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September 13, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Seattle Mariners

by Jay Jaffe, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the League Division Series, League Championship Series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski and Kevin Goldstein's farm system overview.

Today the ship sails for the Seattle Mariners, who despite boasting 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez and young fireballer Michael Pineda in their rotation, still managed to underachieve because of a paltry offense. It's time to kiss 'em goodbye.

Signs of hope: The Mariners debuted two blue-chip prospects who have quickly lived up to their billing. Michael Pineda, a 22-year-old right-hander, broke camp with the big club and has been one of the better starters in the league. He's taken 27 turns and posted a 3.72 ERA while ranking second in the league in strikeout rate at 9.2 per nine. Thanks to his ability to miss bats and some outstanding defensive support (.256 BABIP), he has surrendered fewer hits per nine than any American League starter other than Justin Verlander and Josh Beckett. In mid-June, 2009 first-round pick Dustin Ackley came up and provided some immediate offensive punch; his .290/.367/.453 line—good for a .323 true average—leads Mariner regulars in all three slash categories.

Signs of disaster: The Mariners' offense is far and away the league's worst; their 3.42 runs per game is a full run lower than the rest of the league. They've gotten lousy work from youngsters (Justin Smoak is hitting .232/.318/.397), once-promising building blocks (Franklin Gutierrez is hitting .224/.261/.273 after battling more stomach woes, while Michael Saunders is at .162/.221/.239), pricey free agents (Chone Figgins has sunk to .188/.241/.243), and superstars (Ichiro Suzuki's at a career-worst .275/.313/.339). When Mike Carp (.274/.333/.465) is your second-best hitter, you need to go back to the drawing board—and burn it down.

Signs you can ignore: Unless Ichiro collects 32 hits over his final 16 games, his string of 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons will come to an end. As impressive as that streak has been—it's a key component of his Hall of Fame case—it seems clear that there's a link between the increasingly slappy 37-year-old's poor season and the fact he has played in all but one game. The team needs to rest him more often so as to deploy him more judiciously, instead of letting him chase individual milestones. —Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
The Mariners began the offseason by extending the contract of general manager Jack Zduriencik through the 2013 season. Zduriencik, 60, has been on the job three years, and when he arrived his plan was to build the organization through player development and scouting, and that's exactly what he's done. This year's first-round draft choice, Danny Hultzen, could join Hernandez and Pineda in the third spot in their rotation as early as 2012. Brandon League, acquired in the Brandon Morrow deal, has developed into a dominant closer. Second baseman Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft, has quickly shown he's as good as advertised with the bat and someday could be as impactful as Chase Utley has been in his career with the Phillies.

Despite Ackley's emergence, the Mariners' offseason needs are clear: they need some offense. After the 2010 trade deadline deal in which they acquired Justin Smoak from the Rangers for Cliff Lee and this year's emergence of Mike Carp, most baseball people don't think the M's will be chasing an impact free-agent bat like Prince Fielder. Not so fast. Zduriencik drafted Fielder in Milwaukee and would love for him to be the Mariners' new cleanup hitter for years to come. Zduriencik also has a good relationship with Fielder's agent, Scott Boras. Realistically, Smoak is a five-hole hitter and Carp a six-hole hitter in a championship lineup. If you get a chance to get Fielder, you get him. The M's can trade Smoak in a package to the Indians for right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, who originally was signed by the Mariners in 2000. The Indians are convinced Carlos Santana will end up at catcher and Matt LaPorta is no longer their answer at first. Smoak would solve first base for the Indians for the long term while reducing financial exposure. This would give the Mariners a middle-of-the-order lineup consisting of Ackley, Fielder, and Choo, which would be a huge offensive upgrade and give their top-flight young starting rotation the run support needed to compete in 2012. —Jim Bowden


Hopes and Fears

Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 84-78

The Mariners have a good starting rotation headed by King Felix, Michael Pineda and an adequate supporting cast, but there's just not enough offense in the organization to move the M's to even the middle of the pack in scoring. Even assuming Justin Smoak improves, Dustin Ackley continues to play at 2011 levels and Ichiro bounces back a little bit, the Mariners aren't going to even get their scoring to league average. Pineda's got enough talent to become a true ace very soon, but even a dominant one-two punch in the rotation won't be able to paper over enough offensive holes to have much of a shot at the playoffs.

Worst-case scenario: 63-99
With the Mariners' offense destined to be below average no matter what, a little bad luck with the pitching—the 2011 Mariners have actually been very fortunate with the health of their staff—will leave the Mariners a lock to get a top-five pick in the 2013 draft. The Mariners got 237 innings of solid pitching from Doug Fister and Erik Bedard in 37 starts, which they now have to replace just to stay where they are. Charlie Furbush, Blake Beavan, and James Paxton all have futures in Seattle, but they're not ready to make up for the losses of Fister and Bedard in 2012. Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
There isn't much immediate help on the way in Seattle, but that should be understandable considering the team "graduated" one of the best young hitters and young pitchers this year in Ackley and Pineda. Throw in young, developing sluggers Smoak and Carp and a still very young King Felix, and this is a team on the rise, but there is going to be a gap before the next wave of talent arrives. The most intriguing part of the system comes from high-ceiling pitchers, as 2010 draftees Taijuan Walker and James Paxton had some of the best stuff in the Midwest League this year. Southpaw Paxton accelerated his timetable with a strong showing at Double-A at the end of the year. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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Premium Article Divide and Conquer, NL... (09/13)
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