What Would A Successful 2011 Mariner Season Look Like?
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.