Be a GM: Seattle Mariners

The Seattle Mariners are far removed from the team that tied the Major League wins record in 2001 with a 116-46 mark. They’ve been a sub .500 team for 7 of the last 9 seasons, and finished 26th in total attendance last year. In 2001-02, they led the league in that category. However, the 2012 season was a preview of things to come for the Mariners. Their win total increased by 8 games, and the organization gave young talent such as Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, and Kyle Seager their first full season in the big leagues. The crown of their season was fittingly delivered by a king. Mariners’ ace “King” Félix Hernández brought national attention to Seattle by pitching the 23rd Perfect Game in MLB history. This only adds to the legend of the 26 year old Venezuelan. The Mariners have stocked up their farm system through the amateur draft, landing them at the #5 farm system in the Bleacher Report’s rankings.

Moving forward for the Mariners, is their best option to build from within, or bring in outside talent? The strength of their farm system, and the status of Félix Hernández provides management with both options. The AL West will be loaded in 2013, and the Mariners are by far the least hyped team in the division. They recently sent LHP Jason Vargas to the division rival Angels in exchange for 1B Kendrys Morales. They also signed outfielders Jason Bay and Lord Voldemort Raul Ibanez to one-year contracts. So what more does management have to do in order to be relevant?

Dustin Ackley will set the tone in Seattle

Projected Lineup

Batting Order (AVG / OBP / SLG)

1. Dustin Ackley 2B ( .226 / .294 / .328 )
2. John Jaso C/DH ( .276 / .394 / .456 )
3. Kendrys Morales 1B ( .273 / .320 / .467 )
4. Kyle Seager 3B ( .259 / .316 / .423 )
5. Jesus Montero C/DH ( .267 / .310 / .408 )
6. Raul Ibanez LF ( .240 / .308 / .453 )
7. Franklin Gutierrez CF ( .260 / .309 / .420 )
8. Michael Saunders RF ( .247 / .306 / .432 )
9. Nick Franklin SS ( .278 / .347 / .453 ) ; AA – AAA stats

Presenting the struggle that is the Seattle Mariners offense. Former first-round pick Dustin Ackley failed to live up to expectations in 2012, but the Mariners are hoping that these are just growing pains. Ackley hit (.273 /.348 /.417) in 90 games last year, and he was expected to repeat or top that performance. Year 3 needs to be an improvement for Ackley or else the team will have to consider other options. John Jaso and Jesus Montero split time between C and DH with neither of them being a strong defensive catcher. Golden Spikes Award winner, and former Florida Gator Mike Zunino awaits to step in at some point in 2013. Kendrys Morales is an upgrade over Justin Smoak who hasn’t been able to consistently produce at the big league level. Kyle Seager broke out with the Mariners for his first full season in 2012. He showed his power last year with 20 homeruns, and as a career (.328 / .401 / .474) in the minors, his batting average should pick up in 2013. Raul Ibanez is back in Seattle once again, and the Mariners hope he can hit how he did during his last stint with the club. He’s also fresh off being a post-season hero for the Yankees. Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders have spent the past few seasons with the Mariners. Gutierrez has been better offensively, but he’s also spent more time in the big leagues. Saunders can potentially be replaced by veteran Jason Bay, if he somehow returns to his former self. To-be rookie Nick Franklin beats out last year’s starter Brendan Ryan for the starting job. Nothing productive can be said about Ryan. He his (.194 / .277 / .278) in 2012. It’s time for the future, Nick Franklin, who is listed as the Mariners’ #3 prospect by MLB.com.

Verdict: The only way that the Mariners’ offense can be successful is if multiple players have career years.

No doubt in King Felix at #1
No doubt in King Felix at #1

Pitching Rotation ( W-L , ERA, WHIP, K, BB, IP)

1. Félix Hernández ( 13-9 , 3.06 ERA , 1.14 WHIP , 223 K , 56 BB , 232.0 IP )
2. Hisashi Iwakuma ( 9-5 , 3.16 ERA , 1.28 WHIP , 101 K , 43 BB , 125.1 IP )
3. Blake Beavan ( 11-11 , 4.43 ERA , 1.26 WHIP , 67 K , 24 BB , 152.1 IP )
4. Erasmo Ramirez ( 1-3 , 3.36 ERA , 1.00 WHIP , 48 K , 12 BB , 59.0 IP )
5. Danny Hultzen ( 9-7 , 3.05 ERA , 1.31 WHIP , 136 K , 75 BB , 124.0 IP ) AA – AAA stats

CL Tom Wilhelmsen ( 6-3 , 29/34 SV , 2.50 ERA , 1.11 WHIP , 87 K , 29 BB , 79.1 IP )

Félix Hernández as the #1 starter is the easiest decision that any manager has to make. He’s flat out dominant, no questions asked; Moving on. 31 year old Hisashi Iwakuma played his first year of baseball in the United States last year for the Mariners The 5-year veteran of the Japan Pacific League put up phenomenal numbers after being bumped up to the rotation, and making 16 starts.  Everyone knows about King Félix, but the 1-2 punch of Hernández and Iwakuma is a hugely underrated threat to the opposition.  Following them is Blake Beavan, who will play his third year at the Major League level in 2013. Beavan had an up and down 2012 season, finishing with an ERA above 4.00 . He keeps his walks allowed to a minimum, but Beavan’s poor outings have come when opponents get 7+ hits off of him. The majority of at-bats against him culminate in 2 strike counts. In a statistical anomaly opposing batters hit for a higher average when he delivers a first pitch strike (.290) than a first pitch ball by (.247). Based on statistical data, Beavan could be more successful by working off the plate with his fastball and further developing secondary pitches. Erasmo Ramirez pitched out of the Mariners bullpen in early 2012, and then started 15 games in AAA games before returning to the majors in September. He finished the season with a stellar final month, holding opposing hitters to a .188 average and posting a 0.88 WHIP. The Mariners have themselves a gem if Ramirez pitches similar to that form in 2013. Danny Hultzen’s AAA statistics raise some question marks. After shutting down AA lineups with a 1.19 ERA through 13 starts, Hultzen was called up to AAA. In 12 AAA starts, Hultzen wasn’t the same pitcher. His innings per start dropped dramatically, and he got knocked around for a 5.92 ERA. The popular opinion is that in his first full season of professional baseball, Hultzen ran out of gas. In 4 of his last 7 starts, Hultzen’s ERA for the game was above 9.00, combining for 20 ER in 12.2 IP.  I’m willing to believe this opinion only because of his sudden increase in walks. In AA Hultzen’s BB/9 was 3.82, and that jumped to 7.95 in AAA. Hultzen’s tendencies to walk batters is troublesome, and that is the only thing holding him back from being a successful major league pitcher. He can be a #1 someday, but not yet. I have him at #5 because his fully rested arm will impress management in the spring enough to give him a shot. However, if he starts tanking again like he did at the end of 2012, a move to the bullpen might be best for his health. Tom Wilhelmsen closed for the M’s in 2012, and hasn’t done anything to show that he shouldn’t remain in that role. “The Bartender” is entering his third year at the major league level after a 5 year hiatus from 2005-09 where he, wait for it, tended bars. Wilhelmsen is a converted starter who thrived in his first season as a closer, and is a reliable man to shut the door if the Mariners can give him the lead.

Verdict: The Mariners have a strong top of the rotation which will consistently provide solid outings. If spots 3-5 can provide the offense with a chance to win, the Mariners could put up a fight. This pitching staff has promise and the capability to carry the Mariners in 2013.

Moving Forward

The Mariners have some pretty big holes to fill. Their minor league system’s strength is heavily skewed towards pitching with guys like Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Stephen Pryor, and Carter Capps. Walker is a ways away, but Paxton should arrive soon, and Pryor and Capps already have big league experience.

The King is a fan favorite

1. Keep Félix Hernández

As mentioned too many time before, Félix Hernández is awesome. He made his big league debut at 19 years old, and threw a perfect game at age 26. Hernández is the face of the Mariners franchise, and gives them a monumental advantage every single time he steps on the mound. Multiple baseball analysts think that it’s in the Mariners’ best interest to trade him for 3-4 top prospects, but I disagree. Hernández could bring in a massive return, perhaps the biggest shipment of top prospects ever. Hernández has 2 years left on his contract, and is set to make around $21MM each year. This contract isn’t destroying the Mariners bank, as they were prepared to pay $100 MM over 4 years for 31 year old Josh Hamilton. Félix Hernández is one fo the best players in the history of the Seattle Mariners, and one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball. Giving him up for prospects at this point in his career is just silly. If you trade Félix away, you’re virtually giving up for 3-4 years as guys develop, and you’ve ripped away the fan base, whose support has already dropped. From a baseball perspective, you would be giving away a 26 year old proven product entering his prime for unproven players who maybe project to be stars. The likelihood that the return would be better than Hernández is paper thin. Teams fear the Mariners because of King Félix. The Mariners need to build around him, not use him to build. If he doesn’t want to sign an extension with the Mariners, than that’s a different story. Ship him out before news of his feelings toward the team go public, and rack up the largest return in MLB history. But barring that scenario, let the King reign over Seattle.

Bourn is a premier defensive outfielder

2. Sign Michael Bourn
After Josh Hamilton signed, the hot stove focus switched to speedy, defensive-minded outfielder Michael Bourn. Bourn could take the spot of either Franklin Gutierrez or Michael Saunders, and jump up to the top of the batting order. Bourn in the lineup would decrease the pressure on Mariners hitters, and increase the pressure on other team’s pitchers. In 2012 Bourn hit (.274 / .348 / .391), and stole 42 bases in 55 attempts. Bourn would cost considerably less than Hamilton, and the Mariners have the money bookmarked away to compete in a bidding war for his services.

3. Test the market for OF
The Mariners lack a long-term solution at any position in the outfield. Ask around, see who’s available and for what cost. Also see what interest other teams have in guys such as Eric Thames and Casper Wells. They are guys who could possibly be involved in a bigger deal as temporary replacements for teams who give up an Outfielder for prospects.

4. Trade Montero + Smoak
The Mariners are blessed with something that Major League clubs drool over; A surplus of catching prospects. Jesus Montero, former Yankees super prospect, played his first complete season in 2012 and put of solid numbers for a rookie catcher. But, he will be forced out of a job when Mike Zunino, out of the beautiful University of Florida, is big league ready. Zunino can be the best catching prospect since Buster Posey, and John Jaso was the Mariners’ most productive hitter in 2012. These two factors make Jesus Montero expendable, and teams will give up a lot for a young, promising catcher. Justin Smoak had lofty expectations when he was traded to the Mariners, and he hasn’t lived up to them. The trade for Kendrys Morales confirmed that patience for Smoak to produce is running low. While he still has the potential to be something, now is the best time to send him off. Who knows what a Montero + Smoak package could bring in? Maybe the missing pieces to a strong Mariners team in 2013.

5. Draft college position players
The Mariners farm system is stacked with pitching, but lacks in quality major league ready position players. Specifically, they need college outfielders. They recently acquired Leon Landry from the Dodgers, and the center fielder from LSU had an eye-opening season in the minors. Looking at the 2013 draft class, Austin Wilson out of Stanford tops the list in that category, but is likely to be off the board by the time the Mariners pick at #12. I like Michael Lorenzen from Cal State Fullerton for the Mariners in the first round. Projections have him going late in the first round, but I think his value will pick up throughout the college season. I watched Lorenzen play last year when CSF came to play UF in the opening series of the season. Lorenzen hit over .500 in the series, and then came in to close out the final game on the mound with a fastball in the upper 90’s. He was the most impressive player I saw all year aside from Zunino.

Summary (TL;DR)
The Mariners’ chances of making he playoffs in 2013 are slim. Offense will be a struggle, but the singing of Michael Bourn could significantly improve the outfield, along with trading away surplus pieces. The pitching rotation is strong, with only limited question marks. The Mariners can address their need for offense through drafting college position players, specifically in the outfield. To be successful the Mariners need to provide pieces around Félix Hernández, and keep him in Seattle for a long time.