As Bad As It Seems? Maybe Not

Sooooo - the weather outside is frightful, and the M's Hot Stove League is... also frightful. While all the big-name trades are being negotiated by GM's on the East Coast, the M's front office is quietly trying to rid themselves of a nasty cricket infestation. (que cricket sound effect)

And though rumblings of Kevin Millwood can be heard in the distance, let's just pretend for a minute that after striking out at the winter meetings, the Mariners whiff altogether and head to spring training status quo, ultimately begging the question nobody in Seattle is asking; Are the Mariners really as bad as they seem?

After enduring two awful summers of what was sold to fans as Major League Baseball, it appears that Mariners fans may be stuck watching another stinker in next season. So why did I just fork out a couple grand on tickets for the upcoming campaign?

There are a myriad of reasons why the Mariners will really, really suck next year. Honestly, the club has only two hitters in Ichiro and Richie Sexson. They boast of but one starting pitcher, and aside from a weak-shouldered $7 million closer, the bullpen has a combined three weeks worth of big-league experience.

I'm exaggerating of course, but that is the prevailing feeling amongst many ardent Mariner fans who are currently absorbed in the M's suddenly successful NFL neighbors to the immediate north, in the midst of what may end up as the most successful season in Seattle Seahawks history. They are, after all, 11-2, which is the equivalent of 90 wins in the first 140 games of a baseball season.

The Mariners front office had the luxury of serving some of the most loyal, affluent, undemanding fan bases in all of sports, but eventually even a tantalizing evening in the Safeco field bleachers will lose its luster, if it hasn't already, if the Mariners soil their Tommy's again in 2006.

Being the glass half-full kind of guy I am, I really wanted to find a reason to dive headlong into the other boys in blue, and when you look beneath the surface, there are several things to like about the probably 25-man roster that could take the field against the defending division-champion Los Angeles Angels in April.

First and foremost, a full season of Felix Hernandez is worth the price of season tickets alone. Felix is the second coming of all the great arms of the last two decades, all wrapped up into one complete package. After the failed careers of much-talked about prospects such as Ryan Anderson, Rett Johnson and Cha Seung Baek, among others, the fruits of the agony paid off in the form of a King's ransom - so to speak.

Even with another year with an inept offense, Hernandez could be worth as many as eight more wins than the club managed 2005 - in other words, capable of swinging this team close to a .500 record.

Frankly, it doesn't really matter to me whether the club wins or loses when the phenom takes the mound. Watching him mow down apposing hitters at the tender age of 19 - and picking up the loss - was far more enjoyable than watching Ryan Franklin give up three or four round-trippers only to see the M's bats wake up for one of their "once-in-a-blue-moon" explosions to vault the M's to the 9-8 victory.

How mind-numbing.

The rest of the arms lined up behind The Savior, a rotation of Jamie Moyer, Joel Piniero, Gil Meche and, say, Clint Nageotte, is, at the very least, as good the starting five sent to the hill last April. Underwhelming, of course.

The question marks currently surrounding the starting rotation are so plentiful that no rate of analysis could possibly produce an accurate forecast of their future performance. It's kind of like watching a Seattle meteorologist try to figure out if it's going to rain or snow in December. Unfortunately, not a soul has any idea what Piniero or Meche may do. Or even Nageotte, should he win a spot in the rotation.

(Hey, at least it will be interesting.)

Let's not get too caught up in whining about the rotation, unless you prefer the club to hand out a four-year, $40 million contract offer to the very ordinary Jarrod Washburn.

There will be plenty of time for complaints – 162 games worth.

Stealing the words of former M's right fielder Jay Buhner, ya gotta love the potential residing in the middle of the infield. Yuniesky Betancort is an Ozzie Smith reincarnate with the leather and should be able to hold his own with the bat.

Actually, for a kid who had fewer that 420 at-bats in the U.S., the Cuban defector represented himself quite well this past season. For those who doubt his offensive prowess, the glove wiz posted a very respectable .274 in his first full season of pro ball.

If scientists ever cloned Omar Vizquel, Betancourt might have been the result – plus more than 30 points on the batting average. (Vizquel hit .242 at age 23, including two stops in the minors and half the season in Seattle.)

Opposite Betancort resides another potential contributor in Jose Lopez, who is destined for… well, goodness, at least. While he lacks range defensively, he displayed solid instincts after the position switch from shortstop to second base last spring. His bat is what has most observers so intrigued, though. The 21-year-old Lopez demonstrated solid gap power, raking 19 doubles in just 190 at-bats. Although he hit but two home runs, the majority of scouts that have watched the Venezuelan over the past few seasons, still believe he has legitimate 25 home run power.

With this young duo in place, it appears the Mariners may have found the answer to the middle of the infield for the next few season, if not longer.

The window of opportunity for an upgrade at catcher clanged shut with an emphatic, if under-publicized bang, when the M's signed little-known Japanese Superstar Kenji Johjima, the Japanese equivalent of Pudge Rodriguez. Even though most Seattleites took little notice of the signing, those close to the club couldn't be more tickled at the offensive upgrade at the catching position is immense.

Another upgrade over the opening day roster from a year ago – and more cause for a positive vibe in the Emerald City.

If it weren't for Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre would have been considered the biggest free agent bust of the 2005 season. Though hugely disappointing at the plate, Beltre did occasionally show flashes of why the Mariners paid him $64.25 million dollars over five years, and given the current market value of middle-of-the-order hitters the contract isn't nearly as bad as it could appear.

With a full year of American league pitching under his belt Beltre should return to spring training re-energized and refocused to find a comfortable level of performance that mirrors a compromise between his breakout season in 2004 and last year's debacle.

While Adrian Beltre looks forward, Richie Sexson has the luxury of looking back at an amazing comeback campaign that saw him club 39 home runs after missing almost the entire 2004 season. Despite a complete lack of protection from Beltre, the Mariners' $52 million dollar man still managed a quality .369 OBP, despite striking out 167 times. With better production from Beltre behind him, and in the two-hole in front of him, Sexson's numbers may improve.

When speaking of the two-hole, perhaps a borrowed line from Jerry Seinfeld will do the trick. "What's the deal with Jeremy Reed?" Following lofty expectations after ending 2004 season with a hot streak and a .397 batting average, Reed flailed desolately early in the year until he was mercifully dropped in the order where he ended the season with a .254 batting average.

If Reed's struggles at the plate were painful to watch, his performance with the leather came as a welcomed surprise, solidifying a major gap in the club's otherwise solid defense. With a full year of major league seasoning under his belt, coupled with less pressure and even curbed expectations, Reed should show dramatic improvement in just about every offensive category, mainly his batting average, on-base percentage and extra-base totals. Of all the returning M's, Jeremy Reed may have the most room for improvement, and the best chance to execute the deed.

There were many failures in '05, but the bullpen was not one of them. Over the last decade, many of the arms from the Mariners once highly touted farm system ended up in the bullpen last year. Julio Mateo, J.J. Putz, George Sherrill, Matt Thornton, Scott Atchison and finally, a healthy Rafael Soriano, make up one of the most promising young relief staffs in the league, anchored by a healthy (hopefully, we pray to the baseball gods) Eddie Guardado. Not only are they young and inexpensive, but there are two potential replacements for closer in Putz and Soriano and a third in Clint Nageotte, who may be better suited for the ‘pen with his two-pitch combination.

It's not a question of how good these guys are, but how much better they will be in September versus April, and whether or not the Mariners are still in contention long enough to allow the bullpen can make its full impact. If nothing else, it will be nice to finally see fruits of the system, finally make a group contribution to the big club.

Ultimately, the success or failure of this club may very well rest on the shoulders of the players on the roster today, right now. Not by the free agents that may or may not be added tomorrow. But that may not be half bad, after all.

With a solid foundation of cheap young talent to balance out a few key veterans, the offense can only improve. With starting pitching clearly at the core of the game's best teams - and the biggest barrier to the Mariners potential success or failure in 06' – adding a frontline starter is critical if the organization has plans to contend next summer.

But with natural improvement from the kids, a major upgrade at catcher and rebound seasons from a few other key players, the 2006 Seattle Mariners may just be enough to propel this team back into contention in the American League West - with or without Kevin Millwood – in 2006, or even 2007.

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