As the Texas Rangers conclude their first of many series against the Seattle Mariners this year, we've brought in Jeff Sullivan of Baseball Nation and Lookout Landing to help preview the 2012 Mariners and beyond.
What are the expectations surrounding the Mariners this season?
The expectations, as you can imagine, aren't super high. There are certain expectations for a lot of the younger, talented players, but as far as the whole team is concerned, .500 would feel like something of a small miracle. This is supposed to be a classic development season. Get young guys established so they can be a part of a winner a year or two down the road. The hope is that the lineup can build around a core of Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, and Jesus Montero. The hope is that young arms emerge behind Felix. I think if I were to boil this down all simple-like, the expectation is that, when the Mariners finish the season, we'll be able to imagine them contending sometime soon. But maybe that's less the expectation, and more the hope. Probably half and half.
Yu Darvish. Seattle is getting the first look at him. Granted, we live in a different world, but is the hype surrounding him similar to the hype around Ichiro when he came over? What do you expect out of Darvish?
To be honest with you, I was young enough when Ichiro came over, and sufficiently removed from the northwest, that I don't remember the conditions around his arrival. I think there were a lot more questions, and less certainty that he would succeed. I'm referring to Darvish when I talk about certainty. People believe in him. People believe that he could be one of the best, if not the very best. I definitely believe he'll be special. Ichiro was more of an unknown. Not only because at that point fewer Japanese players had come over, but also because Ichiro had such an unconventional style. Nobody knew how well it would translate. With Darvish, you watch his pitches move, and you can see how they could translate.
Not that they translated on Monday night. But they will in time. I will be surprised if we don't look at Davish's numbers at season's end and think "he was really fantastic." Monday opened my eyes to the reality that Darvish could really struggle with command, but I suspect he'll get by. He's blessed.
Almost two years ago, the Mariners acquired Justin Smoak as the centerpiece of a deal for Cliff Lee. He's under-performed so far. Do you think he'll ever be the player Seattle thought they were acquiring in 2010? If not, what do you think he turns into?
I don't know what player the Mariners thought they were getting in Smoak. If they thought they were getting a superstar, then I think he's going to fall short. If they thought they were getting a switch-hitting first baseman with some power and some patience, well, he's pretty much already that. I think one's opinion of Smoak depends a lot on one's opinion of his 2011, and that depends on one's opinion of whether or not Smoak was killed by some thumb injuries he had around the time of his wicked slump. If you believe that Smoak was held back by his injuries, you can see the upside in the rest of his numbers. If you think the injuries weren't a big factor, then you'll be more pessimistic.
I have less confidence than I used to that Justin Smoak will be a franchise player. I think he'll be a fine player. And I don't think the Mariners need him to blossom into a franchise player to contend in the near future. Thankfully, they've been adding other talent, so that things aren't as barren as they once were.
Michael Pineda is gone, but in comes Jesus Montero. Who is going to replace Pineda behind Felix, and how soon?
Well, the easy answer is Hector Noesi, who came over in the trade. The less easy answer is Erasmo Ramirez, a 21-year-old who's flown up the ladder. The best answer would be one of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, or Taijuan Walker, who make up a three-headed pitching prospect beast currently dwelling in double-A. Walker has youth and ceiling on his side, Hultzen has polish, and Paxton is somewhere in between. I don't know which one I like the most. Prospect hounds love them all. And one or two of them should reach the Majors this season. (I'm assuming that Walker will not.) I know that most baseball fans aren't that interested in hearing about another baseball team's prospects, so just know that this is a huge part of the Mariners' plan. They're hyping the crap out of these prospects. They're pitching prospects, so you never know, but it doesn't get a lot better than these pitching prospects.
We know about Montero, Ackley, Smoak. Are there any good young offensive players coming up the pipeline for Seattle, or will they have to spend heavily in free agency to round out the offense?
You've gotten a taste of Kyle Seager, who's kind of like Dustin Ackley lite. Not an impact player, but a useful player who could be the solution at third base. Another solution at third base could be prospect Vinnie Catricala, who's hanging out in triple-A. His defense is an issue but he tore up two levels at the plate in 2011. Trayvon Robinson got a lot of time down the stretch last season and he's toolsy, although you know what that means. Carlos Peguero is stronger than every Rangers hitter combined and is simply trying to figure out how to make contact with the ball ever. The offensive part of the system isn't as talented as the pitching part of the system. That's one of the reasons the Jesus Montero trade was exciting - he's the sort of young bat the Mariners simply don't have anywhere. Potentially.