Bronx Baseball Daily welcomes Eric Favaloro, who will write a regular weekly column this season focusing on a team or teams around baseball. Exploring other teams in depth has been something that I’ve wanted to do on Bronx Baseball Daily for a while now so I’m excited Eric is joining us. Please enjoy his article and join me in welcoming Eric to the team.
By Eric Favaloro
With pitchers and catchers already settled in for about a week and most position players present at the facilities of their respective teams, Spring Training is officially underway. No games have been played yet; the inevitable, unexpected injuries have yet to be sustained; position battles are in their infancy stages; there are still rotation, bullpen and roster spots to be won. Still, Spring Training is here, offering sports fans who hate hockey and basketball a glimmering hope—Major League Baseball is back, and Opening Day will be here before we know it. In preparation of the upcoming season, it is important for Yankee fans to be aware of the circumstances of teams around the rest of the American League.
A team to keep an eye on this spring as well as during the 2013 season is the Seattle Mariners. Yes, the same Mariners that have not made the playoffs since 2001. Yes, the same Mariners that have finished dead last in the AL West seven times in the last 10 seasons. Yes, the same Mariners that in 2012 had the worst batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and runs scored per game in all of Major League Baseball. Yes, the same Mariners that in 2012 finished last in hits, RBI, and total bases, when compared to the rest of the AL. You get the picture; the Mariners have been bad for quite some time. With that being said, why should the 2013 season be any different? There are a number of answers to that question.
In recent years, whenever one is trying to highlight the accomplishments and success of the otherwise disappointing Seattle Mariners, there is one name that is constantly mentioned: Felix Hernandez. King Felix, as his fans lovingly refer to the 26-year-old right-hander, has been with the M’s since his Major League debut in 2005. Despite pitching for a team that has failed to provide much run support, Hernandez has put up impressive career numbers (98-76 record, with a 3.22 ERA and nearly 1,500 strikeouts) in addition to his three All-Star appearances, a 2010 AL Cy Young Award, and a perfect game in 2012.
Given his kingly performance thus far, it is no surprise that general manager Jack Zduriencik and the rest of the Mariners’ front-office recently agreed to a contract extension with Hernandez, which will keep him in Seattle through 2019. The seven-year, $175 million extension will make Hernandez the highest paid pitcher in MLB, outdoing the seven-year, $161 million deal that the Yanks originally agreed to with CC Sabathia. Locking Hernandez up for an extended period of time gives the Mariners a solid ace at the top of their rotation. However, after King Felix, Seattle’s rotation is questionable at best.
The team’s number two starter will likely be either Hisashi Iwakuma or recently-signed Joe Saunders. Iwakuma, after playing 10 seasons in Japan, made his Major League debut last year with the Mariners, earning a 9-5 record and 3.16 ERA in 16 starts. The 31-year-old gave up a lot of hits, but struck out 101 batters in 125.1 innings. Although putting up pretty good numbers last season, the right-hander has only 16 big-league starts under his belt and therefore remains unproven.
Saunders, also 31, split time between the Diamondbacks and Orioles last year, going 9-13 with a 4.07 ERA. Saunders has not had a winning season since 2009, but has shown flashes of effectiveness as of late. The lefty did well enough in the postseason – going 1-0 with a 1.59 ERA over two starts for the O’s – to earn himself a half a million-dollar raise with the Mariners, who inked him to a one-year, $6.5 million contract. While probable to secure a spot in the rotation either behind or in front of Iwakuma, it remains to be seen just how much Saunders will be able to help the M’s in 2013. Regardless of what the future holds, Saunders brings a veteran presence to a very young team and is a reliable workhorse that has done well in the past with a strong offense behind him (between the 2008 and 2009 seasons with the Angels, he went a combined 33-14 with an All-Star nod).
After the aforementioned trio of Hernandez, Iwakuma and Saunders, the rest of the Mariners’ rotation remains uncertain, and several players will be monitored closely in camp to determine who will fill the remaining spots. 22-year-old Erasmo Ramirez is a low-walk, high-strikeout pitcher, but just made his Major League debut last year, having only started a total of eight games. 24-year-old Blake Beavan, an 11-game winner in 2012, has some more experience than Ramirez, starting a total of 41 games in the two seasons he has been in the bigs. The second overall pick of the 2011 draft, Danny Hultzen, will also be considered for the starting rotation. Hultzen, 23, split time between Double-A and Triple-A last year, going 9-7 with 136 strikeouts and only four home runs allowed in 124 innings.
Veterans Jeremy Bonderman and Jon Garland also have a shot at making the rotation. Bonderman, coming back from Tommy John Surgery, has not pitched in the Majors since 2010. Garland, coming back from shoulder issues, has not pitched in a game since 2011. However, in 2010 with the Padres, Garland went 14-12 with a 3.47 ERA. When healthy, Garland has consistently pitched around or above 200 innings per season—in his last 10 seasons, he has pitched 190+ innings nine times and has pitched 200+ innings six times.
While starting pitching is definitely the weak spot of this team, all Mariners pitchers, whether they make the rotation or not, should notice a significant change in terms of run support in 2013.
Mike Morse, acquired in a three-team trade in January, should contribute a great deal to the Mariners’ past offensive woes. Morse, 31, became a hot commodity on the trade market after his former team, the Washington Nationals, agreed to a two-year deal with first baseman Adam LaRoche. Although Morse is primarily an outfielder, he also plays some first base, and would have found himself a starter at that position had LaRoche left D.C. With LaRoche manning first base in D.C. for at least the next two seasons, Washington spoke with several teams, including the Yankees, before ultimately shipping Morse to Seattle.
The power potential and subsequent ceiling for Morse are certainly high, but the floor to this player is also very low. Given his past riddled with PED suspensions and injuries, the Mariners took somewhat of a risk when they acquired the outfielder/first baseman; clearly, though, they believe that risk is worth the reward. While it is hard to determine Morse’s true production potential because he has only played over 100 games in a season twice thus far in his career, he does seem to produce when he stays healthy. Having his best season in 2011, Morse produced 31 home runs, 95 RBI, a .303 average, a slugging percentage of .550, and an OPS of .910 over the course of 146 games. In a shortened 102-game 2012 season, he hit 18/62/.291/.470/.791.
If healthy and on the field, Morse will certainly provide the M’s with some serious power in the middle of a lineup that is already much-improved from last year. Over the winter, Seattle also acquired Kendrys Morales, ex-Met Jason Bay and ex-Yankee Raul Ibanez, whose heroics provided Yankee fans some intensity and excitement in an otherwise abysmal postseason. With the Mariners moving the fences in for the 2013 season and beyond, the heavy hitters in the Mariners’ lineup should do even better in what used to be a very pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.
Unfortunately for Yankee fans, Ibañez, a left-handed batter, does not stand to benefit significantly from the new dimensions at Safeco, which mostly alter the left side of the field. Although right-center in Seattle (381 feet) will now be four feet closer to the plate than the same area in Yankee Stadium (385 feet), the 326-foot distance down the right field line at Safeco is significantly different than the 314-foot treat for lefties in Yankee Stadium. As a result, like most left-handed batters parting ways with the short porch in right, there will likely be a decline in Raul’s power numbers—his age doesn’t really help, either.
Jason Bay, however, a right-handed hitter that is well-known for pulling the ball to the left side of the field, should prosper from the new dimensions at Safeco. The wall at the left field line is now four feet closer to the plate than that of Citi and will no longer have an in-play scoreboard causing its height to exceed 16 feet. The new left-center wall will be 378 feet from the plate, seven feet closer than Citi’s; the previous left-center Safeco wall would have been a whopping 390 feet from the plate, five feet further than Citi’s current layout. While the updated, hitter-friendly Safeco could never compare to Fenway’s Green Monster and its biased effects on right-handed hitters (which aided Bay in smashing 45 homers and 156 RBI over 200 games in 2008-2009), they still should help Bay return to his superstar status.
More importantly, though, escaping the overbearing, pressure-filled magnifying glass that is New York City will be absolutely huge for Bay. Relocating to a small-market team like the M’s will aid the Canadian-born outfielder in reclaiming his greatness of years past (A.J. Burnett, anyone?). At the affordable base salary of $1 million, the Mariners have received a sensational deal for a potential AL Comeback Player of the Year in 2013.
Kendrys Morales, who, after a walk-off grand slam in 2010, fractured his ankle and missed the rest of the season, returned to the Angels last year to deliver 22 home runs, 73 RBI and a .273 average through 134 games. In the 51 games he played before the fracture, Morales was playing extremely well (11 HR / 39 RBI / .290 BA) and was a shoe-in for his first All-Star game. The previous season, in 2009, Morales belted 34 homers and 108 RBI while hitting over .300, finishing him fifth in AL MVP voting. After acquiring Morales in a trade that sent left-handed starter Jason Vargas to the Angels, the Mariners are confident that, given a full Spring Training to workout, Morales will again become the player he was before the fluke injury.
Adding the aforementioned power threats to promising Mariners offensive players that were on the 2012 team—Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, ex-Yankee Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley—all but guarantees that the 2013 Seattle Mariners will be much more explosive and dangerous that they have been in the past. While it is safe to say that the rotation depth (or lack thereof) will prevent the M’s from seriously contending this year, there should be a noticeable improvement to the overall team. However, if two of those starting pitcher options actually succeed and consistently provide the team with quality starts, look out! If, and it is a big if, there are two solid starters behind the always-dominant King Felix, there is no reason why the 2013 Mariners cannot replicate what the Oakland A’s and Baltimore Orioles achieved in 2012. Playing the lowly Houston Astros, now part of the AL West, 19 times over the course of the season can only help!
Yankee fans can get a closer look at the much-improved Seattle Mariners May 14-16, when the two teams meet for a three-game series at Yankee Stadium. The Bombers head to the newly-renovated Safeco Field shortly thereafter, playing a four-game series in Seattle June 6-9.