USS Mariner had an interesting post the other day about the challenges facing the Mariners if they want to be a contender in 2011. You should read it, but if you’re not in the mood, the short version is this: it’s going to be tough. Dave Cameron points out that the team is stuck in a funny position of having undeveloped youth alongside mediocre veterns with big contracts. I guess that’s not all that funny, in either the haha sense or in how uncommon of a position it is. By the way, I said it was funny, not Dave. Anyway, moving on.
The Mariners have good young talent likely to see the field in 2011, in Felix, Guti, Smoak, Saunders, Ackley, and Pineda. They have some other potential young contributors, namely Adam Moore, who have more questions but could be a big part of the future. They have Ichiro and maybe Branyan as veterans who are still very useful. Figgins and Bradley are the only big contracts that aren’t helping right now, but there is potential for them to join the useful group, moreso Figgins than Bradley, in my opinion. Lopez is likely gone. The guess right now is they’ll have around $10-20 million to spend in the offseason, if the payroll stays around the same level.
Cameron concludes that, given young players who need a shot (i.e. Adam Moore), the places where the Mariners can upgrade without major reshuffling are shortstop, DH, and the rotation. I think most fans would have picked those spots as logical upgrades, and I don’t want to keep paraphrasing Cameron, so I’ll just say that I mostly agree with him there too. I do see a couple of reasons for optimism he doesn’t mention, however.
- The Bullpen Dave mentions that the bullpen isn’t worth mentioning because it has such a small effect, and I think I get what he was really saying, but if there’s an easy position to upgrade on this team, this is it. The relievers as a group have been injured and/or horrible this year. I’m becoming more and more convinced that a lock-down bullpen is a viable route to building a team. It obviously has to be accompanied by lots of other pieces, but those teams that can throw out three or four true shut-down arms have a huge advantage. I get the feeling good GMs have known this for a while and I’m finally catching on. The problem is that relievers truly are hard to predict year to year, so this seems to be a fairly luck-dependent process. I don’t know enough to throw out potential names for next year, but the Mariners don’t currently have many. League is finally throwing his splitter more the last few games (shockingly, he’s been almost unhittable those games), so hopefully he’s turning the corner. The others are a mess, and Aardsma, who’s been solid but scary, could be traded any day. You can maybe count on Kelley, but two or three more guys, however they get them, would be a huge impact for 2011.
- The Young Guys It’s certainly possible that Smoak, Saunders, Ackley, etc. are total busts or take a few years more years to develop. I’d be surprised if they don’t take a few years to develop, actually. But that doesn’t mean that some or all of them might not make a huge jump next year. What if Smoak suddenly hits .280/.375/.475 with 20-25 homers next year? I’m betting that’d be the best batting line on the team this year, and it’s not ridiculous to imagine. Saunders could go .260 with 15-20 homers facing righties, and they could find a true right-handed platoon partner for him and be looking at 25-30 homers and solid peripherals from left field. Ackley and Moore are harder to figure, but the same holds true there. It helps that the guys they’ll be replacing (even if it’s the 2010 version of themselves) are setting an extremely low bar.
- Good Old Regression to the Mean As tired as we all are of hearing about it, this year’s Mariners truly are playing well below their projected level. While roster turnover and, in some cases, age will mitigate the bounce-back we can expect next year, there are still several players (Figgins, please be you) who should be much better.
- System Depth While the Mariners minor leagues are not yet as full of impact talent as we’d like, the system has improved dramatically since Zduriencik took over. We’re seeing this with Smoak, Saunders, etc. now, but we’ll eventually see another benefit, in the depth it provides. A major league team will always have it’s main guys who start most of the time, but in the roster spots where they switch players out often, or when a starter goes down for a few weeks, a strong farm system’s depth can really carry the load. Guys like Mike Wilson or Matt Mangini likely don’t have a future as an impact starter, but they offer decent chances of stepping in for a time and producing, and the more of those guys you have, the more likely one of them is to produce. I don’t know if I explained my thoughts very well here, but I’m saying that a deep farm system can help even beyond the elite prospects, and we might start seeing that in 2011.
- Zduriencik’s Creativity Going into last offseason, I can’t think of anyone I would have been more surprised to have on the Mariners than Cliff Lee. I never imagined they’d be able to sign Chone Figgins. While those moves didn’t result in a winning team, they’re good illustrations of how creative and surprising Zduriencik can be when obtaining talent. I guarantee (to steal Dan’s signature phrase) that the 2011 Mariners will have at least one player who is acquired out of nowhere to the shock and delight of fans. If Cliff Lee proved anything, it’s that Zduriencik is continually looking to improve the Mariners in any way possible.
All that said, it’s a long-shot for the Mariners to contend next year. It’s probably not as long a shot as it was for the Padres to contend this year, however, so you never know what might happen. And I doubt it can get any worse than this year has been!