The recent transaction that saw young flamethrower Michael Pineda saw a lot of concerned reactions from fans of the Mariners, and deservedly so, because he was one of the best pitchers in baseball in his first season with the big club. As I have touched on in my prior column where I looked at Michael Pineda’s underlying skill set compared to his finished 2011 stats, Seattle has a real problem attracting offense via free agency. Particularly so when players aren’t entering their final big contract of their career. Believe it or not, there are still some GM’s who haven’t adapted to ballpark factors enough to realize which players ultimately have the most value. However there is a lot of reason for optimism in Seattle. With a pitching heavy farm system and a few key position pieces in place, Jack Zduriencik’s timing is looking like it will all come together at the right time.
Seattle’s offense was atrocious in 2011, posting historically bad numbers in many key categories. However it’s not really as bad as it looks moving forward. A lot of the players who helped create this offensive disparity are players who are holding spots for others. Journeymen that come in and take the work where they can get it while the real fruits of the front office’s labor are being groomed in the minors.
Simply put, Seattle doesn’t need a Rangers of 2011 type offense. They need an offense that’s decent so that their real strength can show: their starting pitching. Seattle is actually quite healthy in this department right now and 2012 will be a sign of what’s to come. Additionally, they will likely have one of the better infields in baseball come 2014, with Nick Franklin being a near finished product up the middle with Dustin Ackley. Franklin hits for decent pop, but nothing like his 2010 season where posted a .205 ISO in A-ball. However in 2011 Franklin hit for a bit less power but showed some progression in his approach by posting a combined .810 OPS between high-A and AA. He may not be a superstar, but he’s likely to produce above average offensive production at SS, while being league average defensively if he sticks to the position. With 2011 rookie stand-out Dustin Ackley as his counterpart at 2B, it’s likely Franklin will stay there until he forces Seattle’s hand.
The corners are projected to have Alex Liddi and Justin Smoak. Liddi is a solid player and the book is still out on whether he can hit enough to man a corner position. Liddi’s career .821 OPS in the minors shows he can hit for pop and get on base at a decent clip. However his 17-3 K/BB in a short time at the MLB level in 2011 (40 AB’s) needs to be improved upon in 2012, and Liddi will likely have the opportunity to do so with no imminent threat of taking the position currently in-house. Smoak’s value is down right now as he dealt with injuries in 2011 and the death of his father. I’m a fan of Smoak and have always loved his approach at the plate. I see him having a bounce-back 2012 and showing why he was closely compared to Mark Teixeira while property of the Rangers before the Cliff Lee trade.
Seattle will give Jesus Montero a chance to catch, but it’s highly likely that his long-term spot is at DH. He’s in essence in the same position that Mike Napoli was in during his time in Anaheim. It’s a worthwhile experiment for Seattle to give him a chance to succeed there because you don’t find bats like Montero’s at the catcher position anymore. If Justin Smoak wasn’t in town this wouldn’t really be a discussion, but Seattle has a nice problem of having two talented players at expensive positions who are only making peanuts.
Left handed flamethrower James Paxton, recently acquired Hector Noesi, 2011 draftee Danny Hultzen are all ready to contribute right now. Paxton has been dominant, and continued that dominance at AA in 2011 with a 2.33 FIP and 11.77 K/9. To me Paxton draws comparisons to CHW reliever Matt Thornton. Hultzen was surprisingly taken 2nd overall by Seattle in the 2011 draft but he has done nothing but prove them right since. I got a chance to watch a few starts by Hultzen in the Arizona Fall League and he was very impressive. He commands all of his pitches, but don’t mistake him for a command guy. He has a great fastball/change-up combo that’s devastating to right-handed batters. His cutter has life and he cuts it in well to right handed hitters, jamming them effectively. His delivery is very clean and he repeats his mechanics well. There’s not much to pick on, as Hultzen is ready to produce at the big league level right now.
Add them into the mix of Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas and you’ve got depth, talent who can strike guys out and keep it in the park at very reasonable contracts. The positions they’ll need to supplement through free agency can be had without breaking the bank once they develop their core of talented infielders. Their bullpen is getting better with young arms like Chance Ruffin and Dan Cortes waiting to provide solid innings. Even if they deal Brandon League at the deadline this season, he’s easily replaced in Safeco and whatever return they get will add to their depth.
The key to this entire thing is looking at the teams in their division. Texas is strong but by 2014 their offense may not be what it is today. Anaheim will be practically applying for their AARP cards by then, and Mike Trout can’t do it all on his own. They face having to resign Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, who are signed through 2013 but have whopping $15.5 & $13MM team options for 2014. At that point CJ Wilson will be well into his 30’s and Albert Pujols will be well into his regression stage.
The Mariners will sorely miss Michael Pineda, but that soreness will be relatively easy to deal with once their premium power arms come up and provide dominant, cheap innings. Felix is signed through 2014, their infield is young, talented and under control. By the time all of this comes together, uber athlete Taijuan Walker will be big league ready, and pieces like Francisco Martinez and Guillermo Pimentel will be more finished projects available for trade or to take on role’s with the big league club.
Folks, the glass is half full in Seattle, and Zduriencik’s planning will come together. All we need is a little patience.
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