With spring training getting ready to open in Peoria next week, there's been lots of commentary on the blogs. Some of it is hopeful, that 2011 is certainly going to be nothing to write home about. The M's are likely to finish last in their division, but they are finally beginning their long needed rebuild the right way, with an emphasis on getting the kids ready to play at the major league level, while finally shedding some of their over-priced physically challenged veterans. I put myself in this camp.
Others have taken the view the M's are hopeless. They didn't sign free agents who could help them win now, and the welcoming of the kiddie-corps is simply embraceing a losing-on-the-cheap mentality. Further, the Mariners did nothing to ameliorate their most obvious weakness: scoring runs.
While I think the Mariners will continue to have difficulty scoring runs, and that will continue to be a frustration all year long, I also believe anybody serious about a Mariner return to competitive play year in and year out must rebuild from the farm system. This must be a year where the M's see what they have in this first year of farm production as more quality prospects are added to the system, and the second wave of kids emerges probably in 2013.
These are the key issues I see emerging this year:
The $12 Million Elephant in the Room
It looks like Milton Bradley will emerge relatively unscathed from his brush with the law in Los Angeles. Good for him. What does this mean for the Mariners? Questions. What kind of physical condition is he in? Can he really play left field at Safeco? Have his physical skills deteriorated too much to play? What is his mental outlook? Is he tradeable? If the answer to any of these questions is negative (except the last one) I believe the M's must hold their noses and let Milton walk. In a club house full of young players, Bradley and his contract cannot be allowed to block the development of Michael Saunders or any other youngster who might contribute to this team this year and beyond. He also cannot be allowed to be a clubhouse cancer. If, on the other hand, Bradley can be a teacher, if he can help win games, if he can be a leader on and off the field, by all means let him earn his keep. But don't tell us how valuable he is then let him keep a 25th seat warm when we could use an extra left handed bat, or one more reliever in a shaky bullpen. Call Milton Bradley exhibit A of what happens to teams when they sign middling players to stupid contracts.
Will the Real Chone Figgins Please Stand Up
No other move in the 2010 off-season pleased me more than when the Mariners signed Chone Figgins. I loved what he did for the Angels. He was a guy who got on base and could run you ragged. Played a solid 3b, not quite Adrian Beltre, but good. Paired with Ichiro, I thought the M's would be second and third with no outs all the time. Geez, was I wrong. Figgins was the second biggest disappointment of the year for me, the first being Ken Griffey, Jr's implosion. But it's Figgins' performance that has the greatest long term effect for the M's. Will his move back to third give him the confidence to repeat his second half performance, or will he continue to be the double-play inducing slap hitter that eviscerated rallies? Figgins reminds me of a guy who came to Seattle fairly late in his career and had some very nice years with the M's, Mark McLemore. Mac played a lot of positions, hit behind Ichiro, added a lot of speed and athleticism to the team, and could also be testy from time to time. If Figgins could be that kind of player it could mean a lot to this young team that's going to struggle to score. If he can't, I'd swear off free agents for life.
Even Praying for Rain Won't Help
Spahn and Sain and pray for rain was the mantra of the Braves in the 50's as they morphed into the World Series champs of '57. With the roof, of course, praying for rain won't help Felix Hernandez, and Jason Vargas and Doug Fister as the three known likely starters heading into spring training. However a healthy Eric Bedard would. With the M's unlikely to add Michael Pineda to the big club until June or so to preserve his years of service, a healthy Bedard would go a long way toward filling out the rotation, with a (choose one) Luke French/ David Pauley/Nate Robertson filling in on the back end. This rotation is very shaky after Felix and Bedard would give it just a little more stability-if he's legit and can give 'em at least six innings an outing. With Bedard and adding Pineda, the M's have a much more formidable looking rotation.
Hope We Can't Believe In-Yet
There are two youngsters, as much as any, that are tied to the success of the Mariners in the near future. Michael Saunders in left field and Justin Smoak at 1b have both had stints in the major leagues and need to demonstrate they can produce at the major league level. Saunders is a gifted athlete, perfect for roaming the roomy pasture that is left field at Safeco Field. A potential 25 homer guy, his line last year was .211/.295/.367. A home grown ballplayer, Saunders must show improvement this year if he is to become an answer in left for the M's. Entering his third year with the big club, Saunders must be a consistent hitter. If any of the young players is on the hot seat, it's Saunders. Coming over in the Cliff Lee trade Justin Smoak really struggled with M's in July and went to Tacoma to work on things. When he returned for ten games in September, Smoak was a changed hitter. Hitting for power and average, he showed more patience and struck out less. But it was September, when the quality of pitching with expanded rosters is usually less demanding, so we'll have to wait and see. The M's, given Smoak's limited time in the minors, will almost certainly be patient, but the team is unlikely to move ahead if Smoak is not the real deal.
Pieces of a Puzzle
Perhaps the most interesting moves were made in the infield. With Lopez traded and Figgins moved back to third, what happens at shortstop and second? One answer could be Jack Wilson. When healthy, he's a guy who can really pick it, a throw-back, dirt-in-the mouth ballplayer that is just a joy for defensive junkies like me to watch. His bat won't let us forget A-Rod, Tejada, or Jeter (.269/.309/.349), but is more useful than say Mark Belanger. The M's somehow managed to steal Brendan Ryan from the Cardinals who is a younger, somewhat healthier version of Jack Wilson. He's slated to be second baseman on opening day, sort of. Again, not much of a hitter-not much power (career .259/.314/.344), struggled to overcome wrist surgery last year, but a great defender, he could easily be moved to short stop when Wilson shreds his hammies again. In his place the M's can insert Adam Kennedy. Kennedy is a veteran player and a guy I've always liked. He makes the plays at second and could also fill in at third. No spring chicken at age 35, Kennedy has a decent glove and useful bat. Two years ago with Oakland, filling in for an injured Mark Ellis Kennedy had over 500 at bats with .289/.348/.410. Kennedy is a lefty hitter, and a threat to steal, and brings some tasty hops to add to the brew. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out in ST.
The Ackley Factor
We all know Dustin Ackley is waiting in the wings. He is the star of the future-we hope. He's spent exactly one year in pro ball, faced some adversity, and overcome it, and was absolutely devastating in the Arizona Fall League. What does that guarantee in the big leagues? Absolutely nothing. However, the kind of hitting skills he's shown are absolutely the kinds of skills the M's need. Gap power with some occasional pop, lefty hitter, speed and athleticism, those should be the hallmarks of Mariner players in this ballpark. What's holding the M's back from bringing him up from Peoria? Apparently, keeping Ackley in Tacoma until June gives them another year of control over his services. I guess I understand this unless the Mariners get off to such a horrible start that the clubhouse becomes poisonous. Real fans will watch baseball just to see the young kids, the future of the franchise. They'll stay away from uninspired, crappy ball night in and night out.
Question--what if Saunders spends two months stinking it up? Would the M's consider moving Ackley out to left, a natural position for him that requires far less learning than second base. With other guys in place to hold that spot, would the M's be interested in taking advantage of his experience and athleticism to inject his bat into the lineup? Dunno. Just a question I feel needs to be asked.
It will be exciting to see some real baseball soon.