With Opening Day rapidly approaching we wanted to bring you a closer look at another of our new division rivals. Today it’s the Mariners under the microscope. Offense, defense, pitching, prospects — we’ve got all the bases covered in our Mariners preview thanks to some help from Jon Shields of SB Nation’s Lookout Landing.
To get the scoop on the 2013 M’s, I asked and Jon answered. Here’s the transcript of our Q & A session:
CTH: Last year the Mariners had the worst offense in the league. Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse, Raul Ibanez, and Jason Bay have been brought in to try and improve production. How much of a boost will these guys provide? Also, will the defense suffer with the addition of these four DH type players?
Jon: Of those four, only Morales and Morse are being counted on to make major contributions as Ibanez and Bay (if he makes the team over Casper Wells) are heading for part-time roles. Morales was a great addition to the team and will be a clear upgrade over 2012’s primary DH, rookie Jesus Montero. Morse will provide home run hitting ability that has been missing from the Mariner lineup since Russell Branyan’s first stint with the team in 2009, however it is still up for debate whether or not he’s actually a better offensive player than John Jaso, the player traded to get him. Health is a major factor for both Morales and Morse.
The Mariner defense has been very strong across the board with the exception of the catcher position for most of the Jack Zduriencik era, and the same rings mostly true in 2013. The Mariners have good-to-great defenders at all positions except for catcher and, starting this year, left field, where Morse, Ibanez and Bay figure to get most of their burn. After watching a historically bad offense for the past two seasons, Zduriencik was willing to sacrifice one defensive position to add some thump, for better or worse.
CTH: The trade that brought in Morse in exchange for John Jaso received mixed reviews. I thought it was a good deal for the Mariners. What’s your take?
Jon: I was not a fan of the deal, although I think its detractors generally overreacted. Jaso, the team’s best offensive player in 2012 and a left-handed hitting catcher with four seasons of club control, traded for Morse, an injury prone 31-year-old rental who figures to give much of his offensive value back on defense. The deal can look disastrous through the right lens.
The Mariners did not seem to trust Jaso’s receiving skills nor did they have any interest in running him out against left-handed pitching, so the public line was they traded a good part-time player for a good full-time player. If Morse can stay relatively healthy and the team can shuffle enough lineups to limit the hit on defense, and if Jaso shows that his breakout 2012 was not representative of his true ability, then the trade could wind up looking pretty good for Seattle.
CTH: I never thought we’d see Ichiro leave Seattle — and it kills me to see him in pinstripes. Michael Saunders is saddled with the daunting task of filling the spot vacated by a living legend. Saunders looks like a pretty good player. What do you expect from him this season?
Jon: Saunders was as lost as can be between 2009-2011, but an overhauled swing and approach brought him his first taste of success in 2012. Fans are back to dreaming about his potential and many expect a breakout season from the 26-year-old. “The Condor” has all the natural ability in the world and appears to be a lock for a 20-20 season, but will need to patch up a few more holes in his swing and cut down on the whiffs before he can make the next step. He’s one to watch out for in 2013.
I expect minor improvements across the board, which figures to be enough to make him one of the Mariners’ most valuable players.
CTH: Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, and Franklin Gutierrez all had disappointing seasons in 2012. Can all three of them bounce back? Which one of them is most likely to have a big year?
Jon: I’ve long given up on Smoak and coming into the spring was hoping the Mariners would use his last option year to start him off in AAA, allowing Morales and Morse to split first base and DH. Smoak has altered his swing and approach and has followed up a strong finish to the 2012 season with a torrid Cactus League campaign, but has teased so many times in the past that only the most optimistic fans are on board the Smoakamotive. Most others are taking the wait and see approach, myself included. I hope that he’ll finally breakthrough in 2013, but I won’t allow myself to expect it.
Ackley was expected to build upon a strong rookie showing, but had a terrible year that saw his lauded patience get him into too many bad counts and his supposed gap power be replaced by groundball after groundball to the second baseman. It’s unclear what Ackley has to do to regain his rookie form (and beyond), but his success will be crucial to the success of the team.
Gutierrez has been struck by a string of injuries, bad luck, and mysterious malladys that have zapped his career since a breakout 2009 season. He seems to be fully healthy now, and fans are optimistic that he can put together a complete season that sees him regain some power at the plate and Gold Glove form in the field.
I don’t know if any of them have a shot at a “big year.” It’s easier for Ackley and Gutierrez to have good years given that the offensive requirements are lowered due to their stellar defensive play.
CTH: The Mariners have several guys competing for the final two spots in their starting rotation. Can reclamation projects Jeremy Bonderman and Jon Garland beat out Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan?
Jon: Jon Garland appeared to be heading for the rotation after a solid spring that saw him regain the velocity and stuff he had pre-shoulder surgery, but the Mariners surprised by cutting him loose and guaranteeing at least one young guy a spot. Erasmo Ramirez has also been ruled out at this point, leaving Bonderman competing with youngsters Beavan and Brandon Maurer. Beavan is your generic pitch-to-contact-live-on-the-brink-of-disaster hurler, and his spring has gone as such. Maurer hasn’t pitched above AA, but has emerged over the past year or so as an interesting mid-rotation prospect. Maurer has the best stuff of anyone in the conversation and has made the competition interesting following a strong spring.
I can’t be sure of what the organization will do following a Garland decision that caught everyone off guard, but I’d guess that at this point they’ll go with Beavan and Maurer, with Bonderman continuing to build up his arm in AAA.
CTH: Who can we look for to be setting up for closer Tom Wilhelmsen?
Jon: The Mariners have enough firepower in the bullpen that it’s hard to know exactly how the roles will shake out. Sinkerballer Kameron Loe along with lefties Charlie Furbush and Oliver Perez could get plenty of burn in the late innings, but one name to watch out for is Carter Capps, who throws across his body with a heater approaching triple digits and a tough sweeping curveball, making him a nightmare for right-handed hitters and a closer in waiting. Capps debuted last season and should fall into a high leverage role sooner than later.
CTH: Mike Zunino, Taijuan Walker, and Danny Hultzen are three of the top prospects in a rich farm system. Can you give us an ETA on when these three will be in the big leagues?
Jon: Zunino and Hultzen are both expected to start in AAA. Zunino is out to prove that he is indeed a near-finished product after a stellar pro debut last season, and will be expected midway through the season if he continues to mash minor league pitching and show progress behind the plate. Hultzen had issues with his delivery last season but seems to be back on track this spring, and figures to be very high on the rotation depth chart; expect him before September callups as well (provided he performs). Walker, who pitched the entire 2012 season in AA, has enough talent to force his way onto the big league roster this season, but the team has enough pitching depth that they may take it easy with their prized prospect. He may get a cup of coffee late with a strong season, but 2014 is more likely to provide his big break.