Friday, August 20, 2010

Who's got next?

Living in the Northwest, its been a tough baseball season. The Mariners were many people's sneaky pick to win the AL West but, in case you haven't noticed, that hasn't exactly worked out. A fired manager and possibly 100 losses later, the Mariners will find themselves in a precarious position. Jack Z will have to ask himself whether or not to try to win in 2011 or begin to rebuild completely. Since the Mariners were largely inactive come the trade deadline and haven't completely shelved their veterans to give experience to their young guns, signs point to the M's attempting to be competitive once again in 2011. They have reason to give it a try, though, as they've been quite competitive over the last month, winning several series along the way. Looking ahead, there are clearly some question marks for the M's in 2011 but there's no reason to think they won't be competitive. Here's a position-by-position breakdown of what to look for next season.

Behind the plate, Adam Moore will continue to get a chance to develop. Josh Bard didn't provide much for the Mariners and what you see is what you get with Rob Johnson (poor catching and worse offense). Moore is the catcher of the future for Seattle but they will definitely need a reliable backup. Don't expect them to spend much on acquiring another big-league catcher and while they shouldn't even consider it, Johnson could be a cheap option. Unless Jack decides to overpay for a veteran backstop, pencil in Adam Moore as the 2011 starter.

At first base, Justin Smoak should be the Opening Day starter. As the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee deal, Smoak didn't transition well to Seattle and was sent down to AAA after about a month or so with the big club. His AAA numbers are relatively good as he's posted an .897 OPS and 6 HRs in 33 games. He still manages to walk a ton and get on base at an impressive clip so he'll likely get another chance to start the season in the bigs, especially if he has a decent Spring Training next April. Current first baseman Casey Kotchman will like be non-tendered in the offseason given that he has a .632 OPS in 97 games. Gold-Glove caliber defense or not, Kotchman hasn't done nearly enough with the bat to be re-signed by the club.

Second base is maned by Chone Figgins and although there have been some rumors of him being traded (notably to the Braves), I expect the Mariners to keep him after giving him a four year deal in the offseason. He started the season tremendously slow but has been impressive since the All-Star break. A strong second half in 2010 could likely carry over into a solid 2011. Figgins is all but a lock at second.

Third base is currently manned by Jose Lopez but I don't expect that to last much longer. While he made the switch from second to third successfully in terms of defense, Jose is experiencing his worst season offensively. His on-base percentage is a disgusting .270 and all of his other offensive numbers are down as well. His plate discipline continues to be poor and his power has disappeared which makes him another non-tender candidate. This is the one area where the Mariners could look to make a splash. While there won't be many options to sign in terms of free agents, the M's could explore trade opportunities. Matt Mangini has been successful in AAA this season but won't likely be a strong candidate to begin the season in Seattle. Jack will have some work to do to fill the void at third base for 2011. The outcome at the hot-corner is unclear at this point in time.

Shortstop was supposed to be manned by Jack Wilson in 2010 but it comes as no surprise that Jack has had trouble staying healthy, at one point even considering a mid-season retirement. Josh Wilson, however, has filled in admirably. Although not as good as the elder Wilson, his defense is solid and he can hit some but not a lot. Wilson is really best suited to be a utility guy but has been forced into the everyday lineup for the bulk of 2010. In 2011, however, the management could look to add a piece or simply give Josh Wilson another shot. Like third base, the free agent field is pretty thin so any significant upgrade would have to come through a trade. I would look for them to stick with Wilson but also explore what's out there.

Left field is an area where things start to get interesting. There are a host of players that could be fits for the club, including the developing Michael Saunders who probably should get the nod in 2011 as he was one of the clubs top prospects coming into 2010 and has had some success at the plate this season while playing terrific defense. Seattle hasn't given up on Matt Tuiasosopo either and he's gotten some time in left this season as well. While some Seattle fans would like to do it, they can't forget about Milton Bradley, either. Depending on what happens at the DH position, Bradley and his sub-par defense could wind up in left field, relegating Saunders to a backup role. The Mariners are committed to Bradley so he's not going away, they just have to figure out how to use him. Saunders should be the left fielder but that doesn't mean he will be.

Franklin Gutierrez is having another fantastic season defensively in center field. After a red-hot start to the season, however, Guti has struggled to keep his average over .250 but has been a consistent contributer with the stick. He signed a four-year extension this winter and will be the Opening Day center fielder in 2011.

While he's in jeopardy of not reaching 200 hits for the first time in his 10-year career this season, Ichiro Suzuki will still be the M's right fielder in 2011. The perennial All-Star and outstanding leadoff hitter will surely take the first at-bat for the Mariners again in 2011. He and Gutierrez are the surest things in the Mariners lineup.

At DH, the Mariners have a few options. Since re-acquiring Russell "The Muscle" Branyan this summer, he's been again dinged up but very potent when in the lineup. The Mariners could keep him as he'd clearly be the hitter with the most power in the lineup but he is going to be a free agent in 2011 so they'd have to pay a good little bit to keep him a Mariner. He is also a first base candidate but that blocks the path of top prospect and first baseman of the future, Justin Smoak. Given Russell's injury history, he's best suited to be a big-bopping DH. Milton Bradley will be in the final year of his deal and could also be the designated hitter if he isn't in left field. He's been super-disappointing in 2010 and if he doesn't get it together early on in 2011, he could be DFA'd. The Mariners will surely be happy to get out from under that contract (or essentially the contract of Carlos Silva) once 2011 is over. Heading into the season, however, the Mariners have options at DH and the first piece of the puzzle will be shown when they decide whether or not to re-sign Branyan.

The rotation is in relatively good shape looking ahead. Felix Hernandez has been solid yet again for the Mariners and will likely make another run at the Cy Young in 2011. Despite never making it into a game with Seattle in 2010, Erik Bedard will probably be healthy come next year and could be an $8 million gamble as he has a mutual option for 2011. Provided he can attain some level of success, he would make a great number two pitcher behind King Felix, especially since he's a lefty. But at $8 million I wouldn't bet on it. Jason Vargas has been the surprise of 2010 and will have the opportunity to prove it wasn't a fluke. The lefty could fill the third or fourth slot in the rotation in 2011. Doug Fister started the year on fire but came back to earth after a DL stint. Look for him to take over the forth or fifth spot in the rotation and continue to mature. Youngsters Luke French and David Pauley could get looks in Spring Training while one would have to figure that Ryan Rowland-Smith is all but done as a big-league starter after having one of the worst season in recent memory by any full-time starting pitcher (1-10, 6.96 ERA, 40 BB, 38K in 98 IP).

Seattle could definitely stand to add a starter or two in the offseason. Bedard is a long-shot in my opinion since Seattle would have to pick up the $8 million mutual option on him and he hasn't really pitched at all in the last two years. Guys like Bronson Arroyo (if his $11 million club option isn't picked up), Jeremy Bonderman, Kevin Correia, Aaron Harrang, Ted Lilly, Carl Pavano, Brandon Webb and Todd Wellemeyer will all be options for the Mariners. Although these pitchers won't strike the average fan as all that exciting, Correia and Lilly are having strong second halves, Pavano has been surprisingly solid and would have to likely be overpaid to get away from Minnesota, Webb is a proven star coming off of a severe injury, Harrang and Arroyo are innings-eaters while Bonderman and Wellemeyer are coming off disappointing seasons after having success in the past. Best of all, these buys are affordable for Seattle and could help fill out the rotation in various capacities. Hernandez, Vargas and Fister are locks to make the rotation but the rest is unsettled. Look for the Mariners to add at least one starter via free agency in the offseason.

After the bullpen was stellar in 2009, it was a major let-down in 2010. This was not all that surprising after several members overachieved in 2009 and fell back to reality this season. David Aardsma will likely be the closer again and get a chance to redeem himself. If Mark Lowe can return from a back injury that shut him down in 2010, he will have a place in the 'pen and could be the set-up man once again. Brandon League will be returning after a decent season where he has served in nearly every bullpen capacity at one point or another this year. Aside from those three, the rest is up in the air. Garret Olson, Brian Sweeney, Sean White, David Pauley and Luke French could all be in the mix. There's a bevy of option on the free agent market as well so Seattle could add pieces if they wish. The bottom line is that the 'pen has to be better for the Mariners to have any kind of success in '11.

To recap, Seattle has some reasonable pieces in place for the future but they also have plenty of areas to shore up. They will almost certainly need to add a third baseman, could potentially add a shortstop, will need to make difficult decisions at first base, left field and DH, could definitely use at least one quality starter (if not two) and should explore adding a bullpen piece or two. The most crucial key to 2011 success, however, lies in the achievement of players that are currently on the roster and will be counted on again next season. Many players, such as Figgins, Bradley, Gutierrez and Aardsma have severely underachieved and will need to get closer to their 2010 forms if the M's want to make a legitimate run at things in 2011, which is not completely out of the question.

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