chicago. Extraordinary defensive seasons by Franklin Gutierrez, Adrian Beltre, Ichrio, and Jack Wilson (in a half season) and near Cy Young caliber pitching from King Felix led the effort. Less heralded, but also important to their lead leading pitching performance were quality campaigns by Jarrod Washburn, Ryan Rowland Smith, and Erik Bedard. Wasburn put up an ERA of 2.64 in his 20 starts as a Mariner, Bedard's ERA was 2.82 in 15 starts, and Rowland-Smith made 15 starts with a 3.74 ERA.
The Mariners offense was worse than their pitching was good. Their 640 runs scored was the worst in the AL, a full 46 runs worse than the Royals. They managed this figure despite a surprisingly good offensive seasons from Russell Branyan (since departed via free agency) and mild surprises in the offensive development of Jose Lopez and Gutierrez.
Did the improvements Jack Z made this offseason improve this team enough to win the AL West?
The Mariners strength will continue to be their defense. It seems unlikely, however, that the Mariners will improve in that area in 2010, and a step back is more likely than a step forward. Although a full season of Jack Wilson (and not having Yuniesky Betancourt at all) and replacing Branyan with Casey Kotchman should help the infield defense. Those upgrades are likely to be offset by downgrades at second and third.
It appears as if Jose Lopez will move from second to third, and free agent signing Chone Figgins will play second. Adrian Beltre, last year's M's third baseman put up a UZR of 14.3 and Lopez had a UZR of 2.9 at 2B. It's hard to predict exactly how well Lopez will make the transition to the hot corner, but it's hard to imagine that he'll supply Gold Glove caliber defense at a position he didn't start preparing for until Spring Training (he has only 25 career major league innings at third). Figgins, meanwhile, does have experience at second. Though Figgins has never been a full time second baseman, he does have 113 games played at the position and has a career UZR there of -4.6. Plus he hasn't played more than a handful of games there since 2005. Figgins will have a tough time being an average defensive second baseman, which is more or less what Lopez was last year.
The outfield is where there's the most potential for the defense to regress, though it will still likely be quite good. Gutierrez' UZR of 29.1 was the highest by an outfielder since Andruw Jones in 2005. Gutierrez is undoubted a great defender; he just has nowhere to go but down from such an amazing year last year. Ichiro is also undoubtedly a great defender - basically a second center fielder. He is, however, 36. Again, he's likely to be at or near his totals from last year, but he's unlikely to surpass them. Left field defense may be a problem for the M's. Last year Wladimir Balentien, Endy Chavez, Michael Saunders, and Ryan Langerhans split time out there and all were strong defensively (at least according to UZR; Balentien has a reputation of being a bit of a butcher). This year Milton Bradley will man left, when healthy, and when he's unable to play the field, Eric Byrnes and Saunders will split time there. Bradley is an average, at best fielder, though the defensive innings that Byrnes and Saunders play should be quality ones.
The Mariners look to have a strong defense again, though it may not be as overwhelmingly good as it was in 2009.
In addition to having an excellent defense, the Mariners have what is probably the best 1-2 punch in the majors with Hernandez and Lee. Each will contend for the Cy Young this year and will likely combine for between 50 and 60 quality starts. A healthy Erik Bedard added in would probably result in the best 1-2-3 punch in baseball.
Scoring runs. I thought watching the A's offense was frustrating, but the M's must be downright painful to watch. in 4 of the last 6 years they've scored under 700 runs. Only so much of that ineptitude can be attributed to Safeco, as they've given up more than 800 runs in three of those seasons. Last season's Mariners squad had automatic outs up and down their lineup. Just two players, Ichiro and Branyan, were legitimately good, whereas they got downright terrible production from their catchers, shortstops, third basemen, and left fielders. Their DH platoon of Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney was OK, but hardly ideal for supposed hitting specialists.
Although the Mariners made several moves to improve their offense, these moves point to only marginal improvement. They brought in Casey Kotchman to replace Branyan at first base, but CHONE projects a .265/.333/.401 from Kotchman a far cry from Branyan's .251/.347/.520 line from 2009. Figgins is a clear upgrade offensively over Adrian Beltre's production last year; Figgins' career OBP is .363 where as Beltre struggled to break .300 last year. The other upgrade the M's made was trading for Milton Bradley. He's also likely to provide a healthy does of OBP, which will be a huge improvement in left field, given the fact that no Seattle left fielder was remotely close to being adequate with the bat last year. Any time that Bradley misses, however, will hurt quite a bit, as neither Eric Byrnes nor Ryan Langerhans (a pair of former A's, though Langerhans barely counts) figure to contribute much with the bat. Perhaps Saunders could become emerge as a viable starter later in the year, but last season's major league flop indicates he probably needs more AAA time.
Though the M's seem to have made strides with the acquisitions of Figgins and Bradley, these gains are going to be slightly offset by slippage in the performance of some of their other players. Seattle is bringing back the two headed monster of Griffey and Sweeney to man the DH position again, which looks like a disaster waiting to happen. Neither were particularly good last year and both are a year older...not a good pair of attributes there. Again I mention that Ichiro is no youngster, having turned 36 last October. Some, especially Baseball Prospectus, have been expecting a decline for the past few years. Said decline hasn't come yet and he's the type of player that tends to age well. That being said its hard to rely so heavily on a player in his late 30s. Ichiro is likely to be the M's only star-level offensive player.
The M's offense is probably a bit better this year, but its hard to see their collection of bats resembling a league average offense. Perhaps I'm wrong in thinking that Lopez and Gutierrez are as likely to decline as they are to improve, and maybe there's more potential to catchers Adam Moore and Rob Johnson than I think. However, at the high end I think this offense can score about 750 runs or so, but the M's may very well have an offense that once again struggles to score 700 runs.
Seattle's second biggest weakness is their rotation depth. As I mentioned earlier, the Felix, Lee, and Bedard trio may very well be the best in the league. There are also worse guys to fill out the back of a rotation than Ryan Rowland-Smith and Ian Snell. After that though, the M's starters are all a collection of replacement-level types. None of Doug Fister, Luke French, Jason Vargas, or Garrett Olsen inspire much confidence, nor do they have potential to break out in any significant way. That the Mariners are thinking about bringing back Jarrod Washburn sasy a lot about their faith in these guys. His ridiculous ERA last year in Seattle screams fluke (and his performance in Detroit echoes that scream). They'll need at least two of those guys while Lee and Bedard get healthy and while Lee should be back in just a week or two, Bedard's timetable is much less certain.
Seattle is built similarly to the A's in that their best chance to win will be to prevent the other team from scoring and plating just enough runs on your own to squeak out Ws. The Mariners, though, seem to have quite a bit more variability in outcomes, especially when it comes to their pitching. A healthy Lee and Bedard paired with Rowland-Smith building on his sneakily strong 2009 campaign could not only be the best staff in the AL, but the best rotation by a large margin. If, however, the Fister, French, Vargas, and Olsen combine for more than 40 starts, they may be in for a world of hurt.
Any coronation of the Mariners as Division champs is clearly premature. This is a flawed team, though not without its strengths and its superstars. Seattle will likely be in contention, but health will be a big issue for them as will strong offensive output from Figgins and Bradley.