There is no question the Mariners struggled to identify what kind of team they wanted to be last year. They certainly lacked power, or much of an offense, for that matter. One of their strength was their starting pitching staff, which at one point had Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda, Doug Fister and Jason Vargas all in their rotation. Of course Fister was traded along with RHP David Pauley to Detroit last year for OF Casper Wellls and LHP Charlie Furbush. Pineda was traded to the Yankees in part of the deal that got the Mariners C/DH Jesus Montero. The offense is expected to be better this season. The pitching staff should still be ok. This team should be able to take the right couple of steps to move from the ninety+ loss club and progress to the eighty+ loss club, a distinct improvement.
This team needs a star to emerge in their everyday lineup. Ichiro is a legend, but not the type of player that can carry a team by himself. Especially since he is getting toward the tail end of his career. (Only 184 hits last season, 1st season in 11 year career he did not get 200+ hits.) I think they have two players who can become star hitters and another two that can eventually become All Stars. 2B Dustin Ackley will be 24 this year and could potentially take his game to another level. He is a pure hitter and could profile for 40 2Bs, 15 3B, 20 HRs which would put him in the class of top hitting 2B in the game of baseball. He played in 90 games last season, getting 91 hits, 16 of them 2B, 7 3B and 6 HR to go along with 36 RBI. The RBI totals should go up in a full season and the fact that he could be the number three hitter in the Mariners lineup.
Need I state how much of a power hitter Jesus Montero could be? Yankees fans are upset that he was traded, but as I stated before, Montero for Pineda was a fair trade for both sides. He was 20-61, with 4 2B and 4 HR in 18 games for the Yankees last year. The question is how much of force will the Mariners expect Montero to be right away. It will also be interesting to see how much Montero catches, plays 1B and DHs. Justin Smoak, obtained in the Cliff Lee trade with Texas a couple years ago, has a chance to be a good hitter. He will probably bat 4th, as not to put a ton on Montero as a rookie. Of course, once Jesus starts hitting like he should, Montero will become the cleanup batter. A 3-4-5 of Ackley, Smoak and Montero will put up surprisingly good numbers that little will expect. Mike Carp will get the chance to be the everyday leftfielder. Carp, the one time Mets farmhand, hit .276, 12, 46 in 79 games last season. He should be able to improve on those numbers over the course of a full season.
The rest of the lineup may have some issues. Chone Figgins hit .188 last year, but manager Eric Wedge is giving him another chance to play 3B. Franklin Gutierrez is one of the better defensive CF in the game, but has had a hard time staying healthy. When he does, he is not much of a hitter. (.224, 1, 19 in 92 games last year.) Brendan Ryan plays a good SS, but is not a big run producer. Migue Olivo led the team with 19 HR and 62 RBI last season and will share time behind the plate with Montero and John Jaso, who was acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay.
The pitching staff is hoping they can get a little more run support than they did last year, as it is almost impossible to do worse. Felix Hernandez saw his ERA jump higher than a run in 2011 (2.27-3.47). Some have speculated that it was a matter of Felix not wanting to pitch for a lowsy team in Seattle. Since it has been determined that he will not be traded, it will be interesting to see if Hernandez can revert to his 2010 Cy Young form. Jason Vargas was 10-13 last season in 32 starts and will be the number two starter. Hisashi Iwakuma comes in as a rookie from Japan to be the number three starter. If he can pitch well, it provides a major boost and makes things easier for youngsters Blake Beaven, Hector Noesi and Charlie Furbush. The added Kevin Millwood on a minor league deal if necessary to eat up some innings.
I don't know what to make out of the bullpen. Brandon League had 37 saves last year but was anything but dominant. Jamey Wright is gone. They added Hong Chih Kuo, George Sherrill and Shawn Camp to help out rookies Tom Wilhelmsen, Chase Ruffin and Shawn Kelly. Hopefully, they can find a mix that works.
In a way, I am predicting the Mariners to be a surprising team. They can't make the playoffs at this point, but Ackley and Montero will give the Mariners offense something it hasn't had in years, power and the ability to produce runs. That and the top of the Seattle rotation will give the team more wins than many think. Vegas gives the O/U ar 72, I predict they will finish over at 75-87. A nice improvement and a step in the right direction. Is it likely that Figgins returns to form? I don't see it and have a hard time understanding where he has been the last couple of seasons. Big years from him and Ichiro will make the team better. Eric Wedge had a tough first season in Seattle, but I think the steps are put in place for this team to be a little bit better in 2012.