Mariners franchise ends season on high note

Ichiro Suzuki runs the bases during the 2009 season.
Ichiro Suzuki runs the bases during the 2009 season.

When the Seattle Mariners season ended October 4, the team was 12 games behind the Angels for the American League West division lead and 8 back of the Boston Red Sox in the wild card standings. In other words, there wasn’t much to celebrate. Apparently someone forgot to tell the Mariners, who decided to carry outfielders Ichiro Suzuki and Ken Griffey Jr off the field on their shoulders. Predicting such a finish after last year’s 101 loss season and numerous clubhouse issues would have been quite impressive.

The year was full of close wins and walk-off hits, and had the team not had to fight so many injuries to key players, may very well have been sitting on a playoff spot instead of Boston. Gone was the mistrust and jealousy that gathered like a storm cloud around the team last year, where finger pointing turned Ichiro into a hot topic in newspapers around the region. In its place were Griffey and Mike Sweeney, two veterans of the game that turned baseball back into what it was supposed to be; a game. Pregame warmups were marked with laughter and fun, and any and all game achievements were met with high fives, ice-cream pies and the occasional back-slapping at home plate.

However wonderful the 2009 season was though, it’s time for the club to start looking at what it will do next year. The first priority is to resign Hernandez. There’s no question that retaining him will be expensive, but considering the progress he made this year as well as his relatively young age, he may be one of the most valuable players in the league for years to come. Resigning him will take upwards of six years and 100 million dollars guaranteed, and that just may be worth it.

The Mariners will be able to bring most of the pitchers they had this year into 2010 spring training. Figuring out who joins the starting rotation will be a matter of throwing a bunch of players out there and seeing who sticks. Hernandez and Rowland-Smith, as long as they aren’t traded, are nearly guaranteed to be among the starting pitchers next year, but the other three slots are hardly decided. Potential candidates include Brandon Morrow, Ian Snell, Jason Vargas, Doug Fister, Luke French, Garrett Olson, and Carlos Silva. The ones that don’t join the rotation will either become long bullpen relief or be sent down to AAA affiliate Tacoma for further refinement of their abilities.

The bullpen should be nearly identical to that of last year, barring the end of the Miguel Batista era. The team is expected to resign Aardsma, which would keep the White-Lowe-Aardsma base of the bullpen intact.

The field will be the toughest place to make changes for GM Jack Zduriencik and Co. The team was based on defense through 2009, but will be losing multiple gold gloves if Adrian Beltre and Jack Wilson aren’t resigned. Beltre’s bat hasn’t been as good as it was before he signed with the Mariners, when he hit .334 with 48 home runs and 121 RBI. Of course, defense isn’t really this team’s problem, having led the league in most major defensive stats all year. What the club really needs is a few big bats, and they won’t come cheap. While there will be a lot more available cash off the books, hiring a real power hitter would limit the team’s ability to upgrade other positions.

Fans are hopeful that the Mariners will resign Russell Branyan, but after having a breakout season with over 35 home runs, it is easy to assume that he will command more than his previous 1.4 million. Many have been looking at making a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers for star Prince Fielder, but such a trade would mean the Mariners giving up some good players. If that move was made, Branyan would be able to move to his more natural position of third base, allowing Fielder to play first. Another power upgrade the Mariners could make is bring up last year’s first round draft pick Dustin Ackley to play left field, but they may hold off on such a move to allow Ackley to develop as a player and give youngster Michael Saunders more time in the big leagues.

Perhaps the most contentious position is catcher, where three camps are evenly divided between Kenji Johjima, Rob Johnson, and Adam Moore. Johjima is the most MLB ready, especially on defense, but he hasn’t hit as well as fans wanted and some pitchers would rather throw to Johnson. Johnson is 32 and isn’t likely to get any better on either side of the plate, but seems to have a good report with the pitchers on the staff. Adam Moore is the catcher of the future for the team, but may not be ready for the major leagues just yet. Each have their positives and negatives, and will be one of the toughest positions for the front office to make.

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