One more month until the return of professional sports in Seattle. That’s right, it’s baseball season! Although, the Mariners didn’t give us much to be excited about last year and with very few upgrades during the offseason (any upgrades?) 2011 might be just as difficult. Being from Seattle and a Mariners fan means that I will always be optimistic about their new season until at least a week in. Maybe there is something to look forward to. Three of last four World Series have featured a team that had never been there before. The Mariners and Nationals are the last two teams without a World Series appearance. Maybe this year? Okay, let’s be realistic and just take a look at the starting lineup for this season.
Catcher: Miguel Olivo
This name looks familiar. You may remember him as one of the players the Mariners got in the Freddy Garcia to Chicago trade back in 2004. You may not remember him because he was traded to the Padres a year later for Nathanael Mateo and Miguel Ojedo. In other words, the Mariners got nothing for him. Since 2005, he’s bounced around the league and back to Seattle. The good news is that he’s improved since his last stint here and we should expect him to hit around .250 and 12 home runs. Ugh. Better than Rob Johnson though. Right? Right?!?
And to think, the Mariners could have traded Cliff Lee to the Yankees and had Jesus Montero starting at catcher this year. But no, instead they traded him the Rangers and got…
First Base: Justin Smoak
Four things worry me about Smoak. First, it’s the strikeouts. He struck out 91 times in 397 plate appearances let year. The second is his .218 batting average. He had fewer hits than strikeouts. The third issue is OPS (.678 last year) which leads me to believe that this guy just isn’t a good hitter. Too bad that’s what the Mariners need most. The fourth, and possibly most important, problem is his nickname: The Smoak Monster. See, I was excited when the Mariners traded for him because he had huge potential and a great nickname that came from one of my favorite shows, Lost. A year later, people have forgotten about Lost and Smoak is on the verge of being a monster disappointment.
Second Base: Dustin Ackley
There is talk that Brendan Ryan could start at second base but Ackley will be the guy eventually. In 2009, the Mariners had the second pick of the draft and took Ackley. Of course the Mariners would be bad enough to get the second pick but not the worst so they could have grabbed Strasburg. Maybe this time the city of Seattle will get lucky like they did in the 2007 NBA draft when the Blazers had the first pick and took Greg Oden. The Sonics then took Kevin Durant at number two and he’s now one of the best in the game and Oden can’t stay healthy. Hopefully Oklahoma City doesn’t hijack our baseball team too.
Shortstop: Jack Wilson
The Jack Wilson trade was one of the few that the Mariners may have gotten right. He’s great in the field but just a decent hitter. He just needs to stay healthy. So far, he hasn’t been able to do that. Since being traded from Pittsburgh, he has only been able to play 92 of 223 games. If he goes down again this year, Brendan Ryan would step in at shortstop and like Wilson, he is known for his defense.
Third Base: Chone Figgins
Chone was bad last year. Like really, really bad. Like lowest batting average and most strikeouts of his career bad. With Jose Lopez gone, Chone gets to move back to his regular position at third base. Since he is back at his normal position and coming off his worst offensive season, we can only expect things to get better.
Left Field: Michael Saunders
This may be different to start the season as the Mariners might need Saunders to shift to center due to injuries (see: Gutierrez, Franklin). No matter where he plays, I really like Saunders. However, the stats don’t back me up on this one. His offensive numbers were around what the Mariners are getting from Smoak. In other words, not good. I get a different feeling watching Saunders though, maybe it’s his size and speed, maybe it’s because his name isn’t Milton Bradley. Whatever it is, I like it.
Center Field: Franklin Gutierrez
Due to stomach issues, it’s hard to see what Gutierrez’s status will be at the beginning of the season. The Mariners need him and need him at full strength. Coming off his first Gold Glove award last year, any Mariners fan will tell you that he’s amazing to watch out in center field. His offensive numbers were way down last year but the good news is that he’s showed up this year in great shape. In fact, he’s in such great shape that he had the lowest body-fat level on the team at the beginning of camp, a title that Ichiro had always held until this year.
Right Field: Ichiro
At 37 years-old, Ichiro is the oldest player on the third youngest team in baseball. He is also the Mariners highest paid and best player. Year after year, we can expect 200+ hits from him. He’s their best player on offense and defense and that won’t change this year.
DH: Jack Cust
It’s hard to not like a guy named Jack Cust. He has a name that sounds like he should be a pirate. Not like the Pittsburgh Pirates or a Somalian pirate though. More like the swashbuckling type. Pirate or not, the Mariners desperately need big offensive numbers from this position. If Cust can find a way to continue reducing his strikeouts, the Mariners might be in luck. After leading the American League in 2007, 2008 and 2009, he got his total strikeouts down to 127 last year. Not great, but it’s an improvement. Even with the strikeouts, Cust is able to get on base as he led the league in 2008 with 111 walks. Hopefully there will be someone on this lineup capable of driving him in.
Starting Pitcher: Felix Hernandez
King Felix. Last year, Felix established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball en route to winning his first Cy Young. In the offseason, Felix got paid like one of the best pitchers in baseball. Now that he’s locked down through 2014, it’s up to the rest of the Mariners to provide some runs for him. Felix had the second lowest ERA two years ago and the lowest last year. No reason to think he doesn’t give us more of the same this year.
Player to Watch: Michael Pineda
Last year, the 6-foot-5, 22 year-old Michael Pineda went 11-4 with a 3.36 ERA and 154 strikeouts in the minors. Currently, he’s taken up the 13th spot on MLB.com’s Top 50 Prospects list. Pineda may sneak into the rotation at the beginning of this year but even if he doesn’t, the Mariners will have a great one-two punch in the near future. Unless one of them gets traded… I’m only kidding (I hope). After 101 losses last year, the Mariners can only get better.