What follows is a quick Mariner team essay meant for a book project that's since been scrapped. But hey, just because it won't get printed doesn't mean it shouldn't be published. So read on if you want to, or don't, but bear in mind that the more time you spend keeping yourself occupied, the less time you have to think about Carl Everett.
It wasn't supposed to go like that.
Granted, the 2004 Mariners were a legitimately awful team, but Bill Bavasi spent a lot of money over the winter to make his team a lot better, and it didn't pan out. Fans hoping for an 80-win season before a pennant run in 2006 were delighted by a .500 April, but a 9-18 May killed that buzz, and the team was never really able to recover from its slide. As the summer rolled along, the Mariners got worse, and September found them playing for draft position in front of the smallest crowds in Safeco history. Once a proud organization coming off its fourth consecutive 90-win season just two years ago, the Mariners now find themselves in something of a crisis, needing to make up ground quickly against a young division that's only going to get better, or else risk the fan base losing interest.
While 2005, much like the season before it, was characterized by a team-wide failure to execute, the player many people point to as being most responsible for the disappointment is Adrian Beltre. Handed a huge contract after putting up an MVP-caliber season at 25, Beltre struggled out of the gate and, save for a few week-long hot streaks, never really got comfortable. While he played spectacular defense all season long, his bat regressed to its established pre-2004 level of performance, falling short of 20 homers for the first time in four years and failing to provide adequate protection for Richie Sexson over much of the second half. Beltre still has another four years in Seattle to learn to lay off of low outside breaking balls, but at this point, Bavasi has to be wondering if he gave the most expensive contract in Mariners history to one of the biggest single-season flukes the league has ever seen.
Of course, one underachieving power bat does not a disastrous season make, and several other players deserve their share of the blame as well. Despite $114 million being spent on the middle of the batting order over the winter, the lineup saw an across-the-board performance decline, with its collective batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage all taking a hit. The trouble started at the top - Ichiro followed up a record-breaking 2004 season with a 2005 campaign that saw his batting average standing below .300 as late as September 29th - but the decline was almost universal. Jeremy Reed looked like a textbook #2 hitter and AL Rookie of the Year favorite entering the season, but a rough start got him pushed to the bottom of the lineup before too long, and a wrist injury prevented him from hitting for any semblance of power. Bret Boone defied those who foresaw a bounce-back season by continuing his rapid offensive deterioration, struggling badly to the point at which he was released by both Seattle and Minnesota in the span of a month. Miguel Olivo hit so poorly that Bavasi had to go out and re-acquire the ageless Pat Borders in order to get something out of the catcher spot. Opening Day shortstop Wilson Valdez, forced into action because of Pokey Reese's injury, put up a .489 OPS before he was let go a quarter of the way through the season. The original bench of Dan Wilson, Greg Dobbs, Willie Bloomquist, and Scott Spiezio combined to hit .230 with two homers in 465 at bats. In all, the Mariners gave 33% of their at bats to players who posted sub-.300 OBP's. When you're readily giving away so many outs, you're bound to have trouble scoring runs, and the Mariners finished with one of the worst offenses in baseball as a result.
Seattle's problems weren't limited to the offensive side of the equation, though. Despite pitching in front of a solid defense in one of the more extreme run-suppressing environments in baseball, the Mariner staff finished with a middle-of-the-pack ERA and the worst strikeout rate in the league. The starters in particular were awful, fanning fewer than five batters per nine innings and ranking between Detroit and Texas in ERA. The biggest blow came when Bobby Madritsch got hurt in his first start of the year; expected to be the best pitcher in the group, Madritsch missed the entire season with a torn labrum and was subsequently claimed off waivers by Kansas City in October. His replacement, Ryan Franklin, entered the picture and made 30 forgettable starts, but his numbers glowed in comparison to those of Joel Pineiro, Gil Meche, and Aaron Sele, who combined for a 5.51 ERA in 444.2 innings. Sele's awful performance was to be expected, as his acquisition seemed needlessly risky at the best of times, but Pineiro and Meche failed to meet even the most conservative expectations, their numbers absolutely killing the team and casting each of their futures in Seattle in doubt. As a result, the Mariners were forced to plow through the bulk of the season with only a single competent starter in the rotation, always a recipe for disaster.
That said, every bad team still has its bright spots, and the Mariners were no exception. Where his contract looked like a pretty significant gamble at the time it was signed, Richie Sexson came back from a major shoulder injury to post arguably the best numbers of his career, anchoring the middle of the lineup with a consistent on-base and power threat that shows no immediate signs of slowing down. Raul Ibanez had another good year as a rotating LF/DH, providing the kind of left-handed pop that plays well in Safeco Field. Jose Lopez came back from a midseason demotion to hit .261 with more than half of his hits going for extra bases, suggesting that he could have a future as Alfonso Soriano's offensive equivalent. Jeremy Reed answered questions regarding his ability to patrol center field while Yuniesky Betancourt quickly established himself as perhaps the best defensive shortstop in baseball, saving runs with the glove without giving too many away at the plate.
Not everything was doom and gloom on the mound, either. Jamie Moyer proved that he can still pitch effectively, if only at home, while a number of guys - namely Rafael Soriano, George Sherrill, Julio Mateo, JJ Putz, and Scott Atchison - showed that they can make up five parts of an effective bullpen that costs just a pinch over the minimum. Soriano's return in particular means a lot going forward, as he was probably the best reliever in the AL before getting hurt.
Without doubt, though, the most encouraging bit of good news to come out of Seattle's 2005 season was that Felix Hernandez arrived and was everything everyone said he would be, and more. After struggling through periodic bouts of wildness in AAA Tacoma, Hernandez walked just 7% of the batters he faced in the Majors while striking out 23%. He also induced more than three groundballs for every fly ball he allowed, his GB/FB ratio second in baseball among pitchers with 80+ innings, behind only Brandon Webb. The list of pitchers with high strikeout and groundball rates reads like a list of the best pitchers in baseball, with names like Webb, Chris Carpenter, AJ Burnett, and Carlos Zambrano being some of the better examples, and Chan Ho Park being the lone exception to the rule. Make no mistake: Felix Hernandez, right now, is one of the best pitchers in the league, and he's only going to get better.
There are reasons to be optimistic about the Mariners' hopes for the 2006 season. For one thing, last year's -52 run differential was much better than the final won/loss record would suggest, and by trimming some of the dead weight off of the roster, the Mariners could approach .500 this year without making any drastic changes. Beyond that, having a #1 pitcher and five relievers who the team can count on for a combined ERA somewhere in the low-3's and a combined salary around $2-2.5 million gives them an enormous competitive advantage over the rest of the league, allowing them to spend money to fill other holes while not having to worry very much about the positions that are already occupied. They will have the resources necessary to lure either a Burnett or a Kevin Millwood this winter, an acquisition which would give the Mariners a formidable 1-2 rotation combo that rivals any other in the league. Even if they fail to bring in one of the big two, there are a number of other available B- and C-grade arms who could put up ERAs in the 3.75-4.00 range with Seattle's defense and spacious home park around them.
The offense should be better, too, even without any significant changes in personnel. Reed will be healthy and going into his second full year of big league competition, Beltre will be entering his age-27 season, Lopez will be looking to continue his power spike, and the at bats that were wasted on guys like Olivo, Borders, Valdez, and Spiezio (among others) in 2005 will be going to better hitters this time around. A conservative estimate would be that the group as a whole improves by about 50 runs, but there's potential for a lot more than that, depending on how well Beltre bounces back.
The Mariners are coming off back-to-back awful seasons, but the looming specter of 192 losses in two years makes the situation seem more dire than it actually is. For the first time in a long while, this is a roster with a bunch of young talent in a bunch of places, the kind of thing that helps a team overachieve, rather than crater. Felix Hernandez is the best pitcher Seattle has seen since Randy Johnson, and the lineup has the distinct possibility of not featuring a single black hole, as long as certain players begin to play up to their potential. While the team isn't quite as good on paper as its AL West counterparts, given its youth, you're unlikely to find a better sleeper in 2006 than the Mariners. With a few lucky breaks here and there, a .500 team can look an awful lot like a division champion.