Odds against M's 10,000-to-1? Tell that to Butler, VCU

Baseball experts, including one who praises such M's starting pitchers as Doug "Fisher," have written the Mariners off as a contender.

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Ichiro Suzuki will remain a fixture in right field, where he was playing against the Cleveland Indians in a 2008 game.

Baseball experts, including one who praises such M's starting pitchers as Doug "Fisher," have written the Mariners off as a contender.

Having just perused numerous websites where authorities purport to know — or know for sure — how the 2011 major-league-baseball campaign will play out, I can report with near certainty that the Seattle Mariners again will finish last in their division. One pundit sets the odds of the M's winning the World Series at 10,000 to one: roughly the same ratio as such virtual impossibilities as, say, Butler vs. Virginia Commonwealth both making this year's NCAA men's basketball Final Four (and one guaranteed a place in the national-championship game).

The latter reality should be instructive for M's fans and personnel. If nary a single first-seeded college-basketball team can straddle the brackets to the final four, can't a big-league baseball team conquer a meager four-team division and proceed to the World Series?

Consensus answer: of course not. An NBC web-story author asked (and maybe not rhetorically) March 28: "Has the Mariners' offense improved enough to be merely awful?"

Virtually every pre-season arbiter (even the one who lists Doug Fister as Doug "Fisher") agrees that pitching will be a strength of the 2011 M's. The other plus, many believe, is the addition of Eric Wedge as manager. Evidently many long since forgot that, at this time last year, M's skipper Don "Walk the Plank" Wakamatsu (42-70 before getting fired in 2010) was being praised as a manager-of-the-year candidate. To his credit, Wedge actually won the managing plaudit four years ago; two years later, Cleveland let him go.

Seattle's position players are variously praised for their defensive skills. Offense obviously remains the greatest obstacle to the M's rising to, say, third place in their division.

Many fans had hoped that the spring-training campaign would yield sure signs of breakthroughs on offense. Such hasn't been the case. The team creeps into the April 1 opener in Oakland giving little indication that ace right-hander Felix Hernandez can beat the A's unless he tosses a shutout and his teammates get him a late run by walking four times in an inning.

The rest of the starting pitching, evidently to feature lefties Jason Vargas and a mended Erik Bedard along with right-handers Fister and Michael Pineda, should indeed be the envy of the American League West division. The bullpen help is questionable, especially the prospect of having Brandon League as closer. League has been erratic during the preseason, with a high earned-run average (6.00 through March 29). Going into the final Cactus League game he'd worked 12 innings, giving up 12 hits with 11 strikeouts and six walks.

The position guys can play defense, especially up the middle. The decision to move Jack Wilson to second base to accommodate Brendan Ryan at shortstop could give the club its best middle-infield tandem in 10 years. Chone Figgins seems more comfortable having moved to third base; Justin Smoak plays adequate first base.

Ichiro Suzuki is the only certainty as a starting outfielder. Franklin Gutierrez's ongoing stomach affliction leaves him questionable for center field and several players should platoon in left. Miguel Olivo, the every-day catcher, has yet to get back to 100 percent after a groin injury March 5.

Then there's the offense. Seattle, at various levels of spring competition, had just 10 home runs among probable starters through March 29. On the plus side, four were courtesy of off-season acquisition Jack Cust, the designated hitter.

The M's, then, comprise a stick-figure version of power-laden Seattle clubs that clobbered home runs during the 1990s. Team strategy long since has been an emphasis on "little-ball" offense. Last year's effort (the '10 M's were 30th in runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) was so anemic that it could've been better characterized as "amoebic-ball." An obvious problem with this is that the other three teams in the division have stronger offensive lineups: part of the reason virtually every arbiter picks the M's for dead last.

Yet, organized sports offer inevitable surprises: the improbable Super Bowl-winning Packers, the present Final Four contenders, etc. If Seattle pitching really is as legit as many believe and if a few key players (Smoak, Figgins, eg.) come through, then maybe that 10,000-to-1 projection is way off base. C'mon, Bedard's evident recovery (if that's what it is after the Dodgers' artful assault on him in the Cactus League finale Wednesday night, March 30) alone ought to bring the world-championship odds down to, like, 9,000-to-1.


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