Today begins a series that will be in an unspecified number of parts over an indeterminate number of weeks in which I look at a team that is out of the 2009 playoff picture, but that might have designs on 2010.
I've been planning for a couple days now to do this starting with the Mariners, a team I already know pretty well, but then yesterday Rob Neyer had to come in and rain all over my parade, concluding that the Ms' "long-term prognosis doesn't look so bad. But the growing pains might be a bit ugly. Perhaps the only bright note at the moment is that there's nowhere to go but up."
First of all, what? Did he write that last year (when the Mariners were 61-101) and forget to post it until this year? Because right now the Mariners are better than a .500 team, and when you're a .500 team there's about as far to go down as there is up. I know what he meant, though: most of the article was about hitting, and the Mariners' offense has been truly dreadful. And it's true that you have to score runs to win baseball games.
But here's the thing: you don't have to score a lot of runs as long as you give up even fewer runs. And that's been the Mariners' mantra this year, due mostly to the most vastly improved defense in the entire history of sports that use the term "defense." I think they're in a pretty good position to keep doing it next year, too...with a few tweaks here and there.
Here are the Mariners' best position players currently under contract for 2010, with their current 2009 WAR in parentheses:
C: Johnson(0.5)/Johjima (0.3)
1B: Brad Nelson? (rookie)
2B: Jose Lopez (1.7)
3B: Jack Hannahan (1.1)/Bill Hall (0.2)
SS: Jack Wilson (1.9)
LF: Michael Saunders (rookie)
CF: Franklin Gutierrez (4.2)
RF: Ichiro! (4.2)
DH: Mike Carp (rookie)
Pitchers, with 2009 FIPs:
Felix Hernandez (3.11)
Carlos Silva? (5.91)
Ryan Rowland-Smith? (5.27)
Brandon Morrow (5.70)
Jason Vargas? (5.26)
Bullpen: Aardsma (3.14), Lowe (3.56), White (3.86)
It looks bad, but it's not, at least for a starting point. Ichiro seems to go from overrated to underrated and back again just about every other year, and currently he's underrated again, and having what might be his finest offensive season while still playing great D. Gutierrez has continued to be the best defensive outfielder in the game while blossoming into an average-hitting outfielder, which makes him on balance one of the better players in the league. King Felix will be my recurring pre-season pick for Cy Young every year from 2010 until further notice (perhaps 2019 or so). The bullpen is good.
What they need to MAKE happen:
1. Re-sign Russ Branyan. He won't be as cheap as he was this year ($1.4 million), but it shouldn't be all that tough to convince him to stay, either. The Mariners will have ended up giving him something like 100 more PA in a season than any of his seven other teams ever have, and Safeco Field--a pitcher's park in general but a friendly place for lefty home run hitters--is a great place for him. Brad Nelson is 26 and has put up just an .811 OPS in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League; that's not going to do it for this team. Branyan provides badly needed power, can get on base, and actually holds his own at first. Unless somebody wants to go crazy and give him a ridiculous contract based on one surprising performance, he's a no-brainer for them.
2. Sign one pretty good starting pitcher. Erik Bedard and the Mariners were a match made in that place that also brought you Ike and Tina Turner. He's gone. That starting rotation after Felix looks awful, but remember, they're a better-than-.500 team with a rotation that's no better than that right now, plus a fluky performance by Jarrod Washburn. One good pitcher would make a big difference. No telling who will really be available at this point (Rich Harden? John Lackey? Bring back Joel Pineiro? Randy Wolf? The reanimated Ben Sheets?), but they'll be out there.
3. Re-sign Adrian Beltre. Among the many brilliant things he's done, rookie GM Jack Zduriencik actually did a fantastic job making arrangements in the event of a Beltre departure in free agency. Bill Hall hits lefties well, Jack Hannahan hits righties...well enough to spell Hall when he's flailing, and they both play very good defense while costing relatively little. But put them together, and they're no better than an average player. As Dave Cameron wrote on USS Mariner yesterday (bad day for me to try to talk M's, come to think of it), they badly need another core player, and as awesome as the Gutierrez trade was for them, they had to give up real major-league value for that--value that they can't afford to part with this year. A healthy Beltre is that kind of player. He might be a hard sign--he's a Boras client, and a lot of teams understand how huge his defense is now--but then again he's coming off a horrible, injury-plagued season, and maybe he likes Seattle. Who knows? If not that, they need another core player. But who? They should have a ton of money--pretty much everyone save Ichiro is pretty cheap right now--but there just aren't that many free-agents-to-be out there who would fit, and they don't have the kind of prospects that would being in a superstar.
What they need to HAVE happen:
1. Those few core players they do have--Ichiro, Felix, Gutierrez, and hopefully Beltre or a reasonable facsimile--need to stay healthy. You always hear that, but this is an especially thin team at the top, making it especially true.
2. Brandon Morrow needs to make a big comeback. No, he'll never be the guy who was drafted five picks later, but he's still got basically unhittable stuff. A little control would go along way.
3. One of those rookies, Saunders or Carp, needs to show something. I'm sure Zduriencik can (and will) replace one of those guys, but not both, and there's really nothing else on the way up.
I don't know. Maybe it's because I like the team and really want this to be true, but seeing how they're doing this year, I think with a few tweaks and a little luck, this team could win 90-93 games in 2010 and make a really good run at the division.
3 hours ago