After the Mariners lost 101 games last year, you would expect me to be talking about how 2009 should be considered a write-off season, how the Mariners need to go into full fledged rebuilding mode and trade every player of value for prospects.Â Would it surprise you to hear me tell you that the Mariners arenâ€™t nearly as bad as they looked in 2008?Â Maybe not â€“ usually when you lose 101 games, thereâ€™s bad luck involved.Â But would it surprise you if I projected that with no additional changes whatsoever, the Mariners would win 81 games and return to respectability in 2009?Â Now weâ€™ve got ourselves an article!Â
On the surface, youâ€™re probably thinking Iâ€™m nuts.Â The team scored 671 runs (second worst in the AL) and allowed 811 runs (below average), sporting an OPS+ of 91 and an ERA+ of 89.Â In Pythagorean terms, they were a 67 win teams so already they played into some bad luck (a lot of which was related to the troubles they had finding a closer to replace J.J. Putz).Â But look beyond the surface numbers one step further and recognize how much had to go wrong to sink a team with playoff hopes to the depths of the second draft pick in 2009.Â In no particular order:Â
- Their ace closer got a freak rib injury the second day of the season and was never the same.Â Replacements which had shown such promise in previous seasons all proved inconsistent at best â€“ even fireballer Brandon Morrow, who was unhittable except when he was giving up monster home runs to Ramon freakinâ€™ Vazquez and similar ilk.
- Their star third basemen played the whole season hurt.Â Every time heâ€™d get it going with the bat, his thumb would act up again or heâ€™s have some other problem.
- Their newly acquired staff ace spent half the season on the DL and the other half holding his body together with chewing gum while taking put shots from a juvenile Seattle media on a quest to destroy any player who didnâ€™t give them ideal sound bites daily.Â We knew injuries were a risk factor with Bedard, but this was by far his worst year in that regard.
- Carlos Silva turned into the Hindenburg (oh the humanity!), eating himself half to death and he gained two runs on his ERA to go with those 30 pounds.Â He also proved to be clubhouse cancer, criticizing ICHIRO for his lack of professionalism (huh???).
- The team counted on Richie Sexson to rebound (not an unreasonable hope), but Sexson and DH Jose Vidro cratered the entire middle of the line-up with some of the worst seasons in recent memory at those positions.Â Worse, the club had no alternatives when Sexson and Vidro forgot how to play baseball.
- Yuniesky Betancourt suffered a severe case of Cuban ballplayer disease (otherwise known as â€śthank goodness Iâ€™m not in Cuba anymore!Â I guess I can slack off now and enjoy my riches!â€ť).Â He got heavy, he became the worst defensive shortstop in baseball, second only to Derek Jeter perhaps, and he had by far his worst season at the plate in the big leagues.
- Kenji Johjima thought it would be fun to indulge in a season-long quest to make the Guiness Book of Records for having grounded out to third base more times in a single season than any other major leaguer.Â Or at least it seemed that way.Â His reward?Â A three-year contract extension worth 24 million dollars which dealt a massive psychic blow to the clubhouse â€“ aaahhh nationalismâ€¦gotta love that.
- Prospects Wlad Balentien and Jeff Clement â€“ generally regarded as very talented power hitters â€“ both had tremendous difficulty hitting major league pitching in their first full seasons.
- Miguel Batista couldnâ€™t stay healthy and his command suffered, possibly ending his career as a starting pitcher.
With one or two exceptions, there is no logical reason to think most of these problems are likely to persist into 2009.Â Aside from having traded their ace closer without procuring a good replacement, the Mariners have solutions available on their roster for just about all of these problems.Â What if things break more fairly in 2009?Â What if:
- Beltreâ€™s thumb â€“ originally injured in 2007 â€“ heals for good, and in the last year of his current contract, he has a good season?
- Erik Bedard stays healthier and pitches at least 175 quality innings to solidify the top of the rotation â€“ joining Felix Hernandez as he continues to mature into one of the best pitchers in baseball as a formidable 1-2 punch?
- Carlos Silvaâ€™s workout program and strict diet this winter produce a trimmer, more consistent innings eater in 2009?
- Zduriencikâ€™s hard work filling the organization with low-cost 1B/DH types including Russell Branyan, Mike Carp, Ian Bladergroen and Chris Shelton produces better results from those positions, easing the burden on other players to produce runs?
- Betancourtâ€™s time spent with Raul Ibanez this winter converts him from aging and thick to young and mobile again and his defensive play improves along with his batting average?
- The aging Johjima returns to some level of effectiveness in a part time roll sharing at bats with Jeff Clement?
- Clement and Wlad get over some of the hurdles of aging and develop into run producers of even moderate value?
- Miguel Batista accepts his transition to the bullpen gracefully and the lesser workload re-invigorates his body for one more year as an effective set-up man to Aaron Heilman?Â
And thereâ€™s more upside here as well.Â Jose Lopez had a tremendous second half, right on par with his best talent and style comparison â€“ Miguel Tejada.Â Is Lopez maturing into a middle infield slugger?Â Felix Hernandez showed increasing poise and maturity in 2008, mixing his pitches more intelligently and staying cool with things didnâ€™t go his way.Â Is he about to emerge as a team leader and Cy Young candidate?Â The addition of Franklin Gutierrez to the Mariners' outfield â€“ while not particularly flashy could wind up improving the team DER by as much as 10-15 points when combined with the exit of immobile left fielder Raul Ibanez.Â Can the improved defense make a difference for marginal pitchers like Ryan Rowland-Smith, Carlos Silva, Jarrod Washburn and many of the relievers?Â
This is not a team likely to contend with the AL West, but donâ€™t write them off as likely to lose a bunch of games and be pushovers in 2009.Â Theyâ€™re going to be in a lot of close, low-scoring games with one of the best rotations in the AL and a much improved team defense.Â If Zduriencik does nothing else to strengthen the team, theyâ€™ll probably gain 15-20 games in the standings.Â If he can add a quality DH bat like Milton Bradley, they may improve still further.Â
Just something to think about when youâ€™re making your preseason bets.
Where do you think the Mariners will finish? Feel free to comment in our comments section below.