All things considered, 2012 wasn't a bad year for the Mariners. They played in arguably the best division in the majors, as all three other teams in the AL West won at least 89 games. Their 75-87 record was nearly a miracle, given their dreadful offense scored 619 runs -- the fourth least in the majors -- and ranked dead last in the league in batting average (.234), OBP (.296) and slugging percentage (.369). That's about as bad as an offense can get. It comes as no surprise, then, that the only fantasy-worthy players on the team were pitchers.
That may not be the case this year. Felix Hernandez is still the team's marquee player, their farm system is stocked with promising young arms and Tom Wilhelmsen had a great 2012 as the team's closer, but the fantasy community remains excited about former top prospects Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley. Michael Morse came over from Washington during the offseason, and brings his 30-homer power with him. Seattle also signed Kendrys Morales over the offseason, and he should be stronger this year now that he has a full season under his belt after breaking his leg in 2010.
1. Dustin Ackley, 2B 2. Kyle Seager, 3B 3. Jesus Montero, C 4. Kendrys Morales, DH 5. Michael Morse, LF 6. Justin Smoak, 1B 7. Michael Saunders, RF 8. Franklin Gutierrez, CF 9. Brandan Ryan, SS
1. Felix Hernandez 2. Hisashi Iwakuma 3. Joe Saunders 4. Erasmo Ramirez 5. Hector Noesi
Others: Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, Brandon Maurer, James Paxton
Bullpen: Tom Wilhelmsen (closer), Stephen Pryor, Carter Capps, Charlie Furbush, Lucas Luetge, Oliver Perez, Josh Kinney
? What's the deal with Dustin Ackley? Ackley was a darling of the fantasy in-crowd during the 2012 draft season. Second base is one of a few positions where owners try to find the next big thing, so many owners may have waited on a second baseman, hoping to strike it rich without committing too many resources, and ended up with Ackley last year. And in return, he rewarded those owners by hitting .226/.294/.328 with 12 homers. His isolated slugging, which was a decent .144 in his 90-game stint with the Mariners in 2011, plummeted to .102 last year. His season was an abject disaster from start to finish.
Still, he enters this year as a nice last year's bums candidate. It'll probably come as little surprise that his ground-ball rate spiked last year, rising to 45.5 percent, and he lost three percentage points off his line-drive rate, as well. The good news is he won't get out all that often, because his walk and strikeout rates were right in line with league average. He swung at just 25.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, and he had an 86.1 percent contact rate and a 5.4 percent swinging-strike rate. In addition to all that, he's still just 25 years old. While we have to take his resurgence a bit on faith, the fact that he's going to regularly put the ball in play should mean that he'll make a dramatic improvement on his .265 BABIP from a year ago. Second base is not as shallow as it once was, but if I'd be happy to take a shot on Ackley as a starter in a 12-team mixed league if I miss out on my top-10 guys at the position.
? Same question, new player. What should we think of Jesus Montero? The Mariners made a statement trade with the Yankees last year, sending Michael Pineda to the Yankees for Montero. In return, the catcher gave them with a -0.2 WAR season, hitting .260/.298/.386 with 15 homers and 62 RBI. If you have confidence in him this year, though, he'll reward you with a much better season. Here's why:
First, his age and minor league track record -- Montero is only 23 years old, and in 2011 with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the Yankees' organization, he hit .288/.348/.467 with 18 homers. The year before that, also with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he hit .289/.353/.517 with 21 homers. I'm not writing him off because of one bad season in the majors.
Second, the Mariners moved the fences in at Safeco Field during the offseason. The left and right field lines remain at 331 feet and 326 feet, respectively, but the fences were shortened significantly everywhere else; the power alley in left center is now 378 feet, 12 feet in from its original 390 feet. Montero is not the first power hitter who regularly came up short at Safeco. Take Adrian Beltre for example: he hit 48 homers with the Dodgers the year before he joined the Mariners, hit 19, 25, 26, 25 and eight in five seasons with the Mariners, and has hit 28, 32 and 36 since leaving the Pacific Northwest. Montero's power numbers are almost certain to increase this season.
? What about all those pitching prospects you mentioned earlier? The Mariners feature one of the strongest crops of pitching prospects, and they'll likely start earning their returns at the major league level this year. Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker are the closest to the majors, but Brandon Maurer and James Paxton could also factor into the rotation mix at some point. Hultzen dominated at Double-A Jackson last year, posting a 1.19 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 79 strikeouts in 75.1 innings before struggling to find his way at Triple-A Tacoma. If one of them starts the year in the rotation, Hultzen is the best bet to be that guy.
Walker is just 20 years old, and had a 4.69 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and 118 strikeouts in 126.2 innings with Jackson last season. Maurer, 22, vaulted himself into Walker's class by putting up a 3.20 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 117 strikeouts in 137.2 innings as his teammate in Jackson a year ago, while Paxton, also at Jackson, had a 3.05 ERA, 1.41 WHIP and 110 strikeouts in 106.1 innings.
Any or all of the four could make it to the majors this season, and all are certainly worth your attention in AL-only leagues. The only one I'd recommend having on your radar in mixed leagues, at least at the start of the season, is Hultzen. Even if he starts the year at Tacoma, it shouldn't be long before he makes his way to Seattle.
Michael Morse: Morse is just one year removed from hitting .303/.360/.550 with 31 homers for the Nationals. The year before that, he hit .289/.352/.519 with 15 homers in just 293 plate appearances. Last season was an injury-riddled one for Morse, but he still managed to hit .291, slug .470 and blast 18 homers in 102 games. Like Montero, he'll take advantage of the shorter fences at Safeco. This is my final team preview of the season, and Morse is my favorite of all 30 sleepers I've named.
Kyle Seager:Seager's fantasy value is predicated on his 20 homers from a year ago not being a fluke. I can't buy into that. The only other time he hit at least 10 homers in a professional season was back in 2010 when he was at High-A High Desert. In reality, I think he's just another guy who gives you low double digits in homers and steals with poor rates. He might be a starter in AL-only leagues, but stay away in mixed leagues.
Jesus Montero:The combination of the shorter fences and a year of major-league seasoning has Montero well suited to capitalize on his potential this season. I'm banking on him placing himself into one of the top two tiers of fantasy catchers.
AL-only guys to know
Seager: See above.
Justin Smoak: Smoak is a batting-average killer, but he's a good bet to hit 20 home runs. With power in short supply, he should be a starter in AL-only leagues.
Hisashi Iwakuma: Iwakuma had a solid rookie year with the Mariners last year, making 30 appearances, including 16 starts, and going 9-5 with a 3.16 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 1.28 WHIP and 101 strikeouts in 125.1 innings.