Are they the Mariners or the Mediocres? Mediocre is the word that came to the top of my mind as I wrote this preview, from top to bottom the Mariners are "decent, fair, indifferent, middling, passable, tolerable, unexceptional and vanilla". There are few major problems but there are few above average players, or front office people, to take Seattle to the playoffs. The Mariners lost 84 games in 2006, their third losing season in a row. However, on the bright side, their 78 wins were the most for the Mariners since 2003. The bright spots are few in this preview, and with an aging roster and lowly ranked farm system the future does not look any better.
Bill Bavasi took over as General Manager of the Mariners after the 2003 season. One of his first, and worst moves, was trading Carlos Guillen to the Tigers for spare parts. Guillen blossomed into an all-star with the Tigers. Among Bavasi's other major trades were sending Freddy Garcia to the White Sox for Jeremy Reed and Miguel Olivo, and sending Randy Winn to the Giants for Yorvit Torrealba and Jesse Foppert. Pat Gillick had left the cupboard pretty bare for Bavasi but Bill hasn't helped himself with his trades or his free agent signings of players such as Jarrod Washburn and Adrian Beltre, or indeed this last winters crop of Jeff Weaver, Jose Guillen and Miguel Batista.
The Mariners manager Mike Hargrove, or "grover", has been a major league manager for fifteen years but hasn't had a winning season this century. Hargrove made his reputation as manager of the Cleveland Indians in the 1990's when he had five straight first place finishes. Those Cleveland teams had some very good players, how about an outfield of Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton? When Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton were gone the Indians had players like Brian Giles, Marquis Grissom and David Justice to step in. Omar Vizquel and Jim Thome were fixtures in the infield. Orel Hershiser, Bartolo Colon, Denis Martinez and Charles Nagy anchored the pitching. The old saying is that it is better to be lucky than good, and history may show grover was lucky to have had such good players.
The Mariners play in a tough division, the Angels and A's have strong teams and good farm systems supplying reinforcements to the major league teams. The Rangers have a new manager and have added pitching to go with their traditionally strong offensive team. So what did Mariners Bill Bavasi do this off-season to improve? Bavasi worked on improving the starting pitching by signing Miguel Batista and Jeff Weaver as free agents and trading for Horacio Ramirez. These pitchers replace Gil Meche, Jamie Moyer and Joel Pineiro. Bavasi's other major transactions brought in Jose Guillen and Jose Vidro.
The Mariners had a very settled lineup last season, seven Mariners played 144 games or more, the only exceptions being centre field and DH. Despite the regular lineup Seattle's 756 runs were the second fewest in the league, ahead of only Tampa Bay. Seattle's offense was under average across the board:
Seattle BA was .272 versus the league average of .275
Seattle OBP was .340 versus the league average of .342
Seattle SLG was .412 versus the league average of .427
Seattle home runs were 172 versus the league average of 182
Seattle's runs scored was 756 versus the league average of 804
Those seven players who played over 144 games last season all return for 2007.
Catcher - Kenji Johjima
First - Richie Sexson
Second - Jose Lopez
Short - Yuniesky Betancourt
Third - Adrian Beltre
Left - Raul Ibanez
Centre - Ichiro Suzuki (right field in 2006)
The new guys fit in here:
Right - Jose Guillen
DH - Jose Vidro with 2006 mid-season acquisition Ben Broussard
So why did such a settled lineup score fewer runs than the league average? Let's look at each player.
Johjima had an excellent debut season in America. Johjima batted .291 with 18 home runs and supplied good defense. Johjima is a contact hitter, he walked only 20 times and had only 46 strikeouts. As a result his .291 average only generated a .332 OBP. Johjima's OPS+ was 106 which is good, his 6.3 RC/G ranked fifth in the AL. The mediocre tag at the start of this story might be harsh for a lot of these players but with the Seattle offense being one of the worst in the league which players could carry Seattle to being a top offensive team?
Sexson's 34 home runs were typical of the premier players at first base but his .264 batting average and 154 strikeouts dragged down his production to approximately league average for first basemen. His OPS+ of 120 is good but first base is where you expect to see that level of production.
Lopez hit .282 with 26 walks and 46 extra base hits. Lopez OPS+ was 91 about average at second base.
Betancourt's offense was not his strongest point, he did hit .289 but only 17 walks over the season gave him an anaemic .310 OBP. Betancourt does not have much power and his OPS+ was 88.
Beltre had a bounce-back season after a disappointing first year in Seattle. Having had a career year in his 2004 free agent season, the Mariners signed Beltre to a lucrative deal that was widely, and correctly, panned at the time. Beltre did under-perform his contract in 2005 and while 2006 was better it could not be characterized as a great season to match his contract. Beltre's OPS+ in his last four years with the Dodgers was 93, 98, 89 and 163. Most experts felt the 163 was a free-agent year special but Bavasi bit and gave Beltre a big contract. Beltre's OPS+ dropped to 90 in his first year with the Mariners but bounced back to 108 last season. 108 is not outstanding for a corner infielder and Beltre was fifth in RC/G for third basemen in the AL.
Ibanez was the Mariners best hitter last season and ranked third in the AL in RC/G for leftfielders behind Manny Ramirez and Carl Crawford. Ibanez's contract was also seen as a mistake when the Mariners signed him, but Ibanez has played up to his contract. Ibanez might be the best move Bavasi has made as Seattle's GM.
Ichiro was fourth in the AL in RC/G. Ichiro is a joy to watch, an unusual hitter, a speedy baserunner and a great outfielder but somehow the sum of the parts don't add up to the whole. Ichiro might be popular among fantasy players due to his hitting and speed but his lack of power dilutes his value as a corner outfielder. Who had more extra base hits in 2006, Ichiro, Betancourt or Lopez? Ichiro had 38, Betancourt 42 and Lopez 46. Right field is a power position in the AL and Ichiro's OPS+ of 109 is disappointing and tied with 2005 as the lowest of Ichiro's career.
These seven returning hitters illustrate the Mariners dilemma, all seven had decent seasons in 2006 and most were around league average for their positions, but none were really outstanding. None of them are rookies in 2007, most are established major leaguers, and in general their expected 2007 performance should be similar to 2006. Johjima, Sexson, Ibanez and Ichiro are each in their thirties where great improvements are unlikely, Lopez and Betancourt don't profile as big hitters. Beltre is in his age 28 season so he could have a jump in performance.
So how do the Mariners move their offense from below average to above average? The delta may come from the changes to the lineup from 2006. In center field Jeremy Reed was supposed to be the answer but was injured for most of the 2006 season after getting off to a slow start. Reed might be healthy in 2007 but he doesn't have a job after hitting .217 in 212 at-bats last season. Jose Guillen has been brought in to play right field with Ichiro moving to centre. Guillen's numbers have been sliding over the past four seasons and Tommy John surgery ended his 2006 season early. Guillen is also one of the more emotional players in the big leagues. If Guillen is able to control his emotions and get back to his previous best form he could be a valuable addition to the team, but that might be wishful thinking.
Carl Everett had 300 at-bats as DH last season but was released mid-year having hit .227. Jose Vidro joined the Mariners from Washington to be the DH. Vidro is another Mariner where fans say why him? Vidro is injury prone and his performance has been shrinking. Vido's OPS+ last season was 95, not what you want to see from your DH. Vidro slugged .395 last season, good for an infielder, as Vidro used to be.
Other than the new additions Seattle is banking on a few career years from the veterans. From an optimistic perspective Guillen and Vidro should be an improvement over the various players who played centre and DH in 2006. From a pessimistic perspective can the Mariners rely on none of the core seven getting injured and missing significant time in 2007, and can they count on injury prone Guillen and Vidro to play over 150 games each? I will go with an slightly improved offense, thanks to better performance at CF and DH, and say Seattle increase their runs scored to almost league average at 794 runs.
Seattle's 792 runs allowed was in the middle of the pack (9th). Felix Hernandez had a good first season but didn't live up to his number one prospect ranking. Jamie Moyer was steady as usual but was traded mid-season. Gil Meche had his best season in his free agent year. Joel Pineiro was a major disappointment. Jarrod Washburn, signed as a free agent, was either adequate or a disappointment depending on your perspective.
The rotation should look like this:
SP - Felix Hernandez
SP - Jarod Washburn
SP - Horacio Ramirez
SP _ Miguel Batista
SP - Jeff Weaver
Seattle have replaced Gil Meche, Jamie Moyer and Joel Pineiro with Horacio Ramirez, Miguel Batista and Jeff Weaver. Put another way Seattle needed to replace an above average pitcher (Moyer); an average pitcher (Meche) and a well below average pitcher (Pineiro). It could be argued that none of the replacements are league average pitchers. Let's look at each of the moves one to one.
Miguel Batista for Jamie Moyer. Miguel Batista was an above average pitcher last season for Arizona and now he returns to the American League where he was last seen in the bullpen after being dropped from the rotation in Toronto. Batista had an ERA of 4.58 last season in the NL and if we add a run for the AL he would be heading for a 5.50 ERA in 2007. Batista is 36 heading into the 2007 season and it is hard to see much improvement in the tough american league. Batista last pitched in the AL with Toronto where he was so inconsistent that he was switched to the bullpen. It is hard to expect that Batista will be an above average american league pitcher and it is likely he will be a step down from Jamie Moyer.
Horacio Ramirez for Gil Meche. Meche had his best season in 2006 and converted that into huge free agent dollars but his ERA of 4.50 was league average. Ramirez has pitched for the Braves for the last four years but was injured in 2006 and only started 14 games. Ramirez is a typical crafty lefty who seems better suited to the NL. Ramirez ERA+ was 95 and 98 in the last two years but his move to the AL should make that worse, another step back for the Mariners.
Jeff Weaver for Joel Pineiro. Both Weaver and Pineiro struggled last season and both lost their starters jobs. Weaver found some measure of redemption in St. Louis but it was primarily his post season that saved him. Weaver's ERA was 6.29 in the AL and 5.18 in the NL. Now that Weaver is back in the AL West it is hard to see him getting his ERA back under 5 but compared to Pineiro last season that would be an improvement.
Felix Hernandez should have a big season in 2007. Hernandez's ERA last season was 4.52, not bad for a 20 year old. Hernandez was unlucky last year with the long basll and BABIP and his expected ERA was 2.85. Look for a big jump forward.
Jarrod Washburn meet Adrian Beltre. Washburn's ERA+ over the last four seasons was 96,99, 131 and 93. The 131 was, of course, in his free agent year and Seattle gave him the big contract. Washburn turns 33 during the season and it is hard to see much improvement unless he develops a new pitch.
The bullpen was a strength of Seattle's in 2006. JJ Putz emerged as a quality closer, while Rafael Soriano and George Sherill had strong seasons. Soriano, with his 98 mph fastball and his 2.25 ERA, is gone now, traded for Horacio Ramirez. Bullpen pitchers tend to have roller coaster seasons so Seattle's should be expected to take a step back in 2007.
It is hard to see this pitching staff being a lot better, other than King Felix, so I will say the Mariners will allow 824 runs in 2007, up from 792 in 2006.
The combination of 794 runs scored and 824 runs allowed will give Seattle a repeat 78-84 record and a fourth consecutive losing season. This Seattle team is also older, only Felix Hernandez has star potential and many of the players performance will start, or continue, to decline over the next few years. Seattle's farm system is ranked 24th by Baseball America so the future looks bleak for Mariner fans.