Erik Bedard is healthy. I don't know that there was a bigger question mark on the roster coming into the season. Bedard went from being a five-win pitcher in 2006-2007 to a one-win pitcher in 2008, and more than anyone else, he was to be the biggest individual determinant of whether or not this team would contend. A healthy, effective Bedard would give us a fearsome front duo rivaling anyone's in baseball. A broken, inconsistent Bedard, meanwhile, would leave us searching for answers as our rotation would be exposed as a weakness.
He's healthy. Bedard seems to have put his rough 2008 behind him, and he's come out aces, pounding the strike zone and missing bats like nothing ever happened. He's also thrown 100+ pitches in three consecutive starts for good measure. This is the Erik Bedard we traded for, and the Erik Bedard we traded for is one of the best starting pitchers in the league. Being able to follow Felix with Bedard gives the Mariners a hell of an advantage and helps to make up for a lackluster 3-4-5.
Due to Bedard's good health, we can reduce the amount of good luck the M's would need in order to win the division. He makes a huge difference.
The outfield defense has been terrific. We expected this, of course, but not having to watch a lot of Griffey or Balentien out there has allowed the team to be even better than we expected at turning flyballs into outs. As of today, our outfield UZR of +8.7 ranks #1 in baseball, more than a full run ahead of the Rays and Reds. A year ago we finished at -14.6. Our BABIP against on flyballs of .119 is ahead of the .140 league average. Chavez, Gutierrez, and Ichiro are capable of running down pretty much any and every flyball that has a decent bit of hangtime, and their efforts have been every bit as helpful to the winning effort as we hoped. Some people might look at our lousy offensive numbers and accuse us of winning ugly, but I'd argue the exact opposite.
Don Wakamatsu seems pretty good. I won't go into too much detail since Dave just talked about it this morning, but while Wakamatsu has shown some tendencies to bunt too often and leave guys in late despite a platoon disadvantage, he's also been excellent with the bullpen, good with pre-game preparation, and - most importantly - he values defense pretty highly. Griffey hasn't seen the field since Ichiro came back, and over the course of a season that alone is worth a couple wins. Wakamatsu knows which guys are his best gloves and he has some ideas of how to get the most out of the guys that aren't, and that's a plus. All that's left to see is how much slack he ends up giving to Yuni.
Shawn Kelley is ready for the big time. We knew we had a lot of raw talent in the bullpen during Spring Training, but nobody was really sure how well it was going to work out, even with Morrow's move back. Aside from Morrow, no one in the group really inspired much confidence, and I'm saying that as one of Aardsma's biggest fans. So it's been real big to see Kelley build off his sleeper status and turn into a legitimate high-leverage reliever. Through his first six appearances, Kelley's thrown a ton of strikes and eased some concerns about his lack of a changeup by striking out five of 13 left-handed batters. Both his fastball and his slider are legitimate Major League pitches, and as the bullpen sorts itself out in the coming weeks, I expect Kelley to remain a calming constant. Should Aardsma ever remember who he is, instead of who he ought to be, we won't have to look far to find a steady 8th inning replacement.
The Mariners are 12-7. No, the Mariners haven't played like a .632 team. They haven't hit for beans and they're currently ahead of their Pythagorean and third-order W/L records by two and three games. But regardless of how well they've performed, they've won a lot of their games, and that's put them in excellent position to make the playoffs. As we've talked about a hundred times, once you've won a game, no one can take that away from you, so feel free to think of today as Opening Day of a slightly shorter season in which the Mariners are given a three-game head start over second place. All things considered, we couldn't have asked for a better start, and though the pitching is going to slip once the home runs start coming, we're not going to post a .297 team wOBA all season long. We're 19 games into our best-case scenario.