It would be glib to suggest that all Mariner fans have to look forward to in 2006 is Felix Hernandez. So consider me glib, because, while Ichiro Suzuki will do his thing and Kenji Johjima may add more Japanese flair, the Mariners look like one of the dullest teams in baseball.
After losing 99 games in 2004, the Mariners turned away from small-to-mid-range free agents like Raul Ibanez, choosing instead to invest some of their revenue stream -- they are the most profitable team in the majors, according to Forbes -- in high-end talent. Specifically, they wanted to address an offense that scored 698 runs in 2004, "good" for 14th place in the American League.
To that end, what would you do if you had $114 million to spend on two hitters? Well, never mind what you would do, unless you're Bill Bavasi, who elected to throw that kind of cash at Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson -- two players who offered different types of risk. Sexson was a proven masher, but could he stay healthy? Beltre had avoided Mad Cow Disease to post an even better season than the monster one we suspected he had in him, but was his MVP-calibre 2004 season a fluke?
None of this really mattered much for the 2005 pennant race, of course. Even if the Mariners improved enough to add 18 more wins -- quite an achievement -- that would put them at .500. They did add six wins, but they were the same moribund offense they had been in 2004, scoring exactly one more run and finishing 13th in the AL in runs scored. Only some of the names -- and the salaries -- had changed.
While Sexson stayed healthy and hit about as well as could be hoped (.263/.369/.541, 39 HRs, 121 RBI), Beltre gave away every thing he gained in the 2004 season, hitting just .255/.303/.413, with 19 HRs and 87 RBI, nullifying -- and then some -- the solid defense he has always played. As expected, Safeco took a bite out of his numbers (.263/.312/.382 at home), but he was mediocre on the road, too (.248/.295/.440).
And it wasn't just Beltre. From top-to-bottom, aside from Sexson and Ibanez, there were problems. Jeremy Reed showed no power (.352 slugging percentage) and didn't do the one thing we all thought he would: hit for average (just a .254 BA). It's no wonder in the off-season he was dangled for somebody as eminently fungible as Bronson Arroyo.
Nobody thought Ichiro would hit .372 again, but .330 seemed reasonable. Instead he hit .303, though he did pop a career-high 15 home runs. Further, Bret Boone vanished, Dan Wilson and Miguel Olivo hit like the pitchers they had been catching, the M's received nothing from their pitiful parade of pathetic shortstops, Scott Spiezio provided nothing off the bench, Bucky Jacobsen got hurt, etc.
Meanwhile, had the M's suspected Randy Winn would hit like Albert Pujols for the Giants (.680 slugging percentage), they would have been less likely to deal him for Jesse Foppert, a pitcher coming off 14 shoulder and elbow surgeries, including two to repair damage from the previous 11, and the last one because Foppert, one lazy Thursday morning, simply requested a surgery, having nothing else to do and having become quite attached to the nurses in the orthopedic wing of the hospital.
We'll get back to the offense later, since any mention of orthopedic wings of hospitals must inevitably lead to a discussion of the Seattle Mariners pitching staff.
In addition to being subterfuged by a poor offense, in recent years the M's, to put it mildly, have been ruined by injuries to their pitchers.
We'll never know how good Gil Meche may have been; we only know how crummy he is now. His ERA the last three years? 4.59, 5.01, 5.09. (And last year he gave up 11 un-earned runs, making the 5.09 figure "better.") Very well, you prefer ERA+? 97, 86, 85. His WHIP? 1.34, 1.45, 1.57. His K rate? 6.28, 6.98 (yay, improvement!), 5.21 (D'oh!). So what did Meche get for his craptastic 143 innings in 2005? What is his reward for getting progressively worse, to the point where he's a real liability? Why, a $3.7 million contract for 2006, thank you. Yes, this is a great country.
We'll never know how good Joel Pineiro might have been; we only know that after shoulder problems he's lost about five MPH on his fastball and must be considered at this point an innings-eater -- which does have value, but the Mariners expected much more.
We'll never know how good Clint Nageotte might have been; we only know that he's suffered about every injury possible to his right arm, and that simply getting the milk from the fridge must be considered progress.
We will probably never know how good Bobby Madstrich might have been; we only know that after a nice debut in 2004 his arm promptly exploded in 2005. He's not expected back until 2014 at the earliest. (Ok, I lie. It's actually 2013.)
(We may yet, however, know how good Rafael Soriano will be. After an electric debut in 2003 that saw him fan 68 hitters in 50 innings, Soriano has missed most of the last two years with a variety of injuries, including Tommy John surgery. That's the bad news. The good news is that Soriano, still only 26-years-old, is expected to be back in 2006.)
And on and on we could go. Along with the departed Ryan Franklin, their healthiest pitcher in recent years has been Jamie Moyer -- not too surprising in the latter's case, considering he throws 45 MPH on a good day and puts even less effort than that into his motion. Ironically, Eddie Guardado stayed healthy a year ago. However, not only did the M's fail to trade him, but they also signed him to a one-year deal for 2006. I'm sure he'll be fine, but what a 90-loss team needs a "proven closer" for is anyone's guess. Care to take a swipe, Mr. Bavasi?
All this discussion of pitchers getting hurt naturally brings us to Felix Hernandez. Enough superlatives have been said about him to fill a few dozen pages, and I shant add to them. Let's hope, for everyone's sake, he stays healthy. He'll turn 20 on April 8, and the only certainty we have about young pitchers (and youth in general, for that matter) is that they're unpredictable. Nonetheless, in this case the real thing may live up to the hype -- a rare occurrence indeed.
So, after that minor diversion into the M's pitching prospects for this year, will the offense be better in 2006? Doubtful. Rather than pursuing another high-end hitter via free agency or trade -- admittedly these were scarce -- the Mariners foolishly gave a four-year, $37.5 million contract to Jarrod Washburn. But more on that in a bit.
First, the good news. No matter the uncertainties about switching countries, let alone leagues, Johjima is an upgrade over Dan Wilson. Translating Japanese statistics, to say nothing of translating the language, is not always precise. Nonetheless, Johjima had good plate discipline and moderate power in Japan. There's some upside here.
Now, the bad news. In addition to throwing away money on Washburn, the M's also signed Carl Everett and Matt Lawton, which might have been ok five years ago, but at this point in their careers it's best not to expect much. That is to say, it's best to expect nothing, since that is what they are likely to give. Everett's counting numbers look decent from a year ago (23 HRs and 87 RBI), but a .311 OBP and a .435 slugging percentage are not going to help many teams. Unless, of course, it's the Mariners, and your $64 million third baseman managed an OBP of .303 to go with a .413 slugging percentage.
Lawton is 34-years-old and his highest slugging percentage in the last five years is .421 -- not exactly what you want from a corner outfielder or from a DH, though he helps in other ways (OBP of .367 for the five years). Even if Safeco is moderately friendlier to left-handed hitters, it's not going to provide much of a boost.
Ichiro Suzuki, RF
Jeremy Reed, CF
Adrian Beltre, 3B
Richie Sexson, 1B
Raul Ibanez, LF
Carl Everett/Matt Lawton, DH
Kenji Johjima, C
Jose Lopez, 2B
Yuniesky Betancourt, SS
Ichiro, Sexson, and Ibanez form a competent trio, and should help compensate for what again figure to be three holes in the middle: shortstop, second base, and center field. Reed may bounce back somewhat, but if he does his upside, for 2006 at least, is limited to that of a .300 hitter with poor plate command and no power or speed. Juan Pierre without the steals? Whee.
Counting on a big season from Johjima, improvement from Reed, a return to career norms for Lawton and Ichiro, continued health from Sexson, and one more respectable season by Everett, flawed as that plan is to begin with, does not really address the problem.
This brings us to Beltre. In its annual book, Baseball Prospectus points out that the overall impact of one player can be limited, using Scott Rolen as an example. What BP does not point out in Rolen's profile is that the 2005 Cardinals also featured, among other assets, this fella named Albert Pujols, another potential Hall-of-Famer in Jim Edmonds, and a dominant ace in the rotation, Chris Carpenter. The Mariners had none of those things in 2005, and they will have none of those things in 2006. Ichiro is good, but he's no Pujols or Edmonds.
Of course Hernandez has the obvious potential to be a staff ace, if not the best pitcher in baseball, but he can't hit. (At least as far as we know he can't hit.) Beltre absolutely has to rebound, even though nobody expected another 48 bombs and .629 slugging percentage. Nonetheless, was it asking too much to expect 30 HRs and a .500 slugging percentage? Maybe. Starting in 1999, when Beltre was only 20-years-old, here are his slugging percentages for the last seven years:
For those of you who prefer OPS+, here are those:
Yes, he's suffered some bizarre injuries. Yes, he's played in tough hitter's parks. (How does that explain his 2004 in Dodger Stadium, though?) Yes, he's only 27-years-old. I'll leave the statistical nuances and panegyrics about Beltre's potential to others. You know that old saw, "You can't appreciate a player unless you see him every day"? There is some truth to that, though not as much as apologists of certain mediocrities would have you believe. And it cuts both ways.
Seeing Beltre for a whole season was a revelation to me. For my money, his 2004 season was clearly a fluke. I expect more seasons like 2005 going forward, and while it's conceivable he'll get lucky five or six more at-bats and get to 25 home runs, you can have him. He does play superior defense, but then so did Jeff Cirillo, and you don't see him getting $64 million over five years.
This brings us back to Jarrod Washburn. Admittedly, the market for mid-level pitchers has taken off in recent years -- Bavasi, after understandably being questioned if he over-paid, said, "The market is what it is" -- but $37.5 million? This would make more sense -- that's more sense, not total sense -- had the M's not been so torched by the Beltre signing, and had numerous other teams not been similarly burned by huge free-agent deals to mediocre pitchers (Darren Dreifort, Chan Ho Park, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, et al).
Unlike Dreifort and Park, though, Washburn can't get people out by himself. Since 2002, his strikeout rate is heading south:
There are pitchers who can survive with that kind of strikeout rate, and Washburn will no doubt benefit from pitching in Safeco half the time. While in the last three years he has a decent 3.59 ERA on the road, he is a nominal number-four starter. The problem is he's being paid like a number-two starter, at minimum, and the Mariners need, at minimum, one more hitter, not one more league-average pitcher. This was a bad move by the Mariners, the "logic" of the market be damned.
But making bad decisions has been axiomatic for the Mariners in recent years. Combine poor roster composition choices with a poor farm system, all the injuries, and the inevitable steep decline from 116 wins in 2001, and you're indeed left with King Felix being all M's fans have to look forward to in 2006. And no matter what he does, the M's in 2006 are staring at 70 wins and another fourth-place finish in a division that figures to be even tougher than it was a year ago.
And for at least the next three years or so? Rinse. Lather. Repeat.