Springtime Storylines: Has the Mariners’ offense improved enough to be merely awful?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The Deadball Preservation Society (a/k/a The Seattle Mariners).

The Big Question: Has the Mariners’ offense improved enough to be merely awful?

Oh, sure, this team had some overall bright spots in 2010. Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award. Cliff Lee was pretty impressive 13 starts. Mt. Rainer didn’t erupt, sending lahars and pyroclastic flows down the Duwamish estuary, destroying downtown Seattle.  Always look on the bright side of life, right?

But there’s no polishing the turd that was the Mariners offense last year. I don’t need to quote the statistics to you (note: I will now quote statistics), but the Mariners finished last in runs scored in all of baseball by a full 74 runs, were last in home runs, average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. It was the worst offensive performance since the advent of the DH and, if you listen to some folks, it’s in the conversation for worst offense of all time once you adjust for era.

Are they any better?  The offseason additions don’t seem to be needle-movers, as they say. Jack Cust has been imported to DH. If he were on the Mariners last year he would have been the team’s best hitter, but if Jack Cust is your best hitter, you’re not going anywhere. Miquel Olivo was also added. He has some power and will bring more to the table than last year’s catchers did, but Safeco Field isn’t going to be particularly friendly to him.

There are several holdovers from a year ago who could reasonably be expected to improve or to have larger roles — Chone Figgins is the former, Justin Smoak the latter — but the Mariners have also decided to make Jack Wilson and Brendan Ryan their starting middle infielders. While the defense should be pretty incredible up the middle, those two stand a damn fine chance of being worse at the plate than the Figgins/Wilson (pick your Wilson) combination from 2010, and that’s saying something.

The natural ebb and flow of life, the universe and everything will probably cause this bunch to score more than 513 runs in 2011, but not so much more that it will make a big difference.  As things stand, this looks like it will be the worst offense in baseball once again, and therein lies the reason why the Mariners have virtually no hope of escaping the cellar in the AL West.

So what else is going on?

  • In my video preview of the AL West I suggested that a good strategy for the M’s would for someone to sabotage the retractable roof at Safeco Field, thereby dramatically increasing the number of rainouts and thus the frequency of Felix Hernandez starts.  That may not be workable. And it may not be as necessary as I made it seem. Jason Vargas and Doug Fister are solid. Not special, but solid. They’d make a lot of teams’ rotations, though maybe not as the second and third starters.  I’m not the world’s biggest Luke French fan, but he lowered his walk rate in the minors a bit last season (while his strikeout rate also went down) giving him a fairly nice line at Tacoma. Maybe that’s something. The real wild card is Erik Bedard. He’s looked good this spring and, if he can stay healthy, could complement King Felix in the rotation. But never has the phrase “if he can stay healthy” been more meaningful and perhaps fanciful than it is when coupled with Bedard’s name.
  • Justin Smoak is the young guy with promise in this lineup, but Dustin Ackley could join him soon.  Ackley is a second baseman and the Mariners want him to cook a bit more in the minors, but it’s inevitable that he’ll be up sometime this year. He killed the Arizona Fall League and his transition from outfielder to infielder seems to be all but complete. I would assume that Jack Wilson and/or Brendan Ryan will be showcased for a trade to a defense-deficient contender at some point this season, thereby opening up a slot for Ackley.
  • Eric Wedge is the new manager and Chris Chambliss is the new hitting coach. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times had one of my favorite lines of the spring so far when he said that the job of Mariners hitting coach “has been roughly as secure as the drummer for Spinal Tap.”  Manager isn’t much better. I’m not much of a Wedge fan, though it’s worth noting that he always seemed to do much better in Cleveland when expectations were low than when they were high, and assuming he hasn’t changed, he should be an OK steward for the Mariners. I like Chambliss. I’m going to miss him managing/coaching third for the Charlotte Knights when they visit Columbus this year. I’ve always kind of liked him, going back to his playing days.
  • Ichiro continues to hum along. There isn’t much in baseball that one can predict with any kind of certainty, but Ichiro getting 200 hits is a fairly safe bet.  For as dreary as the Mariners season looks to be as a whole, Seattle fans can buy a ticket almost every game and be treated to a performance by one of baseball’s truly unique talents and a future Hall of Famer. People in Pittsburgh and Houston can’t say that.

So how are they going to do?

Lousy, but you knew that already. They didn’t improve the offense all that much and beyond King Felix the pitching is kinda ho-hum and uncertain.  The best you can say about the team is that they didn’t panic after last season’s debacle by signing a bunch of middle age mediocrities to multi-year deals and that they did what they could to turn lemons into lemonade with the Cliff Lee trade.  There may not be many teams with bleaker immediate prospects, but there are several with bleaker futures.  The Mariners are a mortal lock for last place in the AL West, but there is enough interesting going on to make them worth watching.

Brewers on the brink of their first pennant in 36 years

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A series that had swung back and forth twice already swung back in Milwaukee’s favor last night with a convincing win. That it was convincing — it was not at all close after the second inning — is a key factor heading into today, as Craig Counsell has his bullpen set up nicely to shorten the game if his Brewers can get an early lead.

Josh Hader — who, if you are unaware, has not allowed a run and has struck out 12 batters in seven innings of postseason work — did not pitch yesterday or in Game 5. As such, he’s had three full days off. Given that this is a win or go home day and, if they win, he’s guaranteed two more days off before the World Series, he’s good for two innings and could very well go for three. That’s not what you want if you’re the Dodgers.

But it gets worse. Jeremy Jeffress pitched last night but it was only one pretty easy inning, so he could go two if he has to. Corey Knebel pitched an inning and two-thirds but he could probably give Counsell an inning of work if need be. Joakim Soria didn’t pitch at all yesterday. Between those guys and the less important relievers, all of whom save Brandon Woodruff are all pretty fresh, the Dodgers aren’t going to have any easy marks.

But the thing is: Counsell may not need to go that deep given that Jhoulys Chacin, their best starter of the postseason, gets the start. So, yes, in light of that, you have to like the Brewers’ chances tonight, and that’s before you realize that the home crowd is going to be louder than hell.

Not that the Dodgers are going to roll over — it’ll be all hands on deck for them with every pitcher except for Hyun-Jim Ryu available, you figure — but if they’re going to repeat as NL champs, they’re going to have to earn it either by bloodying Chacin’s nose early and neutralizing the threat of facing Hader and company with a lead, or by marching through the teeth of the Brewers bullpen and coming out alive on the other side.
NLCS Game 6

Dodgers vs. Brewers
Ballpark: Miller Park
Time: 8:09 PM Eastern
TV: FS1
Pitchers:  Walker Buehler vs. Jhoulys Chacin
Breakdown:

The most important part of this breakdown — the stuff about the Brewers’ pen — has already been said and, I presume anyway, the starters here will have the shortest of leashes. Chacin’s will be longer, as he has not allowed a run over 10 and a third innings in his first two postseason starts, making him the Brewers’ defacto ace. Every inning he goes tonight makes things much, much harder for the Dodgers once he’s gone as it means Milwaukee will be able to rely more and more on Hader and Jeffress, so the Dodgers had best get to him early.

Buehler has come up weak so far this postseason, having allowed nine runs in 12 innings, including surrendering four runs on six hits over seven innings in Milwaukee’s Game 3 victory. Still, it’s not hard to remember how dominating he was in the second half of the season. If that Buehler shows up and can keep things close, we’ll have a ballgame. If L.A. finds itself in an early hole once again, theirs will be the tallest of orders.