Spring Postcards: Can defense, imports get M's to October?
The Mariners have improved their defense but must replace their best power hitter
Milton Bradley, Ryan Garko and Eric Byrnes should spark the offense
Dustin Ackley, a rookie out of North Carolina, is learning a new position
This spring, SI.com is filing postcards from all 30 camps. To read all the postcards, click here.
1. The backlash is beginning
By now, you are probablyaware that that the 2009 Mariners ranked among the best fielding teams of all time, and that the 2010 iteration of the club ought to be even better. That subject has been well covered, particularly in my colleague Albert Chen's definitive and must-read story in the March 1 issue of SI. You also probably know that the Mariners' pitching staff now features two legitimate aces in Felix Hernandez (who finished second in the 2009 AL Cy Young voting) and Cliff Lee, the '08 AL Cy Young winner who GM Jack Zduriencik acquired from the Phillies as part of a four-team, nine-player trade in mid-December. Those developments have made the Mariners a trendy World Series pick.
Skeptics, however, have rightly been pointing out that the Mariners roster contains a hole, and it's a potentially crippling one. The M's will certainly prevent runs, but it's somewhat difficult to see how they will score them. Their 85-77 record a year ago -- a 24-win improvement on '08 -- is obscured by the fact that the Mariners were actually outscored by 52 runs on the season (640 to 692). Their offense was, by a fair margin, the least productive in the AL (the Royals were second-to-last, with 686 runs scored), and their Pythagorean winning percentage -- a tool developed by Bill James that calculates wins and losses based on run differential -- was 75-87, suggesting that their final record was a bit lucky. After they failed to re-sign their '09 home run leader, Russell Branyan (who slugged a career-high 31), the Mariners' roster now features just one player, second baseman Jose Lopez, who hit more than 20 homers last year. Unless they receive run production from unexpected sources, the Mariners will play a lot of 3-2 games in 2010 -- and their success will depend on consistently falling on the right side of those, a pattern that is difficult, in the long run, to sustain.
2. The lineup does, however, contain a lot of potential
Zduriencik, at first glance, appears to have taken something of a "pu-pu platter" approach to his off-season acquisitions on offense, adding a cluster of players in the hope that one or two of them shows some much-needed power. Included among them are outfielder/DH Milton Bradley, whose .999 OPS led the AL in 2008 but who had a disastrous, and injury-plagued, 2009 with the Cubs; first baseman Ryan Garko, a career .313 hitter against lefties who drove in 90 runs as an Indian in '08, but who struggled last season; and outfielder Eric Byrnes, whose balky hamstrings have prevented him from being able to recapture the magic of his 2007 season, when he hit 21 homers and stole 50 bases for the Dimaondbacks
Zduriencik says that each of those acquisitions was targeted. "None of our moves were made at random," he says. "We had calculated discussions and made decisions about every one of these guys. Are we going to sit here and have 40-home run guys? Probably not. But we can prevent runs, we can pitch well, and I think we've added some elements that can be a positive for us." The team's highest hopes, in terms of potential run production, might rest with new first baseman Casey Kotchman, who has never hit more than 14 home runs in a season. "Casey's the guy that can take on the same philosophy as Russell last year," says manager Don Wakamatsu. "Can we get more power out of him, give this guy a home and make him a power guy? A middle of the order guy?" A breakout from Kotchman, or a recapturing of former glory by Bradley, Garko or Byrnes, will prove essential to the Mariners' hopes of improving upon last season's finish.
3. The good times are continuing to roll
That finish did not include a playoff appearance, but did feature a season-ending lap around Safeco Field and a beer-spraying celebration in the clubhouse. Those good vibes have carried over to the Mariners' clubhouse this spring. It's an optimistic time for any team, to be sure, but the Seattle clubhouse continues to be an unusually cohesive and happy place. "You noticed?" says Wakamatsu, smiling. It starts at the top, with the beloved Zduriencik and Wakamatsu, a pair of personable men who are known to their charges and to the Seattle community as "Jack and Wak," and who have quickly earned their players' trust. Both have paid their dues in the game, traveling long roads to their current positions, which they assumed in the fall of 2008, and both have learned the importance of treating every player on their roster respectfully and fairly.
"People don't talk about this a whole lot, but our coaching staff, other than John Wetteland, were guys who spent a lot of time up and down the big leagues, or very little time in the big leagues," says Wakamatsu. "I've been with organizations as a player where I didn't think they knew my name, or even my number. We know that for you to play the best you can, we're going to cut all the bulls--- out and just say, what can we do for you?"
Statisticians debate just how directly something like team chemistry can translate into wins, but there's little doubt that it should help a player like Bradley, whose happiness has again and again corresponded to his production, and even to whether he plays at all. "A lot of teams I've been on, they're looking at the glass half empty all the time, there's a lot of negativity," says Bradley. "Here, everything's upbeat, everything's positive. People want to meet you, greet you, shake your hand." Bradley is thrilled to be a Mariner, and that's a good sign -- one of many.
Kenji Johjima, the starter for most of his four years in Seattle, returned to his native Japan, creating an open competition for the right to wear the tools of ignorance at Safeco, primarily between veterans Rob Johnson and Josh Bard and 25-year-old Adam Moore. Johnson had surgeries to repair torn labrums in both his hips over the winter, but should be the Opening Day starter if his health allows, particularly because of the success he had catching Hernandez last season (in 25 games, batters mustered a .217 average against Hernandez with Johnson behind the plate.) "Rob caught me all last year, and he's good, man," says Hernandez. "He's smart. We're always on the same page. The other two guys, they're good too."
Johnson, though, is a career .205 hitter, and Bard just .259. Moore, on the other hand, has hit .301 in four minor league seasons, and should represent a significant offensive upgrade for a team that can use offense wherever it can get it. "He wants to come in and make a statement, and we hope he does," says Zduriencik. "The other guys have major league experience, though, and you can never sell that part short." Even though Moore might start the season at Triple-A, he should soon receive all the major league experience he can handle.
New Face, New Place
Figgins, the 32-year old who spent each of his first eight big league seasons with the Angels, signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Mariners on December 8, but he insists that money was far from the only thing that drew him north. "It wasn't so much the contract," he says. "It was the atmosphere. It's a comfort, to go to a place that wants you that bad. Jack told me we're going to make some moves to help this team be more competitive, because that's all I want -- I love to win." Much was made on the first day of full-squad workouts that Figgins -- a stellar third-baseman -- took grounders at second, while last year's incumbent, Lopez, played third. "Whatever makes us stronger," says Figgins, and Zduriencik suggests that that defensive alignment could be a real possibility come Opening Day. "We're going to see how it looks [in spring training]," Zduriencik says.
Of one thing, though, Figgins, Zduiencik and Wakamatsu seem certain: Figgins, who as the Angels' leadoff hitter led the league with 101 walks in '09, will bat second behind Ichiro. "I think two is a better spot for our team," says Figgins. "What Ichiro's been capable of doing every year, you can't change that. I think hitting behind him is going to make us stronger." Says Wakamatsu: "I don't have to touch that." The Mariners will have perhaps the best top of the order duo in the majors, and that should go a long way toward making their offense more productive.
Prospect to Watch
Even though it doesn't always seem like it, there were very good players other than Stephen Strasburg who were selected in last summer's draft. Directly behind him, at No. 2 overall, was Ackley, who hit better than .400 in all three of his seasons at the University of North Carolina (he was named the top collegiate player of the decade by Baseball America), and arrived at the clubhouse for his first official day in a major league camp wearing UNC shorts and a UNC t-shirt.
The Mariners have moved Ackley, a first baseman and outfielder in college, to second, and they say he's adjusting nicely. "I've been out here all winter, working to make the transition," Ackley says. "Double plays and things like that. Where your feet need to be, where your hands need to be." The 6'1" at which Ackley is listed on the club's roster seems, in person, to be generous by about three inches, but the Mariners forecast a very big future for him. "I think you have to be realistic and realize that this guy hasn't played a game in a Seattle Mariner uniform," says Zduriencik. "We think there's a very nice set of skills this kid has -- his approach at the plate, his swing, he can run. ETA is to be determined. But he's a guy that has the mental makeup and the work habits that might allow him to come sooner than a normal player."
Torn labrums, particularly when they're located in pitchers' pitching shoulders, are scary things, and that's why Bedard, who had surgery to repair just such an injury last August, could command only a $1.5 million guaranteed contract to return to his club of the past two years. The typical recovery time from the surgery is 10 to 12 months, and Bedard -- who has been throwing at 60 percent effort so far, with no pain -- hopes to be back by May or June. If he is able to pitch even as well as he did in his 15 starts last year, in which he went 5-3 with a 2.82 ERA, then he will give the Mariners a trio of No. 1-caliber starters.
"You've got the top of the rotation, two Cy Youngs pretty much," he says. "If I do all my rehab correctly and everything feels good, then I'll be back and we can make a real push for the playoffs and see what happens." That he will return to the peak of his abilities this season might represent a long shot, but signing Bedard was a worthy gamble for the Mariners, as opposing teams will view the prospect of facing three aces about as favorably as a Texas Hold 'Em player does, once the playoffs approach. If the Mariners are in contention when and if he returns, Bedard might be the variable that could push this up-and-coming franchise to its first World Series.
The Mariners, as an organization, are enjoying their role as the Emerald City's new sporting darlings. "Sixteen months ago, it was the Seahawks who could do no wrong," said one team employee. "Now, it's us.".... Another thing that bonds the club is what seems to be a team-wide obsession with American Idol. Several players recently sat around debating the slate of female contestants. All agreed as to the talent of Crystal Bowersox (although one cracked, impolitely, "She needs to get on the big league dental plan"). They also liked the now-departed Janell Wheeler and Ashley Rodriguez for reasons other than their singing... Ichiro's hair now sports a heavy dusting of gray, but, at 36, he remains as fashion conscious as ever. The other day he wore designer jeans with the cuffs rolled up to reveal a blue-and-white striped, seersucker lining. "It's so strange you guys react to my pants," he said. "That's normal for me. You should know that by now."
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