The other day Sports Illustrated asked a number of its nominal experts to pick winners for the 2009 baseball season. All but one arbiter opted for the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West Division, the lone dissenter going with the Oakland Athletics. Here'ês the local lead: Just about everybody everywhere figures the Seattle Mariners once again for dead last in their division, though many say the club will be marginally improved. Unfortunately, when a club posts 61-101 in 2008, 'êimprovement'ê may be like saying a bad cold is better than the flu.
There are those of us who don'êt find much of a basis for 'ê09 optimism. The M'ês, after all, promise to field five guys on defense who started last season, including Kenji Johjima (catcher), Adrian Beltre (third base), Yunieski Betancourt (shortstop), Jose Lopez (second base), and Ichiro Suzuki (since moved from center field to right and expected to miss the first week of the season because of an ulcer). The newbies: Endy Chavez in left field, Franklin Gutierrez in center, and the right/left-batting first-base platoon of Mike Sweeney and Russell Branyan.
The 'êimprovement'ê in starting pitching: Ryan Roland-Smith replaces Miguel Batista, still on the roster.
Oh, and there'ês this pushing-40 pickup named Griffey at designated hitter. He'ês still known as 'êThe Kid,'ê but only to those older than 75. Indeed, Ken Griffey Jr. is only a few months younger than his father was when 'êSenior'ê played for the M'ês 19 years ago. Those of us who were at the 2007 summer love-fest when Griffey (with Cincinnati) returned to Safeco Field know there may not be a soul in the Seattle region who doesn'êt want Junior to stay healthy and hit consistently. But he gets injured: That'ês the inescapable reality.
The bullpen has a few names that didn'êt appear in April of 'ê08. And a new general manager (Jack Zduriencik) and field boss (Don Wakamatsu) and specialty-coaching staff are in place. Otherwise, not much has changed since Sept. 28, when the M'ês finished the ignominious 'ê08 campaign with a third-straight win. The last pitch of the season was delivered by J.J. Putz, now with the New York Mets. The M'ês thus hope a closer will emerge to replace the former all-star they lost.
Seattle also lost run-production when Raul Ibanez went to the world-champion Philadelphia Phillies. The M'ês everyday line-up when the club opens in Minnesota today (April 6, 5:10 FSN) will boast only three players with 17 or more home runs last year, Beltre leading the team with 25.
Members of the club'ês brain trust (and many fans) are banking on better defense to help starting pitchers get deeper into games. Hope only gets you so far, especially with lefty Jarrod Washburn (5-14, 4.69 earned-run average) and slimmed-down righty Carlos Silva (4-15, 6.46) returning. Felix Hernandez (still just 22 and picked by one Sports Illustrated authority to win the 'ê09 Cy Young Award) will start the season-opener.
If the M'ês are to be a light-hitting team, it isn'êt evident from spring training. Through Thursday (April 2) of Cactus League play, Chavez, a .267 hitter with the Mets last season, was 16 for 32. Sweeney, the one-time Kansas City star hitter, seems sufficiently rehabilitated, what with a .422 average. Johjima, with Ichiro part of Japan'ês victorious World Baseball Classic team, was .400 (albeit in only 15 at-bats); Betancourt, Beltre, Gutierrez, and Branyan all hit .300 or better, as did back-up catcher Rob Johnson (13 for 39).
Baseball statisticians, perhaps the fastest-growing segment of the population, relentlessly look for the perfect formula to predict baseball greatness and inevitably fail to offer anything a reasonable person would take to Vegas for wagering purposes. Such statistical alchemy remains as elusive as a suitable Unified Force Theory, especially in retrospect.
So let it be recalled that last year at this time book-makers in the gambling meccas may have greeted a dozen or so among their thousands of customers willing to lay down money on a 'ê08 Philadelphia World Series win over the Tampa Bay Rays. Fewer than a dozen might bet before the 'ê09 season opens that the last American League team standing in late October will be the Seattle Mariners (playing the N.L. Cincinnati Reds, right?).
It isn'êt likely but it could happen. Recall that in 2001 all kinds of experts, some of them representing Sports Illustrated, pegged the M'ês for last in their division. True, the M'ês never made it to the World Series that year. But they did finish 116-46.