What will we see from the 2011 Mariners?
I am not big on predictions. I can’t tell you how many games this team will win or lose. I can’t guarantee that something glorious won’t happen despite what we see before us right now both with what the Mariners will take forward into the season and what the competition will be. I also can’t guarantee that they can’t possibly finish worse this year than they did last year. Too much can happen in 162 games.
I can tell you what I see right now after watching this team for the last month and a half however. The good? Eric Wedge says that they are building a foundation not just with the big league team but within the entire organization. I see that. The highlight of this spring for me was seeing more young prospects, hitting prospects to be specific, than I have seen in this organization at one time in the 10 years I have covered spring training. I think they are closer than most people realize, too.
For now, they go forward with a team that like last year will be offensively challenged. While I believe that they have upgraded offensively at a few positions they still are going to struggle to score runs. At times this will be incredibly frustrating. I think they could challenge the franchise strikeout record of 1,184 set last season. Jack Cust, Miguel Olivo and Franklin Gutierrez all are high strikeout guys. Add to this the young players that we will see throughout the year and the numbers could get ugly. Despite this I think that they still will be able to score more runs than last year’s team.
Like it or not, a Milton Bradley, Cust, Justin Smoak middle of the order is better than what they had at any time last season. Beyond that however, I see the potential for more runs to come from the bottom of the order. When healthy, Jack Wilson and Brendan Ryan have the ability to get on base and cause problems. Both play heads up offense and can find ways to get on base when healthy. Wedge has pointed this out and said that he expects Ichiro and Chone Figgins to be more than table setters after the first inning. It will be up to them to drive in runs as well.
I asked Ichiro about his role after the first inning and possibly being relied on to drive in runs.
“That’s what I look forward to,” Ichiro said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “It is interesting because I have more to do now with guys on base and I have to do what I can to help the team. That’s what I look forward to and that is part of my thinking right now.”
Something to watch here. For all of the talk that Ichiro should be dropped in the order to third, watch carefully how and what he does when these RBI opportunities come up. I found it very interesting that he mentioned that he was thinking about driving in runs as one of his responsibilities now.
Moving on to the pitching. I like the rotation. Felix Hernandez we don’t worry about. I am not as worried about Jason Vargas as some are. Although he threw a career-high 191 innings last year that is by no means a ridiculous number. There is no reason to believe that he will not be a 200 innings a year guy.
Doug Fister will be interesting. I don’t think we will see a repeat of his first two months last season. He has been inconsistent this spring but usually when he has missed his spots it has not been by much. He has been able to repeat his delivery and release point for innings at a time but it has not quite kicked in to the point where it is automatic yet. He has said the entire spring has been a struggle but that he feels close to finding the consistency he must have to keep the ball down and throw quality strikes. He knows he has very little room for error.
As for the fourth and fifth starters, they have the potential to be the best four-five punch, if you will, in the American League. Key word here is potential. At no time this spring did Erik Bedard look like a pitcher coming off injury. The key of course will be to keep him that way. With his history I will take it game by game. If he is on I will expect a beautiful 100 pitches then a call to the bullpen. This is what Bedard has proven to be in the past and I will take it.
And then the next day Michael Pineda will pitch. I was a little concerned earlier in camp that the slider did not have the nasty break on it which so inspired Dave Niehaus to declare it “The Stank!”
Well “The Stank” returned later in camp. The change-up looked better with one scout telling me it was much better than what he was anticipating. Pineda threw a good percentage of his secondary pitches this spring and he will need to carry that over into the season. I think he realizes that his fastball will not be enough at the big league level and if he does he may avoid at least one painful rookie learning experience. Still, expect some ups and downs with him as his pitches continue to develop. Have patience with this one. For all of the hype, and yes it is warranted, remember that it will take time. It took three and a half years at the big league level for Felix to turn into what we now see.
Last but not least in the worry department is the bullpen. I had hoped this off season that Zduriencik would go after an established bullpen arm. A known quantity that a manager could go to in different situations. They didn’t quite do that, although Jamey Wright almost qualifies. For now look for Brandon League to close and perhaps be called in in the eighth inning if needed. Chris Ray and Wright will be given opportunities late and David Pauley could as well. I found it curious that he was never stretched past two innings in a major league game this spring. They liked what they saw from him in smaller doses and he could be called on later in games than he has in the past. Look for Aaron Laffey to get more of the long relief/swing work.
Wedge will look to get soft landings for the rookies Tom Wilhelmsen and Josh Lueke if possible. Wilhelmsen has got great stuff the question will be can he command it? Lueke is a little bit of a concern. He looked good early but was hit a bit harder later in camp. Also, I didn’t see the velocity from him that I thought I would. It is something to keep an eye on.
Lastly, this team has leadership. It is something that is impossible to quantify but something that will help pull them through and keep them together when they face the struggles they very well could face. According to Ichiro the leadership is coming from the top.
“We have a new skipper who is pretty clear with what he wants to do and we are all facing the same direction,” he said. “He has a strong base that will not sway. That said, we all know our roles and we all see the big picture. That is a big influence to us.”