Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spring Training: What Does it All Mean?

200 hits and another losing season.  Mark it down in your book Ichiro.
 We're nearing the last week of spring training, and Mariners continue to have plenty of unanswered questions.  Can Justin Smoak hit in the middle of lineup and be a consistent run producer is probably the biggest?  Only slightly less important is whether Milton Bradley's bat can return to form, and can he stay healthy enough to play left field?  The infield situation seems to sorting itself out with Jack Wilson's move to second with Brendan Ryan at short, and Adam Kennedy on the bench.  Things get messy when Dustin Ackley is called up and Wilson seems to be the man without a position. 
Dustin Ackley is coming to Seattle.  We just don't know when, or how it will shake up the current interesting infield situation.
Catcher was looking sloppy with Miguel Olivo's groin injury.  Adam Moore and Josh Bard were not exactly floating my boat despite Moore's good spring at the plate.  Olivo and Moore is somewhat better but not exactly enough to set the world on fire.  Nevertheless, it has to be better than last year's triumvirate of Rob Johnson, Moore and Bard which not only didn't set the world on fire, but gave off the light and heat of a neutron star. Catching is better than it was last year, but it wouldn't take much.

Jack Cust leads the team in spring home runs and avoids any entries in the Slip and Fall to Hurt Your Back Olympics.  I always liked Russell Branyan.  Thought he was a good guy and believed his homers were so long and tall they were art.  I also believed he was one twitch away from season ending back surgery.  I wish him the best, but I think the Cust signing will give the M's the kind of consistency they need.  You know what I'm talking about--when Jack Wilson, Adam Kennedy or Ryan Langerhans are forced to DH for a week. Cust will homer, walk and strikeout, keep the clubhouse loose, stay healthy and improve the position over the past three years or so.  Just not by a lot.
See that glove on Jack Cust's left hand.  Kiss it good bye.  You will know disaster has struck if you see Cust in the field.
Hitting on this team is going to be bad, as in not strike fear in the heart of your opponent bad.  As in not strike fear in your son's little league team bad. But they aren't going to be as bad as last year. They lack a real number four hitter and they are depending on folks who had poor seasons to do better, especially before Gutierrez is healthy and Ackley is on the field. Bradley, Smoak, Saunders, Olivo and Figgins are all question marks in my view.  If they all hit poorly, it's another 100 losses.  If they all hit to their historical averages and Smoak improves to say .260/.350/.460 the M's could be a .500 team and compete for third in the AL West. I'm talking incremental improvement here.  
If Smoak can relax and just hit, the M's could have a good season.  If his development is slow they'll struggle.
I like the starting rotation.  The big positive surprise of spring was the health of Eric Bedard.  If he can stay healthy, and Michael Pineda develops as a big league starter that's a huge bonus to combine with Vargas and Fister and of course Felix.  Was moving Pineda into the five spot the right move?  Compared with the alternatives, French and Pauley, absolutely.  It does shove Fister up a notch, and I do think he's more of a five than a four, but we'll see.  The M's may not have as deep a rotation as the A's, but I do think it's all around decent.
Like Smoak, Michael Pineda is a question mark.  The M's are asking him to develop at the major league level.
The bullpen, sans Aardsma and Shawn Kelly is a question mark.  I'm not a big Brandon League fan.  I think he's one of those physically talented guys without the makeup to win with the game on the line.  I'm afraid the M's will struggle depending on League to close and the Chris Ray, Josh Lueke, Jamey Wright trifecta who will set up.  Wilhelmsen making the team is a great story.  Let's just hope Cinderella can keep the glass slipper.

Bedard and Wilhelmsen are the big surprises of spring training, and if both can stay healthy they'll help the Mariners.  The most fun story of the spring however is that the Mariners have indeed won something:  the Carlos Silva/Milton Bradley bad contract series.  Thus far MB has almost been a choir boy with his attitude off the field and performance on the field.  Silva waddled into camp out of shape and pitched terrible ball, convinced the 5th starter's job with the Cubs was his.  It wasn't.  I hate to chortle and be spiteful, but I endured two years of overpriced, crappy Silva outings and it's nice to see some other team see his true character.

My prediction for the AL West--A's, Rangers, Angels, M's.  I have the M's pegged at 72 wins.  That said, I'm excited for the season to start in Seattle, and I think Tacoma should be pretty fun to watch too.

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