Pitchers & Catchers

Well, here we are. The first iotas are trickling in via the Seattle Times Mariners Blog. Little tidbits of knowledge from the first hours of Spring Training. By no means are we in full swing, but coming from a guy who’s scraping the bottom of the barrel for at-work reading material on the Internet, even a mere dribble is better than nothing.

As a Mariner fan, it’s time to get excited. Of course, as a huge creeping homer, it’s time to be delirious and start making plans to be first in line for the parade after a World Series championship. With all the offseason moves I’ve been hyperventilating over, SURELY this is a team primed to jump to the Next Level.

Of course, leave it to Geoff Baker to bring me crashing back down to reality. Then again, he is the guy who gave us, “We Built This Hitting On Rob John-Son!” so I guess I can’t get on him too much.

And, far be it for me to actually have cold hard links to back up my claim, but rest assured you’re dealing with a guy who does absolutely no due diligence in his fact finding.

Anyway, the crux of his argument is that the 2009 Mariners overachieved, and where they were weakest last year has not been significantly improved upon; while what was strongest about this team is arguably the same.

Damnation, that’s tough to refute. But, refute it I shall!

First, Baker’s Advocate. The starting pitchers haven’t been upgraded all that much. We still have Felix – a wash – and we replaced Washburn with Cliff Lee. Most would feel that’s an upgrade and a half, but if you look at Washburn’s 1st half numbers, he was a Top 10 pitcher last year. You can’t simply look at Washburn’s so-so Mariners career and compare it to Cliff Lee’s career … you have to go by just the ’09 numbers. And the numbers don’t lie. We had Bedard for the first half last year and Rowland-Smith for the second half; this year, at best, we’re hoping for a full year of Rowland-Smith and Bedard for the second half.

That’s where things get interesting. If Bedard comes back healthy. AND, he’s the same tenacious bulldog as he’s been whenever starting for us … that would be huge. But, that’s a monolith-sized If. One I’m more than reluctant to count on, but if it happens, that’s one more huge sign that this year will be special.

Rounding out the starting rotation – Felix, Lee, and Rowland-Smith so far – we’ve got Ian Snell and whoever wins the battle of the 5th Starter out of Spring Training. Snell is the biggest wildcard known to mankind; when he’s on he can be dominating and when he’s off he’s lucky to last more than 2 innings. It’s probably safe to say we’ll need a long reliever’s help in 1/3 of his starts, so let’s hope someone distinguishes himself as a go-to guy. Still, if we can wrangle Snell into a +.500 record, he’s as good a number 4 starter as there is. And no one really expects all that much from a 5th starter, so long as they don’t give you Carlos Silva like numbers.

The bullpen as well is nearly identical to last year. Only, with Sean White potentially on the shelf because of his shoulder surgery, we replaced him with Brandon League, a hard-throwing right hander from Toronto. We’ve got a lot of those types; hopefully he can keep it in the strike zone. As long as guys who had career years last year don’t completely fall off the map, we should be more than fine here.

The hitting is where we’ve changed quite a bit. Let’s look across the board, position by position, from last year to this year:

RF: Ichiro – Ichiro
CF: Gutierrez – Gutierrez
LF: 1 big platoon, with the best being Endy Chavez until he broke his life – 1 big platoon featuring Milton Bradley & Eric Byrnes

It’s tough to dislike this outfield. Ichiro is still your leadoff hitter batting over .300, getting over 200 hits, and stealing anywhere from 20-40 bases. Gutierrez took a big step forward last year, is still young, is still the best center fielder in baseball, and he’s got pop in his bat. Hit 18 homers and 70 RBI last year and he had nagging injuries for most of the year, while still batting .283. Of course, the wildcard is left field. I don’t know what to tell you. Milton Bradley could hit anywhere from .230 to .330 and it wouldn’t shock me. He’s not going to be a home run machine, but if he bats to his potential, we could be all right.

1B: Russell Branyan – Casey Kotchman
2B: Jose Lopez – Jose Lopez
SS: Betancourt/Jack Wilson – Jack Wilson
3B: Adrian Beltre – Chone Figgins
C: Rob Johnson, Kenji Johjima – Rob Johnson, Adam Moore, Other

Lopez gave us 25 homers and 96 RBI last year; those are season highs, and he’s improved every year. It should stand to reason, since he’s still reasonably young, that the trend will continue (or at the least stay even). What he may lack in defensive skills is made up for because 2nd base isn’t necessarily THAT huge of a position to defend compared to others. Jack Wilson is here to play Gold Glove D and bat .250, no more, no less. Kotchman is a huge step down from the power we got out of Branyan last year, who gave us 30+ homers while still missing the last month of the season. He’s a big improvement on 1st base defense apparently, but I respect 1st base D even less than I do 2nd base D. I’m not expecting outrageous power numbers out of Kotchman, but he strikes me as having the potential for being the biggest liability if he starts out slow, as his play seems to be affected the most by his mood, according to stories. We’ll see how it goes. We’ve got some cheap options behind him ready to go if he flames out. If he can get close to .300 with enough walks to make his OBP up to snuff, I’ll be happy.

Chone Figgins taking over for Adrian Beltre is probably the most interesting of the bunch. He was our big Free Agent Splash this offseason. The defense is about the same, but the offense is vastly different. Figgins is a leadoff hitter who’ll bat behind Ichiro in the lineup. Theoretically, his ability to take a pitch should leave Ichiro with ample opportunities to steal more bases. Likewise, we shouldn’t see the prolonged slumps out of Figgins at the plate like we often did with Beltre. Sure, we’re losing all that power (8 HR/44 RBI; 25 HR/77 RBI; 26 HR/99 RBI; 25 HR/89 RBI; 19 HR/87 RBI the last 5 seasons … I can’t tell if I’m being sarcastic or not), but his OBP should be a ton higher, AND he’ll contribute his own fair share of stolen bases.

So, are we improved? Hard to say. To be honest, our power numbers – on paper – look to have gotten significantly worse. And this was coming from a team who was 2nd to Last in the AL in home runs (to Kansas City) last season. Our On Base Percentage looks to have improved significantly though. My gut tells me we’re still going to struggle to score runs, and we’ll still be in a lot of close ballgames. Hopefully, it translates into being less wacky. Like, for instance, we’re not shut out quite so often … maybe we actually manage to run up the score a time or two more per month.

I think over a period of a full season, we’ll be better (barring injuries, the usual bugaboo). We shouldn’t suffer any ill effects of playing veterans in Left Field; we’ll have a full season of awesome short stop play (with no Betancourt effect). We’ll also have a batting lineup that knows how to take a pitch and get some walks (again, with no Betancourt effect).

And returning to that huge If: if we get Bedard back for a stretch run, then forget about the poo-poo platter of a 5th starter because Ian Snell gets bumped down, and Rowland-Smith gets bumped to the 4th hole. In a playoff series, going Felix/Lee/Bedard would be as formidable as it gets.

I’m not going to make a formal prediction on who will win what because inevitably it’ll be wrong. I do think, though, that the winner of the AL West will have won no more than 90 games.

What the Mariners have to hope for is to stay in it to the All Star Break. Maybe build a little 5 game lead in the division. Then, we make a huge push for a big bat like Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres and away we go!

The long national nightmare of the Mariners being AL Whipping Boys will hopefully end right here. This is NOT 2008 all over again. This is NOT 2008 all over again. This is NOT 2008 all over again *

* – that would be a reference to the Mariners overachieving their way to a winning record in 2007, followed by tremendous expectations going into 2008, followed by losing 100+ games and everyone getting fired … this is NOT 2008 all over again …

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