A dedicated Mariners fan and long-ago sportswriter, I have over the past eight years done "looking-ahead" pieces at the beginning and end of each season. Here, with one week remaining in this season, is the end-of-2009 version.
General manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu confirmed the good impressions they made in spring training. Zduriencik constructed a flexible roster and added reserve and farm-system depth. Wakamatsu was solid on the field. The two, together, cleared a couple malcontents off the roster and added veterans Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney as role models for a generally young lineup. The team played hard from beginning to end. An over-.500 season seems assured.
Pitching: Felix Hernandez established himself as one of the half-dozen outstanding pitchers in the major leagues. Ryan Rowland-Smith came on strong as the team's No. 1 lefthanded starter. Relief pitching was solid. Several candidates, including onetime phenom Brandon Morrow, have emerged as No. 3-to-No. 5 starting pitchers for 2010.
Catching: Rookie Rob Johnson won the heart early in the season of his manager and pitching coach, as well as most of the pitching staff, but as the season wore on his performance suffered. The maligned Kenji Johjima outhit, outcaught, and outhrew Johnson over the course of the season. Rookie Adam Moore, a late season callup from Tacoma, looked better than either of them and might well be No. 1 catcher next year and for a decade following.
Infield: First baseman Russ Branyan had a career batting season before disc problems benched him over the final several weeks. His fielding was mediocre; his balky back clearly was troubling him even before being forced to shutdown for the season. Adrian Beltre had his usual brilliant season afield but injuries benched him for two long periods and his hitting performance was only middling and lacking power. Yuniesky Betancourt was traded off to Kansas City and replaced by former Pittsburgh shortstop Jack Wilson, who promptly went down with his own injuries. Jose Lopez had his strongest season at bat but, at second base, has limited range and still has concentration lapses afield and at bat. Third baseman/second baseman Matt Tuiasasopo was injured early but played well at Tacoma and, like Moore, shone in a late-season callup which likely won him a roster spot next year. Jack Hannahan and Josh Wilson were serviceable as infield reserves. First baseman Mike Carp, a Tacoma callup, could make next year's roster if Branyan moves elsewhere (see below).
Outfield: Centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez and all-star right fielder Ichiro Suzuki both hit well and provided brilliant outfield play. Left field was split between rookie Mike Saunders, a smooth natural athlete, Milwaukee pickup Bill Hall, and journeyman Ryan Langerhans, a fine fielder with a clutch bat.
DH: Sweeney and Griffey split the job with Sweeney, in the end, hitting for better average. Griffey hit occasional homers and doubles, and led the team in walks, but his average was below .220 entering the season's final week. Though both were inspirational leaders, their combined batting production was well below that expected in the designated-hitter position.
Next season could be more difficult for Zduriencik and Wakamatsu than their breaking-in first season. The first big question: Can Hernandez be signed to a long-term contract before the 2010 season begins? He becomes a free agent at the end of 2011 and the Mariners would be hard pressed to match then the salary offers of such teams as the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers. If Felix cannot be signed in the upcoming months, the Mariners probably would be best served to trade him for maximum value — no doubt, several starting players or pitchers — before his countdown to free agency began. If Hernandez signs and stays, he will be the staff ace for the next 10 years. If he is traded, the Mariners will no doubt receive at least one quality starting pitcher in return. Pitching should not be a big 2010 problem.
With Moore and/or Johjima and Johnson, catching also will be in good shape. The rest of the lineup is more problematic. Beltre's and Branyan's contracts run out at the end of this season. Beltre is a team leader but has never hit as well as his big contract called for and still kills rallies with wild-swinging strikeouts. (Last week he struck out with the bases loaded in a 10-pitch batting appearance, in which 9 of the pitches were out of the strike zone.) The Mariners probably will be outbid for his 2010 services and, if so, should let him depart, especially in light of his injuries over the past two years.
Branyan is a physical risk. Anyone with a disc problem (including myself) will attest to its debilitating side effects. If Branyan will sign a modest one-year contract, he might be worth keeping. Otherwise not. Jack Wilson probably will return at shortstop, although his performance was disappointing, partly because of injuries, after he joined the team in mid-season. But all three other infield positions will be up for grabs. Lopez, if traded, could bring good value in return. Tuiasasopo could end up as starting second or third baseman. The team probably will need to trade for either or both a first baseman and third baseman with proven gloves and some badly needed batting pop. Carp, Josh Wilson and Hannahan are useful backups but not more. None might be on the 2010 roster.
In the outfield, Hall is a bit like Beltre. He also plays third base, shortstop, second base, and any outfield position and is an outstanding athlete with run-throw skills. But he, too, strikes out too often and has regressed over the past couple years. It would be a risk to invest big money in him. If Saunders proves not ready to start next spring, the Mariners almost surely will seek an athletic hard-hitting outfielder to play everyday left field.
Put down Felix Hernandez as probably here in 2010 but, possibly, traded for a package of three or four major-league-regular pitchers and position players. Color Beltre and Branyan probably gone and Hall, possibly, too. Presume that one of the three catchers, likely Johnson, could be traded for a needed hitter at another position. Make it 50-50 that Lopez remains with the team; if not traded, he could play first base part-time to make way for a better fielder at second base.
Finally, what about Junior Griffey? Griffey has been a big plus for the team this year, despite his limited at-bat production. But next year he will be 40, with further declining skills, and it is hard to justify keeping him aboard just for his dugout and clubhouse leadership. Would he settle for a pinch-hitting, occasional DH role? It would be difficult for him to accept. Sweeney also is aging and, as Branyan, has a bad back. On the basis solely of their performance numbers, neither Junior nor Sweeney would return for 2010.
There are some good young players, unmentioned, in the Mariners farm system. But none appears ready to step into the starting lineup next year. Thus Zduriencik will need to do some roster juggling, and trading, to keep the team competitive. If he does, the Mariners could continue to rise next year.