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Saturday, March 8, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Seattle Mariners

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http://blog.seattlepi.com/baseball/wp-content/blogs.dir/820/files/2013/12/canopresser1.jpg
MLB 2014 Team Preview: Seattle Mariners
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview:
Blah. The offense gets some veteran reinforcing and Justin Smoak becomes a league average hitter for the first time in his career, but that’s not enough to offset the weak fastballs of Aaron Harang and Joe Saunders, or the mediocre bullpen, or Seattle’s inexplicable failure to develop nearly any of their young hitting prospects. Maybe they need a coaching overhaul?
 
Winter Grade: C+
Coming: Robinson Cano (!), Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, Fernando Rodney
Going: Joe Saunders, Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales (probably)
The Mariners landed the best (and most expensive) free agent on the market, and they might have their first real position player star since vintage Ichiro, but that was the entirety of their plan, and it doesn’t go far enough. Corey Hart and Logan Morrison merely offset the guys they lost, although at least these hitters are more likely to be productive going forward, so it was a transition they had to make. But the Cano signing left them without the money to make more upgrades where they were needed, such as adding another reliable starter or an outfielder who can hit better than .240. This grade becomes a “B minus” if shortstop Nick Franklin is traded for someone interesting.
 
Wild Card(s):
Mike Zunino showed tremendous power in the minors, and although he was probably rushed to Seattle, there’s a solid chance he hits well enough to avoid becoming another one-dimensional empty power catcher, a la Miguel Olivo. He’ll need to make major adjustment to make enough contact to avoid this fate, but he has the pedigree. Speaking of offense-first catchers, perhaps there is still hope for Jesus Montero? He’s still just 24 years old and sometimes talent, particularly when it is accompanied by an immature attitude, takes time to blossom.
 
Key Contract Years:
Nobody, and Hishashi Iwakuma’s $7 million option looks like a lock even if he misses April due to a broken finger.
 
Rookies:
Tijuan Walker was set to be the favorite for Rookie of the Year, until he came down with shoulder issues last month, calling his 2014 into question. Until that situation is clarified, Walker’s season and potential success is put on hold. If/when he is cleared to pitch, he should find Seattle’s extreme pitching environment will allow him to thrive immediately. The immediate replacement for Walker may be rookie lefthander James Paxton, who was mediocre in AAA but misses bats and throws hard. Outfielder Abe Almonte is very fast and if his 2013 power breakout is for real (16 HR across three levels), he could play every day for Seattle this year.

Key Questions:
How will Robinson Cano adjust to his new, diminished hitting environment? Will he get frustrated if some Yankee stadium home runs become Safeco fly outs? Who replaces Tijuan Walker if he misses time? Do spring invitees Scott Baker or Randy Wolf have anything left? Can Brandon Maurer bounce back from his miserable rookie season? Will any of Seattle’s young hitters break through and become league average contributors? Or does Kyle Seager remain the lone home-grown hitter on the team? Will Corey Hart’s knees allow him to play in the outfield, and if not, where does that leave Justin Smoak?

Farm System Overview: YELLOW (average)
Seattle lacks impact bats on the farm, although third baseman DJ Peterson, their first-round pick in the draft, had a nice debut for them last year. They have plenty of pitching, particularly at the lower levels, and overall they’ve had success finding arms on the international market, although a true Latin hitting star eludes them in the majors and minors. One of the reasons Seattle can’t develop hitters may be because of their extreme hitting environments; AAA-Tacoma and high-A-High Desert skew offensive lines and mask hitter’s overall weaknesses.

2014 Prognosis: Unlikely Contenders
The injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma and Walker raises a big red flag; as we found out with Toronto last year, star-laden teams with poor roster depth suffer when any of their top players miss a significant amount of time. Without adequate replacements, Seattle seems doomed to repeat last year’s story; improvements on offense are undermined by an inability to fill the back of the rotation, or the bullpen, with even replacement-level talent. Still, this is a fairly young team, with enough upside to imagine that Seattle might finally put their ballpark hitting woes behind them. But can they jump over Oakland and/or Texas in the process?

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