6:47 PM CST, January 25, 2012
No. 21 Mariners: 10th in a series counting down to spring training. Next: Indians.
One run per game, plus a little more.
That's what the Mariners have to find somewhere if they ever are going to reach the playoffs behind Felix Hernandez.
Forget for a moment about Albert Pujols, the Mariners' newest nightmare, and also about the ongoing one in Texas. As strong as the Angels and Rangers appear, the immediate challenge for Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik is to be like a PGA Tour golfer on Thursday and Friday.
He has to play against the course to last until the weekend, when he legitimately can think about chasing down the powers in front of him. At least he knows what he must do. He has to restore some credibility to his lineup, which is why he dealt 23-year-old No. 2 starter Michael Pineda to the Yankees for Jesus Montero, whom Brian Cashman has compared to Miguel Cabrera and Mike Piazza.
They say pitching is everything in baseball, but that's not always true. The Mariners allowed the fourth fewest runs in the American League last season, yet they were outscored by 119 runs, which is why they lost 95 games. This continued a long, telling trend.
With a second wild card playoff berth on its way, there may be slightly more forgiveness in the future. But since the playoffs were expanded in 1995, teams generally have had to rank in the top seven in regular-season scoring to advance. There have been some exceptions, but no smart GM sets off wanting to be one.
AL teams ranking seventh in scoring the last three seasons have outscored the last-place Mariners by 535 runs. That's the hill the Mariners must climb. They have to make up 178 runs per season.
No wonder Prince Fielder was widely linked to the Mariners before they pulled off the trade for Montero two weeks ago. Fielder would have been a huge step in the right direction for a team that had only three hitters with double-figure home runs last season: catcher Miguel Olivo (19), first baseman Justin Smoak (15) and left fielder/DH Mike Carp (12).
But historically the Mariners have been a franchise premier hitters leave, not a destination (the exception being Ichiro Suzuki, who like Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. worked his way east). The Mariners overpaid to get Chone Figgins and that signing will haunt them for two more years. Only two years ago they were desperate enough for hitting that they took on Milton Bradley.
Montero could be a game-changer. So could Smoak and second baseman Dustin Ackley. Kyle Seager, who got his feet wet last year, and prospects Nick Franklin, Alex Liddi, Francisco Martinez and Vinnie Catricala all have could prove to be lineup upgrades in the next few years.
Montero figures to move between catcher and DH this season, with Olivo a trade candidate. It remains to be seen whether he will be adequate defensively, so long term he could be a DH. Either way, we simplistically can gauge the impact he could have this season.
Sticking with Cashman's comparisons, the Dodgers scored 127 more runs in 1993, which was Piazza's Rookie of the Year season, than without him in '92. The Marlins gained 52 runs (and won a World Series) in 2003, when they got 87 games from a 20-year-old Cabrera. Project that increase over 150 games and it grows to 90 runs.
So if Montero is a force equal to Piazza/Cabrera, and he plays about 150 games this season, his bat could be part of a 100-run increase for the Mariners, maybe even a little more. That won't get them into the neighborhood where contenders are found but they will be only a couple of blocks away, not all the way across town.
• Bill James projected a slash line of .289/.351/.505 over 144 games for Montero with the Yankees. The move to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field will make it tougher to match a projected .856 OPS but ballpark factors could be offset by better coffee and less criticism.
• This is the last year on the 38-year-old Ichiro Suzuki's contract, and his batting average has dropped 80 points the last two seasons.
• The Mariners' rotation should be strong without Pineda. It will include 200-inning lefty Jason Vargas and newcomers Hisashi Iwakuma, Kevin Millwood and Hector Noesi behind King Felix, meaning no room for Blake Beaven and prospects Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez, who are coming fast.
• Carp hit 33 homers between Triple-A and the Mariners last season and will provide a huge lift he can build off his rookie .778 OPS.
• The Mariners were the third-best base-running team in the majors last season, according to James' rankings. Brendan Ryan (plus-28), Ichiro (plus-25) and Franklin Gutierrez (plus-10) lead the way.
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