1) The Mariners could have one of the best rotations in the American League. (Pause to let laughter die down.)Yes, Seattle starters were abysmal last year (26th in the majors with a 5.07 ERA), but Felix Hernandez, a healthy Erik Bedard and Brandon Morrow give the Mariners a potentially formidable top of the rotation -- one that will be backed up by a vastly improved Mariner defense. Mariners officials are thrilled with what they've seen from Bedard this spring. ("He looks tremendous," says an exec, "you would never know he had surgery two months ago.") And to the delight of Seattle coaches, King Felix -- who, amazingly, doesn't turn 23 until April -- reported to camp in excellent shape, trimmed down 15 pounds to 212 pounds. Not to mention, Hernandez has looked very sharp at the World Baseball Classic. Morrow has been behind schedule this spring (he was sidelined with the flu), but the Mariners have good reason to believe in their 2006 No. 1 pick, who impressed while filling in at closer for J.J. Putz last year. Behind that trio, the Mariners will need Ryan Rowland-Smith to continue to develop, as well as a comeback season from Carlos Silva, who is baseball's Biggest Loser after dropping an astounding 30 pounds over the offseason, thanks to yoga lessons he took three times a week. Of Silva, manager Don Wakamatsu says, "He looks like somebody cut him in half."
2) The Mariners will have one of the worst offenses in the American League.A rival AL GM's assessment of Seattle: "I really like what they've done to improve on defense. And I actually like their pitching staff. Their run prevention will be a lot better. But I'm just wondering where they're going to get their runs from."
He's not alone. Seattle was second to last in runs scored, slugging, and OBP -- and on paper they are worse this year, with Raul Ibanez now in Philly. The Mariners front office, though, doesn't think the team needs to score 750 runs to post a winning season.
"If we can perform up to our capability defensively, it opens up some possibilities," says special assistant Tony Blengino. "If we keep our pitchers healthy, minimize runs as much as we can, then we can have an average or less-than-average offensive club and still be right there in the mix. If pitching and defense shine, which we're counting on, we can do some things. That's a big if. We like what we see."
3) The Kid is back -- but will he help or hurt the M's?Ken Griffey Jr.'s return has excited the fan base and energized the clubhouse. (When the Griffey signing was announced, Ichiro felt compelled to acknowledge the occasion with a statement from Japan: "Sixteen years ago, I bought a Ken Griffey Jr. jersey. This is one of my treasures to this day. He has always been a hero to me. And being able to play with him is like a dream come true.") The Mariners aren't expecting Junior to transform into the backward-hat-wearing Kid of the 90s, but they think he could exceed expectations with his offensive production. "Left-handed power plays well in Safeco," says GM Jack Zduriencik, "and so we think Ken can hit well in this ballpark. And we think he's going to be energized to come back to where it all started."
But even if Griffey rediscovers his stroke in Seattle, he will be a huge liability in the field. As Mitchel Lichtman, who developed the play-by-play defensive evaluation system UZR (Ultimate Zone Ratings), points out, "Scouts watch him and say he can still play, but the numbers say he's actually been atrocious for six, seven years now."
At first, it was for the wrong reasons: The morning first base prospect Mike Carp was due to arrive at camp, he was driving 55 mph on the Route 91 freeway in Anaheim and in a downpour, Carp's Mustang Cobra spun twice around, crashed into the median, then even went against oncoming traffic for a bit. Carp missed the first day of workouts, but since then he's been the surprise of the spring.
The former Mets prospect came to Seattle in the 12-player trade in December that sent Putz to New York. Seattle officials saw Carp as their first baseman in 2010 at the earliest -- but a strong spring has made a 2009 arrival a very real possibility. Seattle is desperate for left-handed power in their lineup, and the 6-foot-2', 205-pound 22-year-old gives them some pop.
No one seems to want the closer's job. Miguel Batista, Roy Corcoran and Mark Lowe have all been unimpressive in making their cases to replace Putz. And Wakamatsu has even thrown Randy Messenger and David Aardsma into the mix. Even if Wakamatsu names a closer in the next few weeks -- the guess here is that Batista will be tapped -- don't waste a pick on a Mariners closer. At this rate, Gary Locke could be closing games in June.