After telling us to “Believe Big” last year, the mood around this year’s team is much more subdued. While I’m sure that everyone on the field staff will tell you that their goal is to win, the reality of the situation is that the Mariners are longshots to really contend this year. Like with any team, there are scenarios where the Mariners could get a bunch of unexpectedly great performances and shock the world, but the odds of this team ending up in the playoffs are probably 10 percent or less.
It’s possible that the M’s could be this year’s version of what the Padres were last year, winning a bunch of low-scoring games with smoke and mirrors and hanging around until September. However, the more likely outcome is that they don’t prevent enough runs to win while scoring four runs per game, and they end the season with somewhere between 70 and 80 wins. Less than 70 wins is probably a minor disaster, while more than 80 is a very pleasant surprise. But, in that 70-80 win range, there’s a lot of different potential outcomes that will determine whether this season is retroactively seen as a success or not. The win total won’t really determine the optimism that the organization takes into 2012, but specific developments likely will. As we stand here waiting for the first pitch of the 2011 season, here are the five things that I believe will drive the perception of this coming season as a success or failure.
1. The Development Of Justin Smoak As A Hitter
The M’s targeted Smoak last summer because the organization had a glaring need for a power hitting first baseman who could take advantage of Safeco’s friendliness to left-handed bats. They needed a guy who could get on base and drive runners in, producing runs in the middle of the order at a bargain salary that would fit into the team’s budget. As a first round pick who tore up the minors, Smoak offers the potential to be that guy, but he also showed quite a few warts after coming over from Texas. His strikeout rate was absurdly high, his struggles against left-handed pitching alarming, and his defense at first base was not as advertised. Instead of being a future star, Smoak looked like a solid platoon player if he made enough adjustments to hit big league pitching. That’s not what the team thought they were getting, though, and that’s not what they need.
If Smoak can show some real improvement and put up a .280/.350/.500 line, he’ll offer some real hope for the future and allow the team to focus on other areas for long term improvement. If he continues to swing through hittable fastballs and get exploited by left-handed pitchers, however, the organization might have to re-consider whether he’s good enough to be a middle-of-the-order hitter on a team that wants to win.
2. The Development Of Dustin Ackley As A Second Baseman
Despite offensive numbers that could be construed as a disappointment last year, I’m not concerned about Ackley’s bat. He’s going to hit for average and draw a lot of walks, and while reasonable people can differ over his power potential, the real key to his value is how well he’ll be able to play second base. He has the physical abilities to be solid and maybe even good there, but he still shows his inexperience too frequently. A .300/.370/.450 guy is a star if he’s a good defensive second baseman, but he’s just a nice regular if he has to move back to the outfield. The team intentionally set up second base placeholders to allow him to get to Seattle quickly, but it’s glove, not his bat, that will determine how fast he can make that transition. Quick improvements in turning the double play would help tremendously, and give the team an offensive shot in the arm that they could really use.
3. The Development Of Michael Pineda‘s Change-Up
I’ll stop using the development headline after this one, I promise. I wrote about this two weeks ago, so I won’t re-hash too much of that post, but how quickly Pineda develops a weapon against left-handers will tell us quite a bit about how realistic it will be to expect him to be able to slide into the #2 spot in the rotation behind Felix next year. If he can get lefties out, then the M’s will have two dynamite young arms. That’s still an if, though, and the organization would love to have the answer to that question turn out in a positive way.
4. Can They Get Franklin Gutierrez Healthy?
Like it or not, Gutierrez is still the M’s third best player, and having him on the sidelines with an undiagnosed illness is a real problem. The M’s gave Guti a five year contract, so it’s not like they can just move on if this turns out to be a long term issue. They need to get Gutierrez healthy and back to being a +15 center fielder with a league average bat. This team doesn’t have enough talent to have him turn into a part-time player. They need him to get back to being a good everyday guy, but first, they just have to figure out what’s wrong.
5. Are The Young Bullpen Guys Good Enough To Build Around?
With Tom Wilhelmsen, Josh Lueke, Dan Cortes, and potentially returning-from-injury guys Shawn Kelley and Mauricio Robles, the M’s have an assortment of interesting young relievers that are near Major League ready. The current bullpen is full of replacement level placeholders, so for the team to get back to having a shut down bullpen, they’ll need several of these young guys to really develop into shutdown relief aces. There’s questions surrounding all of them, however, and projecting reliever performance is never easy. The team probably has enough arms that they can expect one or two to develop into good late inning options, but ideally, they’d be able to breed an entire new bullpen out of some the guys coming up through the system. If Cortes and Lueke fail to live up to their potential, then the team will have to go reliever shopping again next winter, and that’s money that needs to be spent elsewhere.
There are other guys on the roster whose performances matter as well, but for the most part, this organization’s direction will be judged based on the outcomes of these five variables. If most of them go the M’s way, odds are good that they’ll be seen as a team on the rise with prospects for contention next year. If they get poor results from these guys, though, then we could be in for a long year and a lot of speculation about where this team is headed.
The M’s finalized their roster after tonight’s exhibition with the Dodgers, purchasing the contracts of Ryan Langerhans and Luis Rodriguez to fill the final two spots on the bench. Langerhans, you know, but Rodriguez is a new face to the organization, and probably one that you haven’t seen much of a reason to be overly interested in. After all, he’s filling the last spot on the roster – how interesting could he be?
More interesting than you might think. I’m pretty happy to see the M’s decide to carry Rodriguez, as he offers some upside that you don’t generally expect from the last guy on the bench. If you didn’t click the link, it goes to my writeup of Rodriguez from last August where I compared his development to that of Andres Torres, who found some late-career power and turned himself into a good Major Leaguer. Rodriguez had a monster season for Charlotte last year, and while it could just be one of those fluke seasons that happens from time to time, there’s also a chance that Rodriguez learned how to drive the ball last year, and there’s some chance that could carry over to 2011.
If even part of Rodriguez’s breakout was real, he could actually be a decent role player for the M’s both this year and going forward. Right now, Adam Kennedy and Jack Wilson are sharing the second base job, but they’re basically keeping the seat warm for Dustin Ackley. If Jack Wilson is traded this summer as expected, the team will need some kind of right-handed second baseman to give Ackley a day off against tough left-handers here and there. Kennedy’s left-handed bat makes him ill-suited for that role, but Rodriguez is a switch-hitter who could slide into the spot and give the team a guy who can give them a different look at second base when Ackley’s slumping or just needs a breather.
Additionally, there’s also the possibility that Chone Figgins could play well enough this year to give him some trade value at the deadline, in which case the team would be in need of a replacement at third base. With the possibility of drafting Anthony Rendon this summer, the organization could certainly end up looking for a short-term solution who could provide some value at the position in the short term. Rodriguez certainly isn’t your prototypical third baseman, but if he shows some of the power he displayed in Charlotte last year, he could hit enough to provide some offense from the hot corner.
He’s not a young hotshot prospect by any means, but there are late bloomers in baseball, and Rodriguez showed enough in Triple-A last year to earn another shot in the big leagues. Having him around as a reserve infielder gives the team to evaluate whether the power spike was real and see if he can force his way into more regular playing time. If he does, they might just have a nice little player on their hands. It’s the kind of potential reward that the likes of Josh Wilson simply didn’t offer, and it’s why I like the call for Rodriguez as the 25th man.
He may very well just go back to hitting like he has the rest of his career, and if that happens, he probably won’t be on this team for more than a month or two. But, on the off chance that he hits like he did in 2010, then the bench would suddenly be a bit more interesting.
The Cactus League part of the season is over and done with. Now, for a meaningless game against the Dodgers in which most of the regulars will be pulled early in exchange for scrubs. This will be televised, both on FSN/Root Sports locally and MLB.TV for free and with no blackouts. I would watch it because of the possibility of prospects, but that’s just me. Erik Bedard pitching should also be a draw.
Behind Bedard, we have Wilhelmsen, League, and Ray available, along with minor leaguers such as LHP Brian Moran, Mr. Excitement RHP Scott Patterson, RHP Josh Fields, and RHP Steve Hensely available after those guys. I’d consider running Moran out there just to help wash the taste of the last outing out of his mouth. No word on the minor league position players that followed the caravan to L.A.
Just one more of these after this one and we’re home free.
3B Luis Rodriguez
LF James McOwen
This is a new lineup! McOwen ran off an amazing hit streak two years ago and then dislocated his shoulder early last season and was benched throughout. It’s nice to see him get out there and play. Tomorrow, it’s probably going to be a bunch of guys like him on the field late in the game.
News came out that Franklin Gutierrez will be beginning the season on the DL. Since it’s going to be a retroactive placement, he’ll be eligible to come off on April 6th, though at this stage, we seem to have little idea of what’s going on and what it might take to get him into playing shape.
I’m getting on a Wilhelmsen post which will end up below this one when I’m finished. Edit: hey look, it’s here
While few were ever predicting that Tom Wilhelmsen would take his great story to the major leagues out of spring training, the fact remains that him making the club as a reliever has been a possibility in the back of everyone’s mind. His Arizona Fall League stint only solidified the opinion that he has the stuff to be able to work out of the ‘pen and soon if the organization felt like fasttracking him. Still, with the appealing starting pitching options beyond Pineda including generous estimations of Robles’ abilities and ambitious timetables for Paxton, some have come to me asking if Wilhelmsen could start, and if so, would his addition to the Mariners staff represent a setback.
Wilhelmsen is an odd duck in many respects. If you run down the list of reasons why guys are converted to relief, it’s usually stalled development (age can be a factor here), lack of command, lack of tertiary offerings, and durability concerns. Wilhelmsen doesn’t quite fit the bill. Limited experience as a pro keeps him from being “stalled”, though he is older, and durability right now is an unknown beyond reports of some nerve issues in the elbow coming off his independent league campaign. If nothing else, his arm is reasonably fresh. His command and stuff are also pretty good for a guy who wasn’t throwing for a long time, perhaps much better than they have any right to be. Much talk has been devoted to the live fastball and the bombshell curve, but all the scouting reports I’ve seen on him also mention a change-up and a sinker, both in complementary terms, which indicates that the two could be serviceable pitches in time. The two biggest marks against Wilhelmsen is that he is older, which would make an organization inclined to be less patient with him, and he lacks experience. Everything else says he has the capacity to start.
When we look at Wilhelmsen’s situation, we ought to recognize that this is really quite different from every other instance we’ve recently seen where a pitcher was aggressively promoted to the major leagues in order to relieve. Time against more polished hitters is the biggest thing Wilhelmsen is lacking. Some of this was even referenced in the articles that have been circulating, about how he realized that he couldn’t blow the ball past the better hitters and started to get himself into more trouble as he moved up the ladder last season. He doesn’t need to start from scratch with a third pitch to keep hitters honest, he just needs to figure out how to set them up and when to use each of his offerings.
If he’s conscious of this and doesn’t become a two-pitch guy in the bullpen, then using him in the bullpen won’t keep him from starting at a later date. The ambitious, best-case scenario could involve him limiting his innings by relieving this season and then getting his feet wet starting for the Lara Cardenales in the LVBP over the winter. Continuing the daydream, if he does well there, he could contend for a spot in the rotation as early as next year. All of these plans are contingent on a few factors that may not come to pass, but none of them seem improbable. Wilhelmsen may yet be a possibility for the starting rotation.
The M’s went with upside in the last spot in the bullpen and have decided to carry Tom Wilhelmsen as the final reliever, outrighting Cesar Jimenez off the 40 man roster in the process. Wilhelmsen has the stuff to be a quality reliever, but after spending five years out of baseball and then topping out in A-ball last year, it’s a legitimate question of how ready he is to contribute in the big leagues. That said, the arm is legit, and if he can throw strikes with regularity, he could be an asset for the M’s this year. He’s certainly more interesting that Jimenez, who is lousy and offered no long term potential.
Also, the M’s made it official and placed Franklin Gutierrez on the DL – because he hasn’t played in spring training for a while, he’s eligible to come off as early as April 6th, but given that they still don’t know what’s wrong with him, that’s probably unlikely. Expect Michael Saunders to get a bulk of the playing time in center field to begin the season.
You can still listen to not-very-meaningful baseball being played today. This lineup looks a lot like one that you might see to start the season.
2B Wilson (I no longer have to clarify which one)
Available bullpen pitchers will include Josh Lueke, Brandon League, and Chris Ray, along with minor league arms such as LH Bobby LaFromboise and RH Stephen Penney. Penney is kind of interesting because he’s a strong arm with good command, though from what I remember of last season, he was just awful when it came to preventing inherited runners from scoring.
Well, so much for Josh Wilson making the team. I read that one pretty wrong, apparently.
Now it seems like the last spot on the bench is down to either Luis Rodriguez or an acquisition from outside the organization. I guess it’s also possible that they could go with 13 pitchers and carry both Jimenez and Wilhelmsen, but given the fragility of Milton Bradley and Jack Wilson, a three man bench would be about the worst idea of all time.
As the spring goes on, we get to the point where rosters are mostly conceived and the talk of prospects is of those that will make it, not the camp curiosities. But hey, this is the end of it, isn’t it? We’re getting on to the point where the real baseball will start, along with real-ish minor league baseball soon after that.
The M’s announced this morning that Luke French has been optioned to Triple-A, while Josh Bard and Chris Gimenez have been re-assigned to minor league camp. If you’re wondering about the difference, a player who is in camp on a minor league deal does not need to be optioned out, since he’s not on the 40 man roster. I wouldn’t be surprised if either Bard or Gimenez asked for their release, as there probably won’t be regular playing time for both in Tacoma.
After cutting Royce Ring and Matt Tuiasosopo yesterday, the roster looks to be pretty close to finalization, barring a trade in the next couple of days anyway. Here’s what we’re looking at.
Catcher: Olivo, Moore
Infield: Figgins, Ryan, Jack Wilson, Smoak, Kennedy, Josh Wilson
Outfield: Bradley, Saunders, Ichiro, Langerhans
The last spot in the bullpen essentially comes down to Cesar Jimenez and Tom Wilhelmsen. Jimenez is out of options and would give the team a second left-handed arm out of the bullpen, but Wilhelmsen has far better stuff and some legitimate upside. Both are on the 40 man roster, so that won’t be a factor in the decision – in the end, it will come down to whether or not the M’s believe that Wilhelmsen’s stuff outweighs his lack of experience. Personally, I think he’s probably better off starting the year in the minors – it’s not like the team couldn’t easily bring him up if he starts the year strong – but given that the bullpen projects to be pretty lousy until Aardsma returns, I can understand the temptation of having another big arm to come on in relief in April.
Of course, all of this is subject to change in the next 72 hours, as the M’s have a few days to pick up a player who might be getting squeezed out somewhere else. With what’s in camp right now, though, this is probably the roster.