What Would A Successful 2011 Mariner Season Look Like?

Dave · March 31, 2011 at 9:42 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.


29 Responses to “What Would A Successful 2011 Mariner Season Look Like?”

  1. IwearMsHats on March 31st, 2011 10:03 pm

    I can see the development of Saunders or lack-there-of to be one of these measures of successes.

  2. teddyballgame9 on March 31st, 2011 10:23 pm

    The future of the M’s looks extremely bright. With a young core of Felix (24), Pineda (22), Moore (26), Smoak (24), Ackley (23), and Saunders (24), awesome veterans like Guti and Ichiro, other promising youngsters like Lueke, Wilhelmsen, Cortes, J. Chavez, Nick Franklin, Paxton, Robles, Triunfel, Halman, Liddi, Walker, etc., AND the #2 pick in this year’s draft (Cole or Rendon most likely), I think we are in great shape for the future.

  3. B13a on March 31st, 2011 10:36 pm

    The issue with Smoak is what has me worrying the most. Not because I doubt his ability to adapt (I think he will), but because he’s part of a trade that will be amplified for years to come depending on the outcome. I hope he doesn’t feel too much pressure about this, if he even thinks about it at all.

    I’m not worried about Ackley, and I already expect Pineda to have his struggles as a rookie. Don’t know what to make of the Guti situation other than his just getting better soon, and I think the bullpen will surprise people. I just hope that someone stops themselves from acting like a total dick and bring up Lueke’s issues during the season.

  4. Chris_From_Bothell on March 31st, 2011 10:40 pm

    1. Do you think that the Lueke off-the-field issues will be addressed by the Ms, or will they simply say “no comment” from here on out, no matter what press and fans may do with it?
    2. Do you think that Ackley’s defense is seen as a legitimate concern by the Ms, or is this an excuse to keep him down for service time reasons?

  5. CC03 on March 31st, 2011 11:38 pm

    Speaking of relievers, it’d sure be nice to see Josh Fields pull it together this year and make it to the show.

    It’d be nice if the M’s could put together a Lueke/Cortes/League/Fields bullpen at some point.

  6. groundzero55 on March 31st, 2011 11:40 pm

    How are they supposed to address something that happened years ago, when he was in another team’s system, and that has already been legally taken care of? In my opinion the team should treat it as a non-issue.

  7. Klatz on April 1st, 2011 12:33 am

    I would add 6) Does Chone Figgin’s bat equal to at least average. His struggles after the signing a long term contract was a black mark on Jack’s administration. Does Chone’s second year begin to justify the contract or provide some trade value.

  8. MrZDevotee on April 1st, 2011 12:42 am

    I feel fairly confident about most, if not all five, of your issues, Dave– not that they’ll all be great successes but that the margin of error is large enough to carry optimism through 2011… What worries me more, are Erik Bedard and Milton Bradley (and Guty, yeah- but seems he’ll get figured out, fingers-crossed). If Bedard and Bradley can stay healthy, and keep their heads clear and focused, they’ll set the table for success to be an easier target for the rest of these guys, especially the young guys (“success” equaling a possible .500 record). But if Bedard breaks down, and Bradley can’t be happy on a 73-ish win team, the team could falter, dog-paddling frantically just as quickly as last year.

  9. MrZDevotee on April 1st, 2011 12:49 am

    The future of the M’s looks extremely bright. With a young core of Felix (24), Pineda (22), Moore (26), Smoak (24), Ackley (23), and Saunders (24), awesome veterans like Guti and Ichiro, other promising youngsters like Lueke, Wilhelmsen, Cortes, J. Chavez, Nick Franklin, Paxton, Robles, Triunfel, Halman, Liddi, Walker, etc., AND the #2 pick in this year’s draft (Cole or Rendon most likely), I think we are in great shape for the future.

    TeddyBallgame- The optimist side of me is with you, but the realist side of me says “I have no idea if these guys get us to the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, or the every year Kansas City Royals (who perennially have excellent young players, ‘just a year away’)”…

    Luckily, I’m the type to let the optimism win me over (only because I know we’ll also have some freed up money to spend for 2012).

  10. johnfree63 on April 1st, 2011 3:23 am

    Not to seem overly dramatic but you really could have just listed Justin Smoak 5 times. It changes the entire coarse of this teams development if he doesn’t start to put it together this year. All of the others, including Guti’s Health come in a distant second (as far as baseball is concerned).

  11. Dustinsdad on April 1st, 2011 6:17 am

    First time posting long time reader.. But I would be kind of excited by a good season out of Bedard and Bradley, and the prospects that might potentially bring.

  12. eponymous coward on April 1st, 2011 7:35 am

    What worries me more, are Erik Bedard and Milton Bradley

    This year is basically a throwaway year for serious contention, so I have to disagree here. No, we shouldn’t really care very much what veterans on one year contracts do, as long as they don’t set the clubhouse on fire if we have to DFA them. Yes, having a better win-loss record is nice, and yes, it will be easier for the organization if they are trying to develop the kids on a team that isn’t horrible, but if Milton Bradley hits .280/.370/.500 while playing 125 games, and Erik Bedard pitches 150 innings with a great ERA and peripheral stats, but Guti, Ackley and Smoak have various assortments of flop/disappointment years which call into question their ability to fill the roles we need them to fill going forward, the prospects for 2012 won’t look very good: the Mariners will have to figure out how to patch multiple positions, on top of replacing or resigning Bedard and Bradley and the other one year fill-ins, and having to mostly fill all of that from outside the organization. (I also tend to discount that the Mariners can get much in trade return at the deadline for a guy who is eternally nanoseconds away from a torn labrum, or another guy who has a well-documented record of being a complete distraction for teams he plays for, and has a bunch of GMs convinced he’s a tool, because he’s played for all of them.)

    And being in ANOTHER year of having to make multiple changes to the talent core of your team (and basically having to hope ALL of them work out perfectly in order to contend- we saw how that worked out in 2010) will be in the context of Ichiro! being in a walk year, and going on a decade since his last meaningful game in late September. Not good.

  13. The Ancient Mariner on April 1st, 2011 7:56 am

    Plus, Bedard wasn’t Zduriencik’s move, and perception matters less on Bradley now that the Cubs have kicked Silva out the door. I agree with Klatz that “Will Figgins Hit?” needs to be on this list too, and imho it’s ahead of the bullpen.

  14. Leroy Stanton on April 1st, 2011 8:42 am

    I’d add Vargas, Fister, Ryan, Saunders, and Moore to the list. The more of these guys that establish themselves as competent major leaguers the better.

  15. Sports on a Schtick on April 1st, 2011 9:14 am

    Everything Dave says is an April Fool’s Joke. The correct answer is Larry Bernandez.

  16. eddie on April 1st, 2011 9:51 am

    Justin Smoak really does seem to be the key to the Mariners having a better year, poor guy.

    But what about the Eric Wedge influence? Is it possible that a good manager is a tipping point between players playing well or poorly and that he might tip them a little towards the playing well side? The Michael Saunders, Adam Moores and Milton Bradleys to name a few. So far I haven’t seen any indication of that, so far he hasn’t been all that impressive, but you never know.

  17. Westside guy on April 1st, 2011 10:09 am

    I’d add Vargas, Fister, Ryan, Saunders, and Moore to the list. The more of these guys that establish themselves as competent major leaguers the better.

    I don’t disagree with your statement, but I don’t think of these as key guys on the level of Smoak, Ackley, and Pineda.

    I am especially rooting (ROOTing?) for Saunders and Moore to succeed – but they’ve been around for a while already, and their upside would put them more in the “nice pieces to have” category. Smoak, Ackley, and Pineda have been tabbed as potential all-stars.

  18. Leroy Stanton on April 1st, 2011 10:19 am

    …but I don’t think of these as key guys on the level of Smoak, Ackley, and Pineda.

    Yeah, they’re definitely not “key” guys, but it would be hard to call the season successful if their spots needed to be filled through free agency (or other means) next year.

  19. Diehard on April 1st, 2011 10:34 am

    I am really hoping that Bedard and Bradley stay healthy and are super sexy hot trade chips come July. Then Jack Z can work his trade magic and supplement the farm system.
    I think this team will look way different come the second half and were going to see what the young guys can do. I am really hoping Smoak can just be good and be one less middle of the order hitter Jack Z will have to find this next offseason.

  20. Diehard on April 1st, 2011 10:37 am

    I’m thinking 76 wins, they will be better than what people think. The offense will still blow but they wont be epic fail bad like last year. The rotation has the potential to be really good. I actually think the bullpen once we get the DA and Kelley back will be pretty solid. Until then, Leauge closing will be fun to watch.

  21. The Ancient Mariner on April 1st, 2011 10:38 am

    As regards Vargas, Fister, and Ryan, we don’t need them to be anything other than what they’ve been to this point. As for Moore and Saunders, if they break out, that will be a significant boost to this team, but we don’t need that to happen in order to have a successful season. If we have to go add a LF in free agency next year, that’s hardly a major problem; and if Moore washes out, that by itself doesn’t leave a hole that must be filled — Olivo isn’t wonderful, but barring major injury or collapse, he should be serviceable.

    As such, the five players you mention are essentially off-point to what Dave’s talking about.

  22. robbbbbb on April 1st, 2011 10:41 am

    If Bedard, Bradley, and Figgins are all playing well at the mid-season trade deadline the Mariners might well still be in it. At which point they won’t be able to flip those guys for prospects.

  23. MrZDevotee on April 1st, 2011 10:51 am

    I agree in principle with everything you said, and it wasn’t contention I was worried about (I put a “high water” mark for the season at 80 wins, basically)… I suppose what I was really saying is that I don’t like having Bedard and Bradley on the team, because of the volatility of their impact on the club, for good or bad. If we’re gonna have veterans I’d rather have a few average influences that won’t capsize the boat with their injuries or flip outs (more Custs, fewer Juniors/Bradleys). The fact that we have these high risk guys while trying to break in unproven young talent makes them “handicaps” to the success of those young players, in my eyes. So much variable in what to expect, that they’re almost distractions whether they do well or not.

    To me, even the downsides of Ackley, Smoak, and Guty are higher than the downsides of Bedard and Bradley (as has been already experienced here). Those veterans offer a LOT of ???’s to throw at young guys trying to keep focused on their own game– ie, is Saunders playing the rest of the season in LF starting tomorrow (because of something Milton does), or is he Tacoma’s LF or CF all season, never seeing the bigs this year? He, and I, have no idea. And both are equally likely/unlikely.

    As for Dave’s concerns, I have maybe too much faith in all those problems working themselves out, with lower risk. I think Smoak will at least be a serviceable 1B, Ackley will seem like Chase Utley in the post Lopez years, Pineda is a very high ceiling guy (barring injury- fingers crossed), Guty is hopefully a correct diagnosis away from not even having a problem at all, and the bullpen is what it is, and is the easiest part to replace in free agency if we end up having a contender in 2012 or 2013.

  24. Leroy Stanton on April 1st, 2011 11:02 am

    As regards Vargas, Fister, and Ryan, we don’t need them to be anything other than what they’ve been to this point.

    You mean like Lopez, Figgins, Bradley, and RRS last year?

  25. Shanfan on April 1st, 2011 11:35 am

    A successful 2011 season would be one in which attendance would end its decline. The ineptness and buffoonery, on the field and off, needs to stop. Whether the kids perform well or not, the team has to be good enough, or at least entertaining enough, to staunch the decline and keep people coming out to the ballpark.

    Hopefully the economy has turned the corner (slim hope) so that won’t suppress attendance as much, but the product somehow has to get better this year. Attendance has declined in seven of the last eight years from a high of 3.5 to barely above 2 million last year. M’s spring training attendance this year was down 18% per game already. While there were other factors I’m sure, one had to be that fans are losing interest. The New Stadium Effect accounts for some of the regular season attendance drop, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say the majority is due to the relentlessly bad teams we’ve been fielding. We’re also going to be facing the first season ever without Dave Niehaus as the voice of summer. People may continue to lose interest just from that. I’m a radio man, and man has it been hard not to miss him this spring. We often rip on casual fans but their dollars have the same value as the diehards.

    I know what an unsuccessful 2011 Mariner season would look like: Out of it by June with a struggling offense, a haphazard bullpen blowing rare leads, football talk before the all-star break and attendance still plummeting. Then it’s going to be even harder to convince people to come out leading to another GM and manager firing before the end of 2012. There’ll be no denying we’re the AL Pittsburgh Pirates, or M’s of old, at that point. We need to stop the death spiral of declining attendance, declining payroll, declining fan and free agent interest.

    I agree that the young kids continuing to develop is necessary, including Moore becoming at least average because catching is such a premium anymore and there’s no prospect knocking, but I think the veterans need to turn it up too. Picking through the shitpile looking for a few kernels of corn is not going to stop the decline in attendance for most fans. Crappy veterans won’t bring much in the trade market either. Winning will cure everything, but the M’s need to be at least entertaining this season and not a bunch of overrated veterans, over-the-hill castoffs and overmatched youngsters.

    That being said, I think Wedge isn’t going to let the product suffer on the field, Z is going to continue to acquire talent, and the M’s are going to win it all in 2011! Go M’s! Happy Opening Day! Happy Felix Day! And thank you Mr. Niehaus, we’re going to miss you.

  26. Nicbp253 on April 1st, 2011 12:36 pm

    I need Smoak to succeed he’s on my fantasy team.

  27. The Ancient Mariner on April 1st, 2011 5:06 pm

    Leroy, the point is this: to have a successful season, the M’s will basically need to have most of the roster do what can reasonably be expected of them, and a number of the real question marks turn up exclamation points. Yes, obviously, if guys like Vargas start cratering, we’re probably heading towards a worst-case scenario — just like last year. If Ichiro suddenly gets old and Felix breaks, we’re going to have a bad year, too. That’s true, but it’s not a particularly profound or interesting analysis, and it’s not the kind of thing Dave’s talking about.

  28. nathaniel dawson on April 1st, 2011 6:35 pm

    Plus, Bedard wasn’t Zduriencik’s move

    Um, well yes he was. Two years running now.

  29. nathaniel dawson on April 1st, 2011 6:54 pm

    I suppose you decided that you wanted to limit it to 5 keys for this year, and had to pick out which five to highlight. I could quibble with that and say that I think Saunders’ and Figgins’ roles in the future loom pretty large for this team as well, probably more so than the development of the young guys in the bullpen, and even in a broader sense, the development of Michael Pineda.

    With the amount of young potential in the bullpen, we should be able to hit on at least a couple to be reliable, and even failing that, smart GM’s can usually find a way to build a good bullpen cheaply. The question in my mind with Pineda is not “will he become a good Major League pitcher?”, but “how good will he be?”. Whatever the ultimate answer to that question is, it’s not going to change a whole lot about what the Mariners do in the future. He’s a member of the rotation and will be for many years.

    Chone Figgins and Michael Saunders present much more uncertainty in my mind. Their ability to provide a decent level of play solves a lot of problems for this team.

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