Sunday, March 18, 2012

Why I can be patient

Mariners spring training hasn't gone too far down the road yet.  It's hard to tell how the team will shape up out of the gate.  But with the season opening in Japan on the 28th, we won't have long to wait and find out.

There's a lot of talk in the blogosphere about how this team will play this year.  What will the strengths of the M's be, what are its weaknesses?  And then there are those who only care about wins and championships; they will be disappointed.  There are those who feel the team should have been more active on the free agent market this year.  I don't disagree, but the Mariners did not need to make a big move on Pujols or Fielder, trapping this team in contracts they'll only regret later.  I know the word on the street is the big TV deals coming down the road in the next few years would solve all that.  But I believe the most important thing the M's can do is to find out what they have, rather than block their talented youngsters with expensive free agents. 

The Mariners have so many question marks, it's difficult to say how well they'll do.  I predict they'll win more than the 67 games they won last year.  I don't think they'll do a lot better than that, maybe 75 wins, but if things come together for some of the younger players and Ichiro and Figgins have better seasons they might be a .500 team.  I don't think that will happen, but I'd take it.
Jack Zdurencik with Rick Rizzs at FanFest.  This is a critical year for Jack Z:  will his team begin to show signs of maturity and development?
This is an important year for the M's.  Not because I expect them to win, but because we'll have a better picture of the team Jack Zdurencik is building and whether what his ability as a talent evaluator is justified or just hype.  In my view, Jack has a solid record of gathering talent to the team, on paper, but so far just a mixed record of getting talent between the lines at Safeco Field.  This is a pivotal year for the team, in that the talent that began arriving last year must begin to show it can win.

Here's my take on the team:
Ichiro's done nothing but hit the ball this spring.  Will it be good enough to be an effective number three hitter?
What do you do about Ichiro?-Ichiro is one of several veterans on this team that will very much shape the season.  Eric Wedge handed third place in the batting order to Ichiro, and coming off his worst major league season, and at age 38, one has to wonder whether Wedge is just whistling past the graveyard.  Ichiro's offensive production was down in every category with a .272/.310/.345 slash line and OPS at .645, 150 points below his career average.  His fielding also suffered.  It's hard to imagine at Ichiro's age that  he's going to reach his career averages of .326/.370/.421.  It's also difficult to imagine that the same ol' Ichiro would be an effective 3rd place hitter.  Dink 'em here, slap 'em there and run like the dickens might work leading off, but a third place hitter has to drive runners in.  If Ichiro hit .280 with forty doubles and 12-15 home runs, and walked a bit more it might be considered a success.  He's never done that.  34 doubles is his career high and he's hit homers in double figures twice.  Third is the most important place in the batting order.  Wedge is hitting Ichiro here because there's really nobody else. Ichiro is the biggest question mark on this team for this year.  His success or lack of it will determine his future with M's in this his walk year.
Do we care if Chone Figgins has a bunch of gloves to use in various spots if he still only hits .190?  That's been his spring so far.
Should Cone Figgins have any role on the Mariners?-First let me stand up and raise my hand and say forthrightly that I believed the signing of Chone Figgins was inspired when it was announced.  Two years later, I have hope, but very little, that Figgins will somehow help this team. It's difficult to understand how a guy that was so valuable to the Angels, could so utterly fall off a cliff.  From a player who received MVP votes in four seasons, became arguably the worst player in baseball last year.  Wedge has him penciled in batting first and playing a lot of third, and all over the field.  He hasn't exactly been a standout at the plate down in Arizona, but maybe Chone's fairy godmother will step into the batter's box with him and make him productive.  I can't even bother to cross my fingers for this one. No, if Figgins can't show he can be a useful hitter for the M's in spring or even by the end of April, it will be time to cut their ties and give on of the youngsters a shot.
We all know Saunders make the plays in the outfield.  To paraphrase the Natural: "There seems to be something wrong with Saunders; he's hitting the ball."
Michael Saunders savior? I'll say it right here-I like Michael Saunders.  He's the kind of player the M's should be searching for.  According to reports, the lefty outfielder has been driving the ball to right, but more importantly he's gone to the opposite field with power.  It's only spring training, but with Franklin Gutierrez out for at least the first month, Saunders will have the opportunity to show what he's got during the regular season.  Yes, you may be tired of hearing about the trials and tribulations of the Condor, but the M's will be a lot better if Saunders shows he is a productive hitter.

Bullpen blues--I'm really hoping the starting pitchers can go late into games, because so far I'm pretty unimpressed with the bullpen. The Mariners stockpiled bullpen arms during the off-season: Shawn Camp, Hong Chi-Kuo, George Sherill and a host of others.  Unfortunately most have not had strong springs.  While Brandon League, Shawn Kelley, and Tom Wilhelmson might be guys who can be counted on, the rest of the spots look kind of thin.  Help.
Catricala is greeted by import Munenori Kawasaki after clubbing a home run.  Catricala and Kawasaki have both opened eyes with their hitting.
Vinnie who?  Vinnie Catricala is one example of things that are right in the Mariners' farm system.  From being a virtual wasteland a year ago, third base is brimming with competition.  Figgins, Kyle Seager, Alex Liddi, Francisco Martinez, and Catricala are all guys who may assert their hold on this important position.  Catricala has shown he can hit at high A and AA ball, and he's had a great spring.  Great doubles power and right handed pop, if Catricala can show he has the defensive chops, he may show Chone Figgins the door.

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