I'll spare the readers here at AHP an overly wordy puff piece about how much I would like to have Jack Zduriencik's test tube babies right about now (kidding...mostly) and focus on the basic roadmap that the Mariners have laid out and executed with STUNNING speed and payroll efficiency. For those of you who have not been following the Mariners, they've struggled since 2003 to attain any kind of success without doing a full fledged rebuild (the bigwigs in the front office didn't want to lose their fans with several painful seasons watching kids go through growing pains so instead we get to witness several painful seasons watching old people try to play baseball for a gazillion dollars while our farm system rotted away. That's MUCH better!).
The compromise is classic moneyball with a modern twist. The most undervalued commodity out there at present is defensive excellence. So the Mariners have set out to assemble the greatest team defense in the last few decades, and they may well have accomplished that honorable goal. Gone are liabilities like Raul Ibanez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Russell Branyan and Kenji Johjima (thanks Kenji...you could throw out baserunners, but you stunk at game calling), and in their place have arrived a fleet of gold-glove caliber fielding studs like Chone Figgins, Jack Wilson, Franklin Gutierrez, Casey Kotchman, Rob Johnson and Adam Moore. Through a mind boggling series of aggressive trades, undervalued low-profile free agent signings and long term contracts for cornerstone players like King Felix and Gutierrez, Zduriencik has avoided rebuilding while completely overturning the roster and revitalizing a long-languishing farm system.
Ken Griffey Jr. postponed retirement for one more season.
2009 Record: 85-75 (Third in the A.L. West)
Home Park: Safeco Field
Getting their Sea Legs:
SP) Cliff Lee (Acquired in Trade from the Phillies)
3B) Chone Figgins (Signed 4-year Deal as Angels' FA)
LF/DH) Milton "Parker Brothers" Bradley (Acquired in Trade from the Cubs)
RP) Brandon League (Acquired in Trade from the Blue Jays)
1B) Casey Kotchman (Acquired in Trade from the Red Sox)
1B) Ryan Garko (Signed 1-year Deal as Giants' FA)
OF) Eric Byrnes (Claimed off Waivers from D'Backs)
C) Josh Bard* (Signed 1-year Deal as Padres' FA)
C) Eleizer Alfonzo* (Signed 1-year Deal as Giants' FA)
RP) Yusmiero Petit (Claimed off Waivers from D'Backs)
RP) Kanekoa Teixeira (Rule V Selection)
Loving the Salt Air:
SP) "King" Felix Hernandez (Signed 5-year Extension)
CF) Franklin Gutierrez (Signed 4-year Extension)
SP) Erik Bedard (Signed what will most likely be a 2-year Deal)
DH) Ken Griffey Jr. (Signed 1-year Deal)
SS) Jack Wilson (Signed 2-year Deal)
OF) Ryan Langerhans (Signed 1-year Deal)
IF) Jack Hannahan (Signed 1-year Deal)
IF) Josh Wilson* (Signed 1-year Deal)
1B/DH) Mike Sweeney* (Signed 1-year Deal)
Lilly Livered Land Lovers:
Strengths: Pitching, Defense and a Lock-Down BullpenTrading for a second ace to take the pressure off of Hernandez and the bottom of the rotation was a great early step toward building the ultimate run-prevention unit. Following that up by eschewing bloated single-year contracts for guys like Rich Harden and Ben Sheets in favor of a much bigger bang-for-your-buck signing of oft-injured Erik Bedard was genius. Once he gets back to pitching (and the reports are fairly solid on his progress, though I admit there is still uncertainty about how much we can expect from him), the Mariners will be running a rotation of Hernandez, Lee, Bedard, Rowland-Smith and Snell. That's one HECK of a group. On top of that, they've tacked one of the most underrated and potentially brilliant AL Relievers -- Brandon League (who owes his career-changing success in the second half of 2009 to the refinement of a devastating split-fingered fastball) -- to an already solid bullpen, and they've got several youngsters vying for jobs at the back end of that pen as well. Their fielding will continue to be excellent to complete the trifecta. Playing the Mariners will be stressful even if their line-up doesn't scare you much.
3B) Adrian Beltre (Signed 2-year Deal with Red Sox)
C) Kenji Johjima (Retired and Signed in Japan - And the Good Ship Mariner threw a HUGE party!)
1B) Russell Branyan (Signed with Indians)
SP) Brandon Morrow (Traded to the Blue Jays)
RP) Phillippe Aumont (Traded to the Phillies)
CF) Tyson Gillies (Traded to the Phillies)
SP) J.C. Ramirez (Traded to the Phillies)
SP) Carlos Silva (Thrown at the Cubs - and boy did we need a powerful lever for THAT job!)
UT) Bill Hall (Traded to the Red Sox)
OF) Endy Chavez (Signed with Rangers)
Weakness: Offense (Especially Power)
Let's see...the team's leading HR hitter is gone and replaced with...Casey Kotchman (owie). They're not exactly sporting much in the way of game-changing power this year. They have dedicated a lot of their efforts toward getting guys who can get on base. Milton Bradley has some of the best strikezone judgment in baseball (so much so, that he often winds up getting himself ejected arguing balls and strikes), Chone Figgins has steadily developing discipline that makes him among the best table-setters in the game, and Garko, Byrnes and Kotchman (as well as Bard) draw their fair share of walks to round out the bottom of the order. They're going to be pesky, very fast on the bases, and they're going to have to play a lot of small ball.
Chone Figgins (3B)
Franklin Gutierrez (CF)
Milton Bradley (LF/DH)
Jose Lopez (2B)
Ken Griffey Jr. (DH) / Ryan Garko (1B)
Rob Johnson / Adam Moore / Josh Bard (C)
Casey Kotchman (1B) / Eric Byrnes (LF)
Jack Wilson (SS)
Erik Bedard / Nick Hill / Doug Fister
David Aardsma - if he falters, and this is a distinct possibility, League, Mark Lowe, Shawn Kelley, Hill and Josh Fields are all potentially on the cusp of stealing his job anyway.
One Question Which Needs Answering:
It's been a while since any club leaned this heavily on pitching and defense in the American League. Can a team win their division while scoring fewer than 750 runs (as the Mariners are likely to do this year)? Can pitching and defense carry a club to the Promised Land? Can the Ms get enough out of Bedard (and keep him healthy for the stretch run) to make rotation comparable to the mid-90s Braves?
It's been a while since I've seen 90 wins from a club that scored 740 runs and allowed 650 (or possibly fewer!). That's not a model we're used to seeing. However, the Mariners are going to be in contention all season long if they stay healthy. The Angels have taken a notable step backwards and the Mariners, Rangers and A's have all taken steps forward, meaning the division is wide open.