AL West preview (cont.)
WINTER GRADE: B
General manager Jack Zduriencik was not nearly as active as he was a year ago -- when he added, among others, Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins -- and he should be commended for that. Last season's 61-101 finish -- the club's same record as in 2008 -- proved that the 85-win team of 2009 was an aberration, and Zduriencik shifted his focus to the future, using this off-season to address immediate holes with modest short-term fillers like DH Jack Cust, catcher Miguel Olivo and shortstop Brendan Ryan. "I think in the next two or three years, you'll see a lot of nice things out of this organization," he says. This year, even under a new manager in former Indians skipper Eric Wedge, there will very likely be fewer nice things.
1. Will the Mariners score more than last season?
Yes, but that is not much of a stretch. Of the 842 MLB teams over the past 30 years just one -- the 1981 Toronto Blue Jays -- scored fewer runs per game than the 2010 Mariners' 3.17, and those Blue Jays had their season interrupted by a strike and used a three-point specialist, Danny Ainge, for a third baseman. "It was the perfect storm of things not working out," says Zduriencik. While this year's Mariners will be something short of an offensive juggernaut, they should rise to, perhaps, somewhere around 800th on the above-mentioned list, due to a rebound from Figgins -- who hit a career worst .259 last year ("I think we were all trying to do too much," Figgins says), 15 to 20 homers apiece from Cust and Olivo, and the continued development of a pair of 24-year-olds, Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak.
2. Will Michael Pineda be the AL Rookie of the Year?
Pineda, 22, has just 12 starts at Triple-A on his ledger, but a stellar spring -- he had a 2.12 ERA in 17 innings pitched -- convinced the Mariners to make him their fifth starter. "His stuff's real," says Wedge of the 6'7", 260-pound Pineda. "He's a hard thrower, throws three solid pitches with which he can get hitters out in the big leagues, and he's very athletic for as big as he is." Pineda has never thrown more than 139 1/3 innings in a pro season, and his workload will be limited, but he could still beat out two other starting pitchers -- the Rays' Jeremy Hellickson and the Blue Jays' Kyle Drabek -- to become the Mariners' first Rookie of the Year since Ichiro in 2001.
3. Will Felix Hernandez finish the season in Seattle?
"Right," said Zduriencik, when asked this spring if it was correct to assume that he still had no intention of trading last year's AL Cy Young winner, who will turn 25 next week. Every contender will be after Hernandez all season long, but unless, say, the Yankees call and offer Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos and both Derek Jeter and a time machine, Zduriencik's conversations with them should be very short indeed. Hernandez is signed at a reasonable rate through 2014, as his salary over the next four seasons will average just over $14 million. By then, Pineda could be a well-established second ace ("Everybody's excited about the chance of these two guys matching up in the rotation as we move forward," Zduriencik says), and the offense could be much improved due in part to middle infield prospects Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin. Hernandez is a wanted man around baseball, and he will likely stay that way.
Erik Bedard, SP
Bedard began his exhibition season with what he called "probably the best inning I've ever had in spring training history" -- it consisted of nine pitches and two strikeouts -- and things didn't get appreciably worse from there: He ended up allowing two earned runs over 16 innings, with 14 strikeouts and a .196 batting average against. Even better was that after three injury-decimated seasons in Seattle, his shoulder is back to feeling as it did when he was a Cy Young contender as an Oriole. "Structurally, there's absolutely zero wrong," he says. "My arm angle's finally the same as it was in '07." The 31-year-old won't right the Mariners' ship by himself, but he could represent a good deal of ballast.
"One thing that is apparent is that ownership is buying into patience. They have some minor league pitching, all the way down to A-ball, that is a couple years away, and some interesting arms in the bullpen -- particularly a kid named Danny Cortes, who throws 98 or 99, and Tom Wilhemsen, who is up to 95. I think their bullpen is going to be their strength. Their biggest problem is going to be scoring runs. You know Ichiro and Figgins are going to form the best one-two combo in the league, but they don't have much else right now -- guys like Franklin Gutierrez are mere contributors on good clubs, not middle-of-the-order hitters. It's going to be rough for them until they can see if prospects like Ackley and Carlos Peguero -- he's a 6-4 kid with pop that just lets it go -- can make an impact."
WINTER GRADE: A-
A demerit for failing to re-sign Lee -- though only a slight one, as Lee's free agency decision-making process was quite evidently unconventional. Other than that, GM Jon Daniels had a very good off-season. He signed free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre, in the process not only adding a slugger and superior defender but keeping him away from his club's two main AL West rivals, the Angels and the A's, who were Beltre's other top pursuers. Daniels also shored up the Rangers' catching position -- a weak spot in last season's lineup, one that produced a .605 OPS -- by signing steady veteran Yorvit Torrealba to a two-year deal in November, and then trading for Mike Napoli in January. The Rangers' offense and defense is more than good enough to propel the club back to October, as long as the pitching can keep up.
1. Is it the right call to keep Neftali Feliz in the 'pen?
The Rangers still envision Feliz as their ace -- but starting in 2012, not 2011. For now, the 22-year-old will remain their closer. The decision suggests that the club feels as if the chance that C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis can repeat their unexpected magic from last season is greater than the one that Feliz could seamlessly expand his repertoire and innings to become a frontline starter. Making Feliz a starter would have represented a gamble, to be sure, but now Texas will try to return to the World Series not only without Lee, but also without the Lee-like rotational linchpin that Feliz has the talent to become.
2. What to do with their surplus offense?
Trade it, posthaste. Manager Ron Washington has more talented bats than he can possibly fit in his lineup due in part to the acquisition of Beltre and the blossoming of first baseman Mitch Moreland. Of course, that depth was intended in part to keep the Rangers' recently injury-riddled lineup healthy. "Part of the design of the club was to give Wash the ability, not just with Josh Hamilton but with everyone, to give them 10 days off during the year," Daniels says. Still, the Rangers' offense depth might at this point have even greater value if it were converted into something else. The two most obviously extraneous hitters are Michael Young and Chris Davis, whose values probably won't get any higher after exhibition seasons in which they combined to hit .370 with five homers (all of them Davis') and 28 RBIs. The duo might be packaged for some rather attractive pitching help, of either the starting or relief variety.
3. Has Elvis Andrus's offensive development plateaued?
Andrus won't turn 23 until August, and is a skilled shortstop, but his offense somewhat unexpectedly fell off in his sophomore season: his OPS dropped from .702 to .643, his home runs from six to zero. There is, according to one MLB scout, no reason for concern, particularly as Andrus was still the AL's fourth-youngest player and had to adjust from being the Rangers' No. 9 hitter as a rookie to a significantly more demanding leadoff role last season. "There was a lot said about him not hitting any home runs, in a lineup that's crushing them in batting practice every day," the scout says. "But he has stayed within himself. Anytime you see him hitting the ball in the air, you're not happy about that, because it's a mistake. On the flip side of that, as he matures more physically, it wouldn't surprise me if he starts to hit 10, 15 home runs two years down the line." For now, the Rangers will be happy for Andrus to remain their powerful lineup's slap-hitting igniter, with the promise of greater things to come.
Brandon Webb, SP
That Feliz remains the Rangers' closer might have something to do with the club's increasingly optimistic feelings about Webb, who was one of the game's elite starters with the Diamondbacks between 2006 and 2008 but was available as a free agent after two years that were lost to injury. Webb, 31, spent the spring getting his shoulder in shape with 60-pitch bullpen sessions, and one rival scout says Texas has precisely the right idea. "If I'm them, I'm not in too much of a hurry with him," the scout says. "Come June 1, if Brandon Webb is back to being the Brandon Webb he has been, then they get an upper tier guy just like that."
"It's amazing how much their team changed last year when they got Cliff Lee. That was the icing on the cake. Now? Well, C.J. Wilson is not a true No. 1 starter, and it's so important to have that one-two knockout punch, especially when you get to the playoffs. Their biggest question mark is, can they get away with Wilson, Colby Lewis, et cetera? There's some depth in the rotation, but not a whole lot of substance. Defensively, there are no weaknesses, and they have so much surplus offense -- but can they out-slug teams every night?"
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