AL West Hot Stove preview (cont.)
2011 Results: 74-88, 3rd place
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 645/679
Pythagorean Record: 77-85
Pending Free Agents: OF Josh Willingham, CF Coco Crisp, OF David DeJesus, DH Hideki Matsui, SP Rich Harden
Prospects on the Verge: 1B Chris Carter, OF Michael Taylor, UT Adrian Cardenas, 3B Stephen Parker
Building For: To make Moneyball look like less of a period picture
Strengths: Gio Gonzalez, Jemile Weeks, bullpen, past-due first base prospects
Biggest Holes: outfield, offense, rotation depth
Targets: OF Grady Sizemore, OF J.D. Drew, DH Vlad Guerrero, DH/1B/C Jorge Posada
Remember that great young rotation that the A's were supposed to have? Not so fast. Brett Anderson can't stay healthy and had Tommy John surgery in July, shelving him for at least half of the coming season. Trevor Cahill's 2010 season was largely the product of a .237 opponent's average on balls in play, and when that corrected itself last season, he looked extremely ordinary. Dallas Braden had shoulder capsule surgery in May, which can be career-altering. Brandon McCarthy had a nice season, but he has lost at least a month to injury in each of the last five years, the last three due to a chronic scapula injury. Guillermo Moscoso had a nice rookie campaign, but, like Cahill a year ago, is due for a big correction to his .222 BABIP. That leaves 26-year-old lefty Gio Gonzalez, who still walks too many hitters, but gets the strikeouts to compensate and has posted a 3.17 ERA in 65 starts over the last two seasons.
That doesn't give the A's much to build around, and the Rangers' dominance and Angels' potential doesn't give them much hope of a dark-horse run for the division title. With their entire outfield and designated hitter all hitting the free-agent market, the A's have an opening to boost their perennially anemic offense, but two of the better outfielders on the market, Josh Willingham and Coco Crisp, were already A's this past season. Besides which, given Oakland's limited budget and chances in the West, spending to fill the outfield with big bats may be an exercise in spending just to spend. Rather, the A's would be better off taking some low-risk, high-reward gambles on players who could either be flipped at the trading deadline for prospects (one of GM Billy Beane's favorite gambits) or who would net draft picks as free agents after the season (as Willingham, a Type A free agent and David DeJesus, a Type B, will this winter).
2011 Results: 67-95, 4th place
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 556/675
Pythagorean Record: 67-95
Pending Free Agents: IF Adam Kennedy, OF Wily Mo Peņa, C Josh Bard, RP David Aardsma, RP Jamey Wright
Prospects on the Verge: 3B Alex Liddi
Building For: Respectability, eventually
Strengths: Top two starting pitchers, Dustin Ackley, not being the Astros
Biggest Holes: Almost everything else
Targets: Prospects, by hook or by crook
The Mariners haven't outscored their opponents over a full season since 2003 and have had a winning record just twice in the interim. They haven't averaged four or more runs scored per game since 2008 and have been dead last in the majors in runs in each of the last two seasons, missing the lowest run total in 2009 by just four. Writing this piece two years ago, I said that the Mariners were not a good team. I was guilty of understatement. They're a terrible team, and general manager Jack Zduriencik, who was greeted with much enthusiasm upon his hiring three years ago, has done little to change that.
Last season, the Mariners graduated two top prospects in right-hander Michael Piņeda and second baseman Dustin Ackley, the latter drafted under Zduriencik. Both impressed, but they barely made a dent in the team's fortunes, and the continued struggles of first baseman Justin Smoak, the key piece obtained from the Rangers in the Cliff Lee trade and a young player who is supposed to be a central part of the Mariners' offense going forward, undermined the good feelings that those two engendered.
Casting further pall over the team is the realization that Ichiro Suzuki is likely on his way out. Suzuki had his first poor season in 2011, failing to collect 200 hits, hit .300, or post an OPS+ above league average for the first time in his 11 major league seasons. That might have been the result of bad luck on balls in play, but Suzuki is now 38 and entering the final year of his contract, so the end is most likely near.
Also, now that Smoak, Ackley, Piņeda, and infielder Kyle Seager have graduated to the majors, there aren't many prospects left in the high minors that Seattle fans can dream on for the coming year. Those four, particularly the first three, could and should be even better in the coming year, with Piņeda, who turns 23 in January, being less limited in terms of workload. The Italian-born Alex Liddi could bump Seager from third base to a utility role, though Liddi isn't necessarily a superior prospect. Still, the Mariners are a long way from a .500 record, never mind contention.
So, here's the kicker: The Mariners' best plan for the coming year might be to hope that Ichiro has a big first half and can be cashed in for prospects at the deadline. That could be a public relations disaster, but Suzuki has only a limited no-trade clause (he can block trades to 10 teams) and a trade could be pitched to both him and the fan base as giving a future Hall of Famer one last shot at a postseason run. Beyond that, and perhaps a smaller deal involving catcher Miguel Olivo, there's not much that the Mariners can do beyond draft well, wait, and pray to the baseball gods. See that link to the FlipFlopFlyBall chart in the Rangers comment above? Click it again. See where the Mariners rank? Twenty-eight out of 30. This is a team deeply entrenched at the bottom of the standings, and nothing Zduriencik does this winter is going to change that.
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