The Mariners' offseason was panned for acquiring a group of players -- Morse, Morales, Ibanez and Bay -- most suited to DH duties, made all the more curious since that appears to be Jesus Montero's eventual destination once 2012 No. 1 pick Mike Zunino arrives to take over the catching duties.
To be fair to GM Jack Zduriencik, his top priorities at the onset of the offseason probably weren't bringing back Ibanez and Morse to Seattle. He pursued Josh Hamilton. He made a deal with Arizona to acquire Justin Upton, only to have Upton veto the trade. He had to go to Plan B. You can argue whether the backup plan was a good idea, but consider how bad Seattle's production from first base, left field and DH were a year ago:
1B: .228/.300/.369, lowest OPS in AL
LF: .207/.277/.377, second-lowest OPS in AL
DH: .214/.287/.310, lowest OPS in AL
So, yes, maybe Morse's .303, 31-homer 2011 season was a fluke and maybe Morales doesn't inspire fear with his good-not-great line of .273/.320/.467 and maybe Ibanez is washed up. But there Mariners should get a lot more production at 1B/LF/DH this year.
Oh ... yeah. King Felix will be around for seven more seasons.
How bad has Seattle's offense been in recent seasons? The Mariners scored 106 more runs in 2012 than they did in 2010 ... and still finished last in the AL in runs scored.
After finishing last in the AL in scoring the past four seasons -- remarkably posting a team on-base percentage under .300 each of the past three seasons -- the Mariners decided the best way to "fix" their offense was to move in the fences at Safeco Field. We'll see what kind of impact that has, but there's no doubt Safeco had turned into a cold, damp dungeon the past few years. The Mariners actually finished fifth in the AL in runs scored on the road in 2012 -- outscoring Texas, Detroit and Baltimore, among others. But while they hit 93 homers on the road, they hit just 56 at home. A .221 batting average at Safeco didn't help; in fact, while they outscored the Rangers on the road (by one run), the Rangers outscored the Mariners by 190 runs at home.
Anyway, for the Mariners' offense to succeed, they'll have to hit a lot of home runs, because they could have OBP problems. Manager Eric Wedge will also have to maximize some of his platoon opportunities. For example, Casper Wells should play against left-handed pitching, Morse can move back and forth between left field and first base, Morales should sit against lefties (with Kelly Shoppach catching and Montero DHing) and Michael Saunders playing some center field in place of Franklin Gutierrez.
Defensively, the Mariners are strong up the middle with Brendan Ryan and Dustin Ackley and Gutierrez, if he can stay healthy. And for all the moaning about bringing in four DH-types, the only defensive liabilities will be left field (Morse and Ibanez) and catcher (Montero). Overall, Seattle should once again be an above-average defensive team.
There's a reason the Mariners gave Hernandez that kind of money: He's worth it. Over the past four years, he's gone 59-40 with a 2.81 ERA, finishing second, first and fourth in the Cy Young voting. Some might point to a small decline in his velocity, but he actually posted career-best strikeout and walk rates in 2012. He remains one of the handful of best pitchers in the game.
After that, things get a little dicey in the rotation. After spending much of the first half in the bullpen, Hisashi Iwakuma had a 2.50 ERA after the All-Star break, second in the AL only to Cy Young winner David Price. The big concern is whether he can hold up for 30-plus starts and whether his 17 percent home run rate on fly balls -- fifth-worst in the majors -- is an issue that gets uglier with the closer fences.
Joe Saunders is sort of a replica of Jason Vargas, a soft-tossing fly ball left-hander who chews up 200 innings. Vargas had been effective at Safeco Field, but, again, with the fences moving in, we'll see how Saunders fares. Erasmo Ramirez is a young righty with a good sinker who looked impressive down the stretch. He had an excellent SO/BB ratio of 4-to-1. If you play fantasy, he's a great sleeper candidate for you.
Mariners pitchers have certainly been helped in recent years by Safeco Field, just as the hitters have been hurt. This year will be a good test to see just how much those pitchers have been helped.
Heat Map to Watch Hernandez's average fastball velocity was over 95 mph his first three years but was down to 92.1 last year (and that was down from 93.3 in 2011). But he's a four-pitch pitcher who knows how to pitch. And his killer changeup has become one of the best weapons in the game. Batters hit just .189 off it with seven extra-base hits in 204 plate appearances. From the heat map, you can see why hitters don't do much damage against it.
Left-handers hit .206 with a .479 OPS against Hernandez's changeup.
My pal Eric Karabell believes the Mariners can be this year's surprise team, the A's or Orioles of 2013. As a Mariners fan, I hope he's right. Seattle fans didn't get the offseason they wanted -- no Upton, no Hamilton, not even Nick Swisher -- but at least they did add some bats and, on the bright side, they've kept those young arms.
Still, the key to their offense isn't so much Morales and Morse, but seeing big improvement from Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero and continued improvement from Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders. A deep bullpen should help reinforce a rotation with some question marks.
I don't know if Karabell is right, especially playing in a division with three other strong teams. But the Mariners do get those extra games against the Astros and, remember, they did win 75 games last year with some of the worst players in baseball getting significant playing time -- Figgins, Noesi and Miguel Olivo. I think they break .500.