The 2013 Mariners are not a good team. For the fourth year in a row, they are underachieving and are now on pace for 67 wins. As you probably know, a 67-win season would equal the success of their 2011 campaign in which Miguel Olivo captured the hearts of the less-informed Seattle baseball fans by leading the M’s with 19 home runs. If Miguel Olivo ever has even the smallest surge of popularity in your town, it’s time to get out.
Anyways, 67 wins would be an 8-game regression from last year, and would most likely signify the end of the Zduriencik/Wedge era in Seattle. But do we truly believe that this team is a 67-win squad? I don’t. At the onset of the season, I predicted that the Mariners would win 80 games this year, and I’m still standing by that prediction.
Today I want to talk about the current Mariners roster, and specifically about which positions require upgrades both now and in the future.
I’d like to start with the position at which the Mariners are the most equipped and work my way down, so stick with me.
Third Base: I’d love to tell you that I haven’t been surprised by Seager’s continued improvement this year…but I can’t. I really did expect to see some regression from Kyle’s breakout year in 2012. He doesn’t look like the sort of fellow who could continue to hit with the kind of power he’s showed during the last 7 baseball months. And now, we seem to be seeing improved plate discipline too, as Seager has increased his walk rate from 7.1% last year to 9.4% this year. I would love a future where the M’s 3B spot is locked down for the next 10-12 years.
Evaluation: No Upgrade Required
Bullpen: Coming into the year, I believed that our Mariners had a bullpen with the potential to be the best in baseball. With two flame-throwing righties (Capps and Pryor) and two solid lefties (Perez, Furbush) preceding an up-and-coming closer (Tom-Tom) with a delightful curveball, the M’s are capable of shutting down a team from the sixth inning on. Our team has had some troubles so far this year, but the majority of those have come from the current long-relief guys. However, I’m betting that either Noesi (yes, Noesi) or Erasmo will turn into a solid long-relief guy down the line.
Evaluation: No Upgrade Required (Once Pryor and Ramirez return)
Designated Hitter: I really like Kendrys Morales as a DH, and I am still holding out hope some hope for Montero’s future at this position. Even with Morales’ plate discipline improvements this year, I still think the Mariners will look to trade Kendrys at the deadline if their record is anywhere below .500. Unless the team is already willing to give up on the 23 year-old former Yankee top prospect, it makes more sense for the M’s to give the majority of the post-deadline DH plate appearances to Jesus Montero. If next year Jesús continues to walk at only a 5% rate and still lacks consistent power, only then will I consider him a bust.
Evaluation: No Upgrade Required (Unless Montero still sucks in 2014)
Catcher: This is a tough one, because I really like Mike Zunino, but I think what we’ve seen from him in the last few weeks at AAA shows that he needs at least a few more months in Tacoma before being promoted. Kelly Shoppach has been great so far this year considering he was supposed to be nothing more than a backup, but clearly he’s nothing more than a moderately palpable stopgap between the failed Jesús experiment and Zunino’s arrival.
Evaluation: Short-term upgrade would help, but isn’t necessary
Starting Rotation: The best part of the 2013 Mariners so far has been the top of the rotation. As the M’s social media department has told us repeatedly, Felix and ‘Kuma have been awesome, with a combined 1.79 ERA in the first month of the season. That’s an unbelievable 1-2 punch, even for a championship team. But that’s where the amazing ends. Let’s discuss the rest of the pile. Joe Saunders isn’t going to be this good at Safeco all year, but he’s also not going to be this bad on the road. I’m guessing that he’ll put up an ERA somewhere slightly north of 4.00 – maybe below if he continues to induce groundballs the way he’s been doing lately. We may see some turnover this year in the 4 and 5 spots, depending on performance. Hopefully, the M’s can find two guys out of Maurer, Hultzen, Ramirez, Beavan and the Harangutan who can hold down those spots. I’m already looking ahead to 2014 and hoping for a Felix/Iwakuma/Walker/Hultzen/Maurer rotation.
Evaluation: Short-term upgrades may be required
Outfield: That’s right, I’m lumping all 15 of the Mariners’ outfielders into a single paragraph here. I believe that a healthy trio of Saunders/Gutierrez/Morse is actually an above-average outfield both offensively and defensively. Not championship-level, but definitely not that Ibañez/Chavez/Peguero nightmare from last week. With that said, at this point we can basically write-off healthy Guti as a thing of the past. SeaBeast seems to have consistent injury issues as well. My two favorite "outfielders" in the M’s organization are Stefen Romero and Julio Morban, but I really don’t think either of them will get our team to where we dream of them being. Giancarlo time?
Evaluation: Upgrades should be actively pursued
Second Base: After his first 47 plate appearances of this season, Dustin Ackley had five singles, two walks and a .284 OPS. I was nearing the very end of my confidence, and was completely astounded by how much he was struggling. I fully expected 2012 to be a breakout year for the former #2 overall pick, and every time he put together a little hot streak last year I wanted to be the first to jump right back on the bandwagon. I bought his jersey in late 2011, and I really want to be able to wear it with pride. Is that too much to ask? Well, my confidence is returning. I think Dustin’s walks will return, and he’s run into some doubles and triples here and there as well. Since his miserable start, Ackley is batting .383 with a .843 OPS.
Evaluation: Potential upgrades should be pursued if Ackley finishes the season with an OPS+ below 100
First Base: I like Justin Smoak more than most Mariner fans. I like his defense at 1B, and I really like the determined, workmanlike attitude he’s displayed in attempting to deal with his offensive struggles during the last couple years. However, it has become clear that he simply does not have the hit and power tools necessary to be even an average MLB first baseman. Even with the improved plate discipline he’s showed this year (BB% up from 9.2% to 11.7% and OBP up from .290 to .333) he still has a -0.1 WAR on the season and carries the fourth lowest OPS of all qualified MLB first basemen. The M’s have no top-notch first basemen in the system, and I don’t see Kendrys as the long term solution there for the M’s. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Liddi and Romero split some time as the big league first basemen later this year.
Evaluation: Upgrades should be actively pursued
Shortstop: Brendan Ryan is an absolute wizard with the leather, and he seems like a really great, down-to-earth guy too. But like me, his hitting skills are so deficient that he should no longer hold a starting spot on any major league roster. 2013 has seen so many infield flies and inning-ending double plays from the SS-filled nine-hole this season, and I’m tired of it. After one whole month of the 2013 season, the M’s have 12 hits, all singles, from the SS position and 7 GDPs.
Not only this, but the M’s have a prospect at the top minor-league level who is on an absolute tear offensively. Twenty-two year-old Nick Franklin’s 1.161 OPS for Tacoma this year is good for fourth in the entire Pacific Coast League, and the three players ahead of him are all older than 26 and play traditionally offensive positions. His 3 HRs and 4 doubles contribute to his .623 SLG%, and his OBP stands at a jaw-dropping .538. But to me, the most impressive Nick Franklin statistics so far this year are his BB% of 20.3% and his K% of 10.1%! Some of the local pundits have questioned his arm-strength and his overall ability to stick at Short in the majors. But many of those same "experts" thought Dustin Ackley wouldn’t have the glove skills to stick at Second. I’m not saying that there won’t be a defensive drop-off from Brendan Ryan to Nick Franklin. I’m only saying that even if Little Nicky can be an average defensive shortstop in this league, having his bat in the M’s lineup this year would provide an almost instant improvement.
Evaluation: For goodness sakes, Promote Nick Franklin, Now!