Strengths and Weaknesses
So, the M’s have put a team together for 2009, sort of. The opening day roster isn’t really a finished product, but for the most part, we have a fairly good idea of what the team’s strengths and weaknesses are.
This one has been talked about a lot, but it’s worth mentioning again. An outfield of Endy Chavez, Franklin Gutierrez, and Ichiro Suzuki is going to be one of the best defensive groups in baseball when they’re on the field. Chavez will share time with Balentien and Griffey, so the M’s won’t have this advantage constantly, but they should play together enough to make a noticeable difference. After years of watching some disastrous defenders roam around Safeco, seeing those three turn hits into outs should be a lot of fun.
Front Of the Rotation
The “1-2 punch” phrase was talked about so much last year that it became something of a joke, but on talent, it’s still hard to find a better pair than Felix and Bedard to start your rotation. How long Bedard will be a Mariner and whether he’ll stay healthy while pitching to his abilities are question marks, but for the first couple of months at least, the Mariners should roll out two starting pitchers who will give them a significant advantage.
The thing that sunk this team last year that is rarely addressed is just how bad the backup plans were. Sexson and Vidro were bust candidates and everyone knew it, but the M’s fallback option was… Miguel Cairo? Bryan LaHair? There were no stop-gaps in place in case of injury or poor performance. This year, the team has legitimate major league options at most positions – Ronny Cedeno can cover for the middle infielders, Chris Shelton could patch a hole at 1B/DH, Tui’s made enough improvements to hold third base down without totally embarrassing himself, Chris Burke has his uses as a utility guy, etc… The M’s won’t be left with a ridiculous hole if someone gets hurt or performs to the point that they need to be replaced.
The M’s line-up isn’t particularly well balanced between LH and RH hitters, which works against them, especially considering their home park. But while the lack of lefty hitters is a problem, it comes with a silver lining – the M’s can run out a pretty good line-up against southpaws. You don’t really want to face the M’s if you have a few LHPs coming up in your rotation, particularly on the road.
Power Arms In The Pen
I know everyone’s afraid of the bullpen imploding, but I think the focus on their lack of track records has somewhat hidden the fact that the M’s have stockpiled some serious power arms in the pen. Morrow, Aardsma, and Lowe all have fastballs that average 94 MPH or higher – Josh Fields sits in that range as well and could join the team in the second half. The end-of-game pitching staff for the M’s is going to miss a lot of bats. Yes, there are command issues with all of them, and I’m not predicting that the bullpen will be the best in the game, but it’s still quite a collection of power arms the M’s have assembled.
The M’s are carrying four left-handed position players – Ichiro, Chavez, Griffey, and Branyan. That’s it. MLB is full of right-handed sinker/slider pitchers who have good enough stuff to get RHBs out but struggle badly against LHBs (think Sean Green, for instance). The M’s, unfortunately, don’t have a line-up that can really put a hurting on those guys. On any given day, at least five of the team’s starters will be right-handed hitters, and that’s a pretty easy match-up for a lot of sub-par pitchers. We’re going to see a bunch of games this year where bad RHPs shut down the M’s, because their sinker/slider is good enough to get through a line-up of right-handers.
Back Of The Rotation
Silva, Washburn, and Rowland-Smith should all benefit from an improved outfield defense, but they’re all #5 starters in the majors. They’re below average starting pitchers, and they’ll be taking the hill more often than any of us would like. With some luck, the team might be able to dump Washburn on someone else during the season, but there’s not a better pitcher in Triple-A that he’s holding back. The team won’t improve by ridding themselves of Washburn’s salary, and the second half rotation could be particularly poor if Bedard is shipped off as well.
Command In The Pen
If you’re wondering why Chris Jakubauskas and Shawn Kelley made the roster, perhaps we need look no further than the walk rates for the rest of the relievers – Morrow, Aardsma, Batista, Lowe, and Corcoran all struggle to throw strikes consistently, and that’s essentially the high leverage portion of the bullpen. If a starter gets in trouble and needs to be bailed out of a bases loaded situation, Wakamatsu’s options for relief range from Guy With Bad Command to Guy With Horrible Command. You’re going to see several late inning bases loaded walks this year. Given this group of relievers, it’s inevitable.
Lack of Bench Flexibility
By carrying 12 pitchers, the M’s have significantly limited their options for in-game strategies. On days where Mike Sweeney starts at DH, the team won’t have a real back-up first baseman, which will limit Wakamatsu’s desire to pinch hit for Russ Branyan when the other team brings in a LOOGY. Sure, he could send Balentien up to pinch-hit, then use Cedeno as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement and push Lopez to first, but is he really going to burn half of his bench and play Lopez out of position to get Wlad’s questionable bat to the plate? The team has some pretty limited options when it comes to late game replacements at multiple positions. Other managers will be exploiting that often this year.
There’s some good stuff on the roster right now, but two of the better players might get traded mid-season. There’s some quality arms in the pen, but they all suck at throwing strikes. There’s some good right-handed hitters on the team, but not enough good left-handed bats. For every strength, there’s a corresponding weakness, and in most cases, the weakness is a bigger problem than the strength is a benefit. That, of course, is why this is a ~.500 team – the strengths and weaknesses mostly cancel each other out, leaving the 2009 Mariners as a fairly average Major League ballclub.