Obviously the big news of the day has come and gone: Ichiro, at the very least, will begin the season hitting in the three slot. That of course means that Chone Figgins and Dustin Ackley will precede our Kirin Ichiban sipping import. Honestly, my emotional reactions have been on a pendulum all day swinging from “Who cares” to “Okay, this is interesting” then back to “Man this is stupid”. In the end, I decided that this probably won’t last. I’ve lost faith in Figgins’ abilities, and I don’t think he’ll stay up top long. Whether or not Ackley or Ichiro moves to lead-off after Figgins’ collapse is all going to depend on who hits better. I would hope it would be that simple, but time will tell.
Anyways, there you have my miniature take on the decision of the day. What I really want to discuss is the future. It could be really easy for a fan to feel down about the Mariners right now. The Angels and the Rangers have separated themselves from the rest of the AL West and are now in the top 5 teams in all of baseball. Both teams figure to be able to continue their spending ways for the next several years as well, because of a couple of lucrative TV deals. Oh, and to top it all off, the Houston Astros have wiggled their way into our division, and they aren’t going to be stupid forever. Things may look bleak, especially when you look at things through the perception of the ever persistent pessimist. Pessimism is all too easy. I’m guilty of it. If it’s easy for anyone to be pessimistic, then for a Mariners fan this is second nature. Sometimes a different perspective is necessary.
The Mariners have hope. The plan the Z and Co. have implemented is already paying dividends. The young core is already in place: Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Mike Carp, Casper Wells, Felix Hernandez, and Franklin Gutierrez are all at the Major League level. The farm system is stacked as well with Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, Nick Franklin, James Paxton, Vinnie Catricala, and Fransisco Martinez all waiting in the wings. Even with some bust trades and free agent additions that didn’t work out, overall the team has drafted extremely well, has a massive international presence, and has made some intelligent moves. Seattle may not have the financial fortitude of the Angels and Rangers, but they have made excellent use of their resources and strengths to find talent in other ways.
Assuming everything goes right, where will the Mariners be next year? How will the young core preform?
Warning… optimistic content ahead…
The expectations for Jesus Montero next season are high. In some ways, the man is expected to turn an historically bad offense into, at the very least, an average one. Oh, and he has to learn to be a serviceable Major League catcher all the while. Montero of course can punish a baseball, and SafeCo doesn’t figure to put a dent in his power, either, due to his ability to hit the ball opposite field with authority. If Jesus’s power potential is realized, Seattle will have one of the most prestigious power bats in all of baseball. Even if he never makes it as a catcher, it shouldn’t bother too many fans. His 40 home run pop needs to be in the line-up, and with the painful physical toll catchers deal with every year, you don’t want to take the risk of letting him get hurt at the position and sacrifice his bat. Montero is the future heart of a potentially potent Seattle line-up, but in order for him be that elite run producer he is going to need a table setter. Enter Dustin Ackley. We saw what Ackley is capable of in his 90 game preview last year. His plate discipline is arguably the best in the organization, and having a guy at the top of the line-up who can not only get on base via the base knock, but also knows when it is appropriate not to swing at all and just take that walk, is extremely important. Ackley may not be the typical burner you would like to have hitting numero uno, but he certainly isn’t going to cost you any runs on the base paths. If Ackley improves upon the season he put together last year, he is already the best all around second basemen in the division. But Montero isn’t always going to drive in Ackely, and that is why the protection of Justin Smoak is going to be so dire for this team. A couple of lackluster seasons have more than a few fans down on Smoak Monster, but just remember that Z wanted this kid so bad that he used the Yankees to twist the Rangers’ arm into giving him up. While the comparisons to Texiera may be overblown, something more like “Texiera-light” would be a very realistic expectation. Smoak recently admitted that the organization downplayed the severity of his injuries last year and explained how it affected his game. Smoak is going to hit, and hit well. The tools are still there. We saw it in April, and we saw it in September; Smoak can rake. A Montero/Smoak tandem could transform into one of the best offensive 1-2 punches in the American League. The Mariners have a possible wild card in their starting center fielder as well. Gutierrez’s stomach issues have been well chronicled, and he finally has appeared to have put them behind him this off-season by packing on nearly 20 pounds of muscle. Guti may be capable of returning to his 2009 form for the first time since his diagnosis. We’ve all seen that version of Franklin and I shouldn’t have to remind you just how good he was. Carp and Wells are nearly identical players and getting them both in the line-up can only benefit the team, especially with Wells’ balance problems behind him. Throw in what we know Felix is capable of, and the Mariners suddenly don’t stack up so poorly against the best of the AL West.
Obviously, that is an extremely optimistic view of the future outlook of this organization, but it certainly isn’t an impossible one. I do believe in Smoak’s bat, I do believe in Montero’s capabilities, I do believe in an Ichiro rebound. Not everything has to go right. Ackley, Smoak, & Montero can work out and maybe Carp and Guti flop. Maybe Ackley doesn’t become anything more than an average second basemen, but Casper Wells makes up for it by becoming an everyday player. Every organization has setbacks, and every team has unexpected surprises (Mike Carp, anyone?). Don’t get down; Seattle has great building pieces already in place, and they are just a star or two away from being in the same discussion as Texas and Anaheim. Seattle is almost there. Don’t let a few free agent splashes get you down.