|2008 Seattle Mariners|
Written by Matt Souders (Contact & Archive) on February 12, 2008
2007 Regular Season Record: 88-74 (2nd AL West)
New to the Ocean
The Mariners surprised many in baseball by fighting tooth and nail to make the post-season in 2007. On August 26th, they were a mere game back of the Angels as they took the field to begin a three game home stand against the West leaders, only to be swept aside in a catastrophic collapse that lasted over two weeks (15 games in which they went 2-13 against many of the key contenders in the AL). The primary culprits were the overworked bullpen, the back end of a very thin rotation and the team defense. The defining moments came in game two of the series with the Angels and game Yankees, with the Mariners grabbing early leads only to watch as their vaunted bullpen gave it all away in the late innings. This year's cast will be very similar with three big exceptions. The two weak links in the Mariner rotation (Weaver and Ramirez) have been replaced by two of the top four in the AL in Quality Starts in 2007, Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva (21 and 20 QS respectively). Their greatest weakness (pitching depth) has become their greatest strength. They more or less replaced Jose Guillen's solid offensive contribution with the inconsistent power of Brad Wilkerson.
Much has been made of the team's 79-83 Pythagorean record (they were outscored by 18 runs last year and still managed 88 wins), but if you remove their performance in blowout games (decided by five or more runs) - 23-23 record but outscored by 59 runs - they played about as well as their record suggests. The 2007 Mariners were a club designed to defeat Pythagoras with a top notch bullpen and a spectacularly inconsistent starting rotation that frequently swung wildly between utter domination and complete ineptitude. This season, the rotation should not only be far more consistent, but also far more efficient, meaning less strain on the bullpen. There is ever reason to expect that the Ms can avoid another tragic late-season collapse this time around.
The team returns with one of the best all around pitching staffs in the AL. Their ERA+ (94 last year) could climb 20 points as Bedard and Silva turn 384 innings (Weaver, Ramirez, Cha Seung Baek and Ryan Feierabend) of near-7 ERA garbage into 400+ innings of quality pitching. This doesn't even consider the positive impact a rotation can have on its' relievers or the high probability of better performance on defense in 2008. The Mariners last season were 2nd worst in baseball in DER (Defensive Efficiency Rating), allowing 32% of hitters who put the ball in play to reach safely. They're a team with plenty of raw defensive talent that played far below its' capabilities last year. The Ms could be at or very near the top in baseball in run prevention this season.
There remain many question marks in the Mariners' offense. The team is fielding 8 of the same players they put out there last year, but you can expect Wilkerson to be a slight downgrade from Jose Guillen, and there also exists the possibility that Ichiro, Raul Ibanez and Jose Vidro could decline. In order to compete with the Angels, the Mariners will need a big bounce back season from Richie Sexson (career worst OPS+ last year of 84) and it couldn't hurt if they got some maturity out of former prospect Jose Lopez and light hitting SS Yuniesky Betancourt. Incidentally, a low profile move the Ms made to give one of their players a chance to start may come back to bite them in the backside this year. They traded Ben Broussard to the Rangers, weakening an already anemic bench, and unless they prove they are willing to entrust those at bats to lefty slugger Jeff Clement or 4th outfielder Wladimir Balentien, the club figures to have essentially zero offensive depth. If they don't stay healthy, they're in deep trouble.
Probable Line Up
OF4) Wladimir Balentien / Jeremy Reed
CL) J.J. Putz
Keys to Success
In order to dethrone the Angels, the Mariners will need their most important players to stay healthy, and they'll need Richie Sexson, Jose Lopez or the kids on the farm who would replace them (Clement, Balentien, Hulett and Chen) to fill those two offensive black holes and help offset the loss of Jose Guillen. As well, they should be hoping that oft-injured phenom Mark Lowe returns to active duty and his 2006 form, throwing 98+ mph with unhittable movement and a whiffle-ball splitter with unbelievable deception. They could use a power arm in the set-up role rather than entrusting it to groundball specialist Sean Green or raw second-year star Brandon Morrow.
Expect the Ms to make that final leap from 2nd string to real contention this year. The Angels acquired Jon Garland, who this particular analyst thinks is badly overrated and Torii Hunter (similarly overrated), lost their only good defensive infielder (Orlando Cabrera) and may have lost Kelvim Escobar for a significant chunk of the 2008 season with an undisclosed shoulder ailment. I believe this year, the Mariners will make the playoffs, though it's far from guaranteed.