2013 Preview: Seattle Mariners

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Seattle Mariners.

The Big Question: Are the Mariners finally on the right track?

Absolutely. After some bad high payroll teams a few years ago and then some trades which didn’t exactly inspire, it does now seem like the Mariners have a plan going forward.

They locked up Felix Hernandez. There is a young core which, admittedly, could go either way right now, but it is still a young core with upside: Hernandez, Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager. Tons of good arms on the farm including  Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, which will either contribute in Seattle or serve as the basis for deals for offense at some point over the next couple of years.

There is a bright future in Seattle based on a lot of solid young players. It’s just not the kind of future likely to arrive earlier than expected due to none of them really being off-the-charts impact-type players. But unlike we’ve seen in the past, there are things to be hopeful for with the Mariners now. And that’s good, yes?

What else is going on?

  • Has anyone gotten rich cornering the market on designated hitters? Because boy howdy do the Mariners have a lot of DH types:  Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez, Jesus Montero and Jason Bay are all gonna break camp with this team. I mean, sure, those are all famous-to-sorta-famous baseball players, but how, exactly, is this supposed to work?
  • Moving the fences in at Safeco Field — a home run to left center is now 17 feet closer than it was before — will be worth watching. It may bother the pitchers a bit, but one wonders if part of the reason for this is to get Seattle out of that rut where they can’t sign any power hitting free agents thanks to the perception that their offense will up and die. If Mike Morse suddenly goes off for 35 homers, does that not send a signal to others that Seattle — in a state with no state income tax — may be a nice place to land?
  • The Mariners have also cornered the market on Saunderses. Michael and Joe Saunders, that is. Michael flashed some pop last year and could be something of a breakout candidate. He stole 21 bases too. One of those players who, because he plays in Seattle, people rarely notice. But he’s worth watching. Joe Saunders turned in his best season in years in 2012, based on a hot final couple of months. I wouldn’t bet on him carrying it all over or anything, but given all the arms the Mariners have hanging around he could be an attractive trade chit at the break if he pitches well.
  • Call it a petty thing or even slam on the M’s, but there has to be some moral victory involved in not finishing in last place this year, right? I mean, no matter what happens, they’ll stay out of the cellar by virtue of the Houston Astros, yes?

So how are they gonna do?

Better. But still not enough juice to pass up Oakland, Texas or Anaheim. Fourth place, AL West. But Fourth place with a bullet.

Umpire Cory Blaser made two atrocious calls in the top of the 11th inning

Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images
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The Astros walked off 3-2 winners in the bottom of the 11th inning of ALCS Game 2 against the Yankees. Carlos Correa struck the winning blow, sending a first-pitch fastball from J.A. Happ over the fence in right field at Minute Maid Park, ending nearly five hours of baseball on Sunday night.

Correa’s heroics were precipitated by two highly questionable calls by home plate umpire Cory Blaser in the top half of the 11th.

Astros reliever Joe Smith walked Edwin Encarnación with two outs, prompting manager A.J. Hinch to bring in Ryan Pressly. Pressly, however, served up a single to left field to Brett Gardner, putting runners on first and second with two outs. Hinch again came out to the mound, this time bringing Josh James to face power-hitting catcher Gary Sánchez.

James and Sánchez had an epic battle. Sánchez fell behind 0-2 on a couple of foul balls, proceeded to foul off five of the next six pitches. On the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Sánchez appeared to swing and miss at an 87 MPH slider in the dirt for strike three and the final out of the inning. However, Blaser ruled that Sánchez tipped the ball, extending the at-bat. Replays showed clearly that Sánchez did not make contact at all with the pitch. James then threw a 99 MPH fastball several inches off the plate outside that Blaser called for strike three. Sánchez, who shouldn’t have seen a 10th pitch, was upset at what appeared to be a make-up call.

The rest, as they say, is history. One pitch later, the Astros evened up the ALCS at one game apiece. Obviously, Blaser’s mistakes in a way cancel each other out, and neither of them caused Happ to throw a poorly located fastball to Correa. It is postseason baseball, however, and umpires are as much under the microscope as the players and managers. Those were two particularly atrocious judgments by Blaser.