Looking back on the 2003 and 2004 clubs, the first thing one usually notices is how quickly those stars from 2000-2002 got so old and stopped performing. It seemed like it happened suddenly, though the decline is more than obvious in hindsight.
It was clear that the Mariners needed a rebuild, and GM Bill Bavasi was in charge.
Well, here we are three years later, and the 25-man roster made official this week, is the best Bavasi could do. Will it be good enough? It doesn’t appear so, but looks can be deceiving.
The M’s, like all clubs, have their strengths and weaknesses that provide the keys to success, or failure, to the entire ’07 campaign.
Strengths: The Mariners are a solid defensive club with potential Gold Glovers at shortstop, third base and center field, and all three outfielders can throw, with Ichiro and Jose Guillen possessing impact arms. Yuniesky Betancourt and Adrian Beltre combine to make up the AL’s best defensive left side and the improving Jose Lopez completes a sure-handed infield.
The M’s did make slight upgrades to their starting rotation over the winter. Our are the enigmatic Joel Pineiro and Gil Meche, as well as veteran Jamie Moyer, traded last August, replaced by Miguel Batista, Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez.
The threesome should throw more strikes and provide more stability, making the rotation a bit of strength in 2007.
Felix Hernandez is in the best shape since signing a pro contract and appears poised for a breakout season at the age of 21. The King is no doubt the ace of the staff and if the M’s are to contend at all, Felix will need to be consistently in top form.
— See Analysis Below —
The M’s have an ace closer in Putz and southpaws George Sherrill and veteran Arthur Rhodes give the club a solid duo to deal with all the left-handed bats in the division (Teixeira, Blalock, Anderson, Chavez, Swisher, Bradley, Kotchman, Kendrick, Matthews, Kotsay).
Offensively, there is more punch and contact this year, with the additions of Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen. Guillen had a huge spring and Vidro, while not the best DH in the world, is adept at working the count and making consistent contact. He should be especially effective against left-handed pitchers, and Ben Broussard can provide a solid option against righties.
The M’s are a good baserunning club and with a better philosophy should be able to create some advantages rather than running into outs.
Mike Hargrove has certainly switched gears on a lot of things, including the baserunning approach. He’s lightened his stance on Felix Hernandez and appears to be in a mindset of making choices based on whatever gets the team victories NOW, rather than staying loyal to veterans or dismissing ideas just because they aren’t his own.
Bench coach John McLaren is a big part of that.
Weaknesses: Even if the Mariners get median-to-plus or better seasons from the entire starting rotation, the limits on their production put a lot of pressure on a bullpen with question marks. The setup crew is shaky at best, unless rookie Brandon Morrow or the post-surgery Mark Lowe can ultimately grab the gig and run. Southpaws George Sherrill and veteran Arthur Rhodes give the club a solid duo to deal with all the left-handed bats in the division (Teixeira, Blalock, Anderson, Chavez, Swisher, Bradley, Kotchman, Kendrick, Matthews, Kotsay).
The middle of the batting order remains somewhat ordinary, as the club is relying on the kids and two veterans with injury concerns and potential declining skills to help the lineup score another 100 runs.
Sexson, Ibanez and catcher Kenji Johjima are the only defenders who grade below average heading into the season, but while Johjima was terrible in April and May last season, he did gather himself and get the job done for the final 2/3 of the year. He’s still below average overall, but if his work ethic dictates, he’ll be significantly better in many areas this season.
Johjima’s work with the pitching staff, and particularly The King, is perhaps the single most critical aspect of the season.
Felix Hernandez, RHP
The King begins his second full season in the majors as the club’s Opening Day starter and only chance to shut down opposing bats before the ninth inning. The owner of the best stuff of any right-hander in the game has few flaws and nipped one of them in the bud this off-season, dropping more than 20 pounds and reporting to spring training in the best shape of his life and more focused than ever.
With improved command and the team’s blessing to unleash a plus slider to go with a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and a devastating curve, the sky isn’t even the limit. Hernandez has worked closely with pitching coach Rafael Chaves to clean up his mechanics and further develop a better feel for his changeup, which is a mind-blowing concept; four plus pitches including a change that typically tags the radar gun in the 82-84 mph range – 12-15 mph off his four-seamer?
Yep, that’s Felix.
Hernandez displayed a few flaws in his delivery last season, most notably his tendency to lead with his chin tilted skyward as he motioned to the plate and the lack of rythmn in his drive step, making it nearly im possible for him to repeat his delivery.
So far this spring, Hernandez has become more consistent in finishing his pitches, thanks to a trick taught to him by Chaves – finishing with his eyebrows angled toward the ground in front of him, rather than the press box behind home plate.
His rock-and-fire motion is still there, but with reduced violence, creating a simpler, more repeatable stride toward the dish.
Expect stints of inconsistencies with Felix’s performance this season, but there’s very little reason to believe Hernandez won’t be significantly better in 2007 than he was a year ago. By this time next spring, the 21-year-old could run for president and probably win.
Heck, I’d vote for him.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Hernandez made the all-star game this season, but it also wouldn’t be a complete shock if he kind of cruised along unspectacularly until mid-season and then went on a tear to end the year.
Either way, I fully expect to see a number of stellar outings from the phenom, including a decent number of double-digit strikeout performances and possibly a threatened no-no – or two… or five.
Key Ingredient: Focus, Change-up. A determined King has no equal and as long he’s able to sustain his concentration and confidence, the season will at least be entertaining. The development of his change-up could play an enormous factor in his success levels this year.
Most Important Pitch: Fastball, two-seamer and four-seamer. Getting ahead in the count and avoiding the bigger pitch counts is imperative for Hernandez’s success, more so than the typical power pitcher, due to his age and relative inexperience. His secondary stuff matters none if he can’t get ahead of hitters on a regular basis.
What to Watch For: Radar gun readings. And I don’t mean triple digits or all the 98s posted on the digital boards around the AL. I’m talking about 81, 83, 84, 82 – the velocity of his change-up.
There were times in the minors when Felix would go 94, 96, 97 with the fastball, and on a 1-2 pitch he’d pull the string on a well-located change in the low-80s – sick.
If Felix is confortable throwing his change, the league may not have much of a chance over the next 10 years. Look for him to throw the pitch a lot more this year than last, just as he did this spring.
2007 Projection: 32 GS, 217 IP, .220 BAA, 2.6 G/F, 8.8 K/9, 2.7 BB/9
The Mariners 2007 season hinges on a lot of things – a lot of things going right, that is. But in the end, the club will have to score runs to contend… consistently. The pitching staff is what it is, and it will probably be somewhat consistent in being what it is, which is mediocre to average. If the offense can generate slightly above league-average support, the M’s have a chance to win 85 games.
If they repeat 2006’s offensive output and experience similar injury results, they’ll probably dupe their 78-win performance from a year ago.
I keep going back and forth on which end of the spectrum this club is going to land. Two hours ago, I went on record and said they’d win 79 games.
One last re-analysis and I’m going to change that, 45 minutes before the first pitch.
I sense a slightly better year year from Richie Sexson, thanks to a better first half, and the same for Adrian Beltre, who I think will reach the 30-homer mark for the second time in his career, and first time in mariners blue.
Ichiro is Ichiro. He’ll probably hit .325, steal 40 bags, post a .430 SLG and play a gold glove center field. Raul Ibanez will probably have a tough time repeating his career year of ’06, but unlike many, I don’t expect a large drop-off for one of the game’s biggest bargains.
Johjima… he’s a tough read. I think he’ll be better, just not a lot better, at least offensively. He may not match his ’06 BA/OBP, but he could pop a few more long balls and pound out four or five more doubles and make the all-star team this year.
But those are fairly marginal differences during a 162-game schedule.
So why are they going to be eight games better? That’s simple, the Jose’s and YuBet.
Jose Guillen will be a force at times, and during the time he’s on the DL or in a bit of a slump at the plate, he’s an asset in the clubhouse (as long as he’s not threatening his manager), and defensively as well.
Jose Lopez is the club’s biggest wildcard in the batter’s box. He could pretty much repeat his 2006 numbers and nobody would complain much. But there’s more there – possibly 20 homers and 35 doubles – and this is the ideal season for him to breakout.
Betancourt may or may not improve on his 2006 offensive performance, but there really isn’t much of a chance that he takes a dive, either. He’s no automatic out and with more experience he’ll start hitting more line drives, too.
I’m hard on this club, I know. I’m very critical of Howard Lincoln, Chuck Armstrong and Mike Hargrove, and I’ve lost patience with GM Bill Bavasi. But at some point the law of averages have to help the M’s, rather than shove their faces further into the dirt. Some of these “should-be” talents should pan out, even if to the 70-80th percentile. The weakest division in baseball helps, especially since the A’s are as vulnerable as they’ve been in eight years.
PI’s TEAM PROJECTION 2007: 87-75, 2nd in AL West