Friday, May 17, 2013
Mariners are going to contend all summer
By Jim Bowden
Led by Felix Hernandez, the Seattle Mariners have the pitching to contend for a wild-card berth.
After another win in the Bronx last night, the Seattle Mariners are just a game below .500 and in second place in the AL West. This club was built on pitching and defense, and it's strong in both areas. However, with an offense that ranks 14th in the AL in runs, there are some issues.
The good news for the Mariners is that they have one of the deepest farm systems in the majors and can fix some of those problems from within via promotions and by trading some of that depth. When I look around the American League, I don't see any team that is going to run away with a wild-card berth. And while I don't think the Mariners can catch the Rangers in the AL West, I expect them to compete for a playoff spot all summer. They just need to make a few key adjustments.
After Zduriencik got to Seattle, it seemed as if almost the exact opposite has happened, with the Mariners’ system now flush with high-ceiling hurlers such as Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer, Taijuan Walker, as well as producing a slew of hard-throwing relievers in Carter Capps, Stephen Pryor and Tom Wilhelmsen.
However, outside of third baseman Kyle Seager, their bats haven’t developed. But that's about to change.
“This is the year we think their offense will start to click,” Mariners skipper Eric Wedge told me Thursday.
There is bright news continuing to come from their farm system, where Nick Franklin, the Mariners’ 2009 No. 1 draft pick, is hitting .339 with four home runs at Triple-A Tacoma. He, along with Seattle’s 2012 No. 1 pick, catcher Mike Zunino, should be ready for the big leagues soon, and the club should not hesitate to bring them up.
Brendan Ryan is a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, but he struggles to hit his weight. Robert Andino is also a good defender, but he, too, is hitting below the Mendoza Line. Seattle cannot win with either of their bats in the lineup. Enter Franklin. Whether it's a few months premature, the Mariners instantly will get a lot more offense from the shortstop position once they promote him -- a move they should make sooner rather than later, perhaps even this weekend.
Elsewhere in the lineup, Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley have been feeble. Expected to provide much of the thump in the Mariners’ lineup, they have hit a combined eight home runs and driven in 23 runs. To put that into perspective, one of Seattle’s offseason acquisitions, Michael Morse, has 10 home runs and 17 RBIs by himself. If they aren’t producing by June, Zduriencik should not be afraid to option them to the minors. You can't have huge holes in your lineup if you want to contend.
Zunino can help fill that void, and he showed it by posting a 1.137 OPS across two levels of the minors last year. He's hitting just .219 at Tacoma but is slugging .482, so the power is there. Once he gets going, the Mariners should call him up quickly.
Could Konerko be in the Mariners' sights as the trade deadline approaches?
Let's make a deal
Assuming the Mariners go outside the organization to improve their offense, who could they target in a trade? They have enough to deal in their farm system or even on their major league club to acquire short-term offensive solutions, including players who could become available by the deadline such as Josh Willingham, Alfonso Soriano or Paul Konerko. All still can be productive this season, and of course their teams would be looking for young minor league talent in return.
However, the Mariners also have enough to acquire players who fit as long-term solutions, which they proved this offseason when they almost acquired Justin Upton from the Arizona Diamondbacks before he nixed the deal with his no-trade clause. Despite Miami’s denials, many baseball people still believe the Marlins could change course and eventually listen to offers on outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. The Los Angeles Dodgers might part with Andre Ethier to get out of his contract and open up a space for slugging rookie Yasiel Puig.
Further, the San Diego Padres will probably trade Chase Headley by the deadline if they're not in a pennant race. The Mariners could put him in left field or at third base and move Seager to second. It's also possible that the Blue Jays could even make Edwin Encarnacion available.
Pitching their calling card
The Mariners' pitching staff, in contrast to the anemic offense, has been robust. It leads the league in WHIP and is among the top six in most other pitching categories. The Mariners are also sixth in defensive efficiency.
Just as the offense is an embarrassment, the pitching is an embarrassment of riches. The Mariners have two No. 1-quality starters in Felix Hernandez (1.53 ERA, 0.93 WHIP) and Hisashi Iwakuma (1.84 ERA, 0.78 WHIP). They comprise what is arguably the best one-two combination in the AL right now.
They also have one of the game’s best closers in Wilhelmsen -- who leads a strong bullpen loaded with power arms such as rookies Pryor, Capps and Yoervis Medina -- and left-handed balance with veteran Oliver Perez.
However, the Mariners’ farm system boasts some of the top and most coveted pitching prospects in the game. Among them: Hultzen is furthest along and could help immediately as the Mariners’ fifth starter, and Walker, who profiles as yet another No. 1 or 2 starter, could be ready as early as September. If the club wants to be ambitious, it could use either as a trade chip.
Last year, the Oakland Athletics rode stellar pitching and a surprisingly potent offense to a playoff spot, and I think the Mariners can do the same this season. They just need to do something to improve that offense. Either way, don't expect them to go away quietly this year.