Baseball Prospectus’ Pre-season Projection: 77-85, third place
Current record: 80-73, third place
The Sonics left. The Seahawks are aging. The Mariners are eh. There’s always the Sounders, right?
Buster Olney of ESPN.com’s Take
What went wrong: All things considered, it actually has been a good season for the Mariners in their first year under new GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu. They changed the culture of the clubhouse that had some serious fissures, the return of Ken Griffey, Jr. seemed to work out for everybody involved, Felix Hernandez evolved into the dominant pitcher everybody thought he might be one day, and they won many more games. After dropping 101 in 2008, the Mariners are in line to win 82-84 games this season, a heck of an improvement.
Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: But here was the really weird thing about their season-while having their resurgence, they didn’t really build anything lasting; rather, they rode the surprise performances of veterans like Dave Aardsma and Russell Branyan. And now the Mariners will have to come face-to-face with the decision they have to make about King Felix: Should they give him CC Sabathia dollars, or forgo the possibility that he might walk away as a free agent after the 2011 season and just trade him now? It’s not an easy call, because as all baseball saw with the Johan Santana situation, if you wait until the year before free agency, you probably aren’t going to get great trade value in return. And the Mariners know, after flirting a bit around a possible Hernandez trade in July, that they can get a good package of players back. Signing Hernandez to a long-term deal could lock him down-but would also lock the organization into great risk. It won’t be an easy call for the Mariners.
The Baseball Prospectus Take
Having failed to hit, pitch, or field in 2008, the Mariners lost 101 games despite having the ninth-highest payroll in the game. New general manager Jack Zduriencik made some canny moves to address these problems. Franklin Gutierrez has been a revelation in center field. The in-season disposal of Yuniesky Betancourt and subsequent acquisition of Pirates‘ shortstop Jack Wilson meant the replacement of an all-around non-entity with an above-average glove. The Mariners improved their American League standing in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency from 12th in 2008 to first this year. The effect on the pitching staff has been obvious, particularly in the case of Cy Young candidate Felix Hernandez, who has seen the BABIP against him drop from .316 to .282. Zduriencik also rebuilt the bullpen, now headed by former busted 2003 first-rounder David Aardsma, who has been one of the most effective relievers in the game. Unfortunately, not even the successful gamble on Russell Branyan could create even an average offense-so while the M’s stand first in the league in fewest runs allowed per game, they are last in the league in runs scored. They rank last in batting average, last in walks, last in on-base percentage, and .001 away from tying with Oakland for last in slugging. Still, an improvement of 18 wins (to date) is nothing to scoff at.-Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus
Key stat: 3
Three is the number of starting pitching spots the Mariners have turned over since their first trip through the rotation back in April. In truth, the number could be actually be 3.5, given that Ryan Rowland-Smith was away from the team from April 15 to July 24 with a disabled list stay and a demotion to the minors. While this season’s improvement has been built on excellent starting pitching, the club finishes with Lucas French, Doug Fister and Ian Snell in place of Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard. Whatever their progress, they won’t easily replicate the combined 216 innings and 2.71 ERA of the departed lefties.-Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus
ESPN.com Rumor Central
Free agency: If Seattle could deal with the trades of Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey, Jr., plus the slap-in-the-face free-agent defection of Alex Rodriguez, then surely they could absorb a king’s ransom worth of talent in exchange for their own caliph, right? Maybe not. While the Mariners control Felix Hernandez for two years, they don’t want to be in a situation like the Blue Jays were with Roy Halladay this year-uncertain of his willingness to stay, but not clear on what his price might be; beholden to both him and the rumor mill. Moreover, the fans adore the King, and the team feels this close to contending out west. Expect an aggressive push by Seattle-with Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson now accounting memories-to sign Hernandez, and if not, consider massive trade offers. The Red Sox want him dearly, but would have to ship Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard, and at least one or two more top prospects. Our own Keith Law says they simply don’t have the bounty.
Moves: Expect Seattle to re-up the bargain boys. By those we mean Russell Branyan, who took first base and ran with it to the tune of a .520 slugging percentage, and David Aardsma, who was quietly better than every closer in the AL outside of the Bronx. Then it’s finding some more cheap offense. Expect the Mariners to call on Chone Figgins after that.
Who 2 Watch 4: 1B/CF Dustin Ackley
The second overall pick in the draft in June, Ackley signed for a $6 million bonus at the deadline. He’s yet to swing a bat as a pro, but there is thought that he could move very quickly through the system and be in the majors by the end of next season. Primarily a first baseman in college due to elbow problems, he has the speed to play center and the power to pop out 20-25 home runs a year while hitting .300. Think a better pure hitter than Grady Sizemore with less power, because he has definite superstar potential.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus
Signed: 35 of 52
Spent: Just under $11 million
Hit: Dustin Ackley, CF (second overall). Seattle invested in a player that does at least a little of everything, and it’s difficult to go wrong with that kind of talent. The M’s also appear to have struck gold with James Jones, their fourth-round pick, who has caught the eye of scouts in the Northwest League as a bat, rather than as the left-handed pitcher he was so heavily scouted as this spring.
Miss: Steve Baron, C (33td overall). Baron is presently an all-glove, no-stick backstop who was selected ahead of left-hander Rex Brothers and third baseman Matt Davidson, among others, and signed for slightly above-slot money.-Jason A. Churchill, ESPN.com
The Bottom Line
The Mariners will free up some serious cash this offseason, as a number of expensive contracts will vanish in a puff of smoke. Over $30 million in savings will be realized just from the departures of Adrian Beltre, Miguel Batista, labrum case Bedard, and the presumed retirement of Junior Griffey. Endy Chavez will also be a free agent, as will Branyan, though the club might like to retain this last. This won’t completely free Zduriencik of inherited oppressive contracts; Kenji Johjima and Carlos Silva will still be around for years. Still, this is a large chunk of change with which to reshape the club, and Zduriencik may need to utilize it to revitalize the offense given that near-term prospects such as Mike Carp, Matt Tuiasosopo, and Michael Saunders don’t have the look of top-tier producers. That said, Zduriencik will have to proceed with caution, as the Mariners have far outplayed their projected record-with a run differential in negative territory. Given a “lucky” season and the uncertainty surrounding the new rotation, next year could see the Mariners fighting to consolidate the progress they made this season.-Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .