I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Seattle’s minor-league system is in good shape, which is especially nice because the alleged major-league team is not. Alex Rodriguez last played shortstop for the Mariners in 2000, and in the 11 seasons since, here’s who’s replaced him: Carlos Guillen, Rich Aurilla, Yuniesky Betancourt, Josh and Jack Wilson and Brendan Ryan. With the exception of a .753 OPS season from Guillen (which got him traded), and two seasons Yuniesky hit .289 (paired with 17 and 15 walks for career-high on-base percentages of .310 and .308), the Mariners might as well have left the position vacant. By the time the Mariners realize Ryan (.653 career OPS) shouldn’t play, 21-year-old Nick Franklin may convince them he can. Franklin is one of many first-rounds picks the Mariners have selected wisely with, and he finished 2011 as a 20-year-old in Class AA. Franklin’s plate discipline improved from a walk for every two-and-a-half strikeouts in 2010 to 1.8 in Class A last year; he hit 23 homers and stole 25 bases in 2010; he has a career .813 OPS in the minors and a .460 slugging percentage. The Mariners could do a lot worse than Franklin, and for most of the last decade, they have.
What is this man doing here? We’ll get to Chone Figgins. First up, Aaron Heilman has been in the major leagues for nine seasons now, and it’s time for major league teams to stop deluding themselves into thinking they’re going to be the ones to tap into his brilliance. It’s like the girlfriend who thinks she’s going to turn the bad boyfriend around. Not going to happen. Here’s what Heilman is: a bad reliever. He has a career 4.40 ERA; over the last four years it’s 5.13 and in 2011 it was 6.88. Those numbers are not trending well for Heilman’s career, but they’re easily explained — over the last four years, he’s thrown a home run every seven innings and walked a batter almost every two. Heilman had a good three-year stretch for the Mets from 2005-07, but he even spoiled that by throwing the pennant-losing home run to Yadier Molina in 2006. Of course, even if Heilman does make the Mariners, that’s one thing their fans won’t have to worry about.
What he said: Ichiro on moving from the leadoff position to third in the order: “The situation of hitting third won’t change my approach in my hitting style. It’ll only change the situation with runners on base.” What he meant: “If Chone Figgins bats leadoff, there won’t be any runners on base.”
Outlook: For the 18th straight season, or ever since MLB went to the current divisional format, the Mariners finished no worse than fourth in 2011. Of course, they play in a four-team division.
The Mariners were bad last year, and they’ve been bad for most of the last eight seasons. They’ve lost 100 games twice, 90 games five times and finished last six times (they won 85 games in 2009 and 88 in 2007 and raised expectations so unreasonably neither manager could keep the job through the following season’s letdown). They lost 95 last year, which means they were a little better than the expansion Seattle Pilots, who lost only 98 in their only season in 1969.
The Mariners’ problems are easy to identify: they can’t hit. They were a team sabermeticians and traditionalists could both hate: the Mariners were last in the major leagues in runs scored, last in batting average, last in on-base percentage, last in slugging percentage and last in OPS.
On the bright side, they were a robust 26th in doubles, 28th in extra-base hits and 28th in walks, and tied for first in hitting into the least double plays, presumably because runners were so rarely on base.
The Mariners scored 556 runs in 2011 — the Red Sox, who led the majors with 875, scored that many in 101 games, or by July 26. The Mariners scored fewer runs than every National League team, despite having the advantage of a designated hitter (or disadvantage if said DH was Jack Cust and his .213 average or Willy Mo Pena and his 20 strikeouts in 67 at-bats).
If you doubted the Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero trade, does it make more sense now? Even more if you realize the Mariners are stocked with former No. 1 draft choices who are, or will be, top pitching prospects.
The Mariners won’t be much better in 2012, but if Montero catches and Dustin Ackley improves and Justin Smoak homers a few more times, if Franklin and Vinnie Catricala (career .933 minor-league OPS in three seasons) get called up, the infrastructure of a good team just may start to take shape.
To replace Pineda, they’re lining up young pitching prospects — 19-year-old Taijuan Walker, a No. 1 in 2010, fanned 113 in 96,.2 innings last year; 23-year-old James Paxton, a Jays’ No. 1 and Mariners’ fourth-round pick, has fanned 149 in 112.2 innings and has already reached Class AA; Danny Hultzen, the second pick last year, will debut this year; Chance Ruffin, a Tigers’ first-rounder in 2010, came in the trade for David Pauley and Doug Fister.
The outfield is MLB’s worst, which mitigates the decline of Ichiro, and Chone Figgins’ bad contract has two more years to go. It’s going to be awhile before the Mariners give Starbucks a baseball team it can be proud of, but unlike 2009, they really seem to be going the right way this time.
Team song: Blind Faith: Can’t Find My Way Home