When looking back at the 2007 Mariners, one image in particular might stand out to fantasy owners: Richie Sexson, and his long swing, flailing about as he strikes out facing another knee-buckling curveballs. He was quite the disappointment; although Sexson's disastrous campaign might be the main thing that burned into your brain, the 2007 Mariners really weren't that bad of a team.
After all, they won 88 games, averaged nearly five runs per game (4.90, actually) and fell six games short of a playoff spot. Not bad, right? Only one thing stood out as a glaring weakness from last year's Mariners: the starting pitching. Mariners starters ranked among the bottom five in baseball in both ERA (5.16, 27th) and WHIP (1.52, 28th).
But boy, did the Mariners address that weakness this winter. First, they signed Carlos Silva, a strike-throwing control specialist who eats up innings at the back of the rotation. Then, on Friday, they added an ace in Erik Bedard, picked up from the Orioles, albeit at the high price of four prospects -- Adam Jones in particular -- and a top set-up reliever. Those two will vastly improve the rotation, even if the departure of George Sherrill, who was included in the Bedard deal, thins out the middle relief corps.
Are those additions enough to make the Mariners one of the American League's powerhouses? Probably not. But, the team's offseason moves are certainly enough to keep them out of the also-ran category, meaning there's fantasy value to be had here, particularly on the pitching side. Even in a division everyone seems to be conceding to the Angels this early in the year, the Mariners should make noise, meaning you'd be smart to keep these guys on your radar.
Ballpark: Though its numbers in 2007 ranked it as ballpark that slightly favored pitchers, Safeco Field has a reputation as one of the game's most notable pitchers' parks. Part of that might be its ranking in relation to other American League ballparks; Oakland's McAfee Coliseum is the only other venue that has consistently challenged it for the throne of AL's top pitchers' park since Safeco's opening in July 1999.
Be it runs scored, home runs or extra-base hits, Safeco generally hinders offensive production -- its slightly tougher for right-handed hitters, who must hit the ball five feet farther down the lines and four feet more in the alleys to clear the fences. Ultimately, pitchers -- at least the good ones -- enjoy a noticeable benefit. Just ask Felix Hernandez, who has pitched most innings as a Mariner than any other Seattle pitcher. He has a 3.41 ERA in 38 career starts at Safeco, compared to 4.57 in 35 on the road.
Intriguing spring battle: He's a long shot for the rotation, but Brandon Morrow's role should be closely monitored in March. A set-up man in 2007, the sophomore right-hander was converted back into a starter during the Venezuelan Winter League, in which he managed a 2.72 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in seven starts. He was considered the favorite for the fifth starter's role before the Bedard acquisition and could be first in line for a spot should one open during camp. Morrow will be in the mix, along with Horacio Ramirez and Cha Seung Baek. Even if the experiment doesn't pan out, there's always a bullpen role as a fallback option for him. As a reliever, Morrow would probably be next in line to close should anything happen to J.J. Putz.
Trainer's room: Sexson, who endured a dreadful 2007 that was cut short by hamstring and hip problems, received a clean bill of health from the team's trainer at their January pre-spring training luncheon. Meanwhile, Yuniesky Betancourt missed the final six games of 2007 with an elbow injury, but he is expected to be ready for spring training. Neither players injury should be a concern, but check on them once camp opens.
Hernandez is the only other mild concern; he missed nearly a month with a flexor-pronator strain inside his pitching elbow and forearm early last season. That doesn't necessarily make him a significant risk to be limited to begin 2008, but with 465 2/3 career big league innings under his belt before his 22nd birthday, he's not completely safe from future problems. If Hernandez shows any signs of trouble during the spring -- granted, an unlikely event -- be a bit more cautious with him in your draft rankings.
Platoons: With Jones now in Baltimore, right field could boil down to a straight platoon between Brad Wilkerson and rookie Wladimir Balentien, depending on the latter's performance during spring training. Don't be surprised if the Mariners opt to break Balentien in as a part-timer, starting against most left-handers and the occasional right-hander. In that scenario, Wilkerson would get the bulk of the at-bats against righties, while playing sporadically in left field, first base and DH. Sadly, Wilkerson is not ideal for a platoon situation; he has posted a .265 batting average and .819 OPS against lefties, better than his numbers against what would be his traditionally more favorable side, .245/.800 against righties. That makes both players unpredictable bets in a time-share arrangement; so don't invest too much in either player.
Schedule preview: A few chunks of the Mariners' schedule stand out as either particularly tough or light. For one, there's an 18-game stretch from May 20-June 8 during which they will battle nothing but contenders, including six games apiece against the Red Sox and Tigers, and three each against the Angels and Yankees. Conversely, the month of August kicks off with a 10-game homestand against the league's weaker teams, including three apiece against the Orioles and Twins and four versus the Rays. Plan accordingly.
Fantasy stud: Ichiro Suzuki has managed at least a .303 batting average, 31 stolen bases and 101 runs scored in each of his seven years in the States, and has averaged .333-39-112 numbers during that span. He might not be much in the home run/RBI categories, but you can't get much more consistent than this. It's hard to determine when the 34-year-old Ichiro might begin slowing down, but he hasn't shown any signs of it yet. Keep in mind he's been remarkably consistent regardless of the teams around him, be it the Mariners top-ranked offense of 2001 (5.72 runs per game) or the No. 25-ranked team of 2004 (4.31). Reliability like that is why he's a clear top-25-overall player.
Prospects to watch for 2008: Balentien stands the best chance at regular at-bats of the Mariners' rookies, after batting a professional-best .291 with an .871 OPS in 124 games for Triple-A Tacoma in 2007. As noted above, he'll be in the mix for the right-field role, though most scouts feel he could use a little more time in Triple-A. AL-only owners can take a chance on him, but should only do so with a late-round pick.
Jeff Clement, the No. 3 pick overall in the 2005 draft, is coming off a strong performance for Tacoma, batting .275 with an .867 OPS in 125 games in 2007. He could break camp with the team as the No. 2 catcher and part-time DH, enough to make him AL-only worthy. Assuming Clement can get in enough games at catcher to qualify there -- his three games at DH last year likely lock him in there in most formats -- he'd be a sleeper in deep leagues. With regular at-bats, he could be a 20- to 25-homer candidate.
Prospect(s) to watch for the future: The coup of the Bedard deal, according to some sources, was the Mariners' ability to keep Carlos Truinfel, ranked fourth in the organization by Baseball America this winter. At shortstop, Truinfel, who has yet to reach his 18th birthday, might lack the range for the position long-term. Still whether he sticks there or shifts to second or third base, Triunfel has the bat to be a top-10 fantasy option at any position for a decade-plus. Don't expect him in a regular role in Seattle before 2010, though.
Philippe Aumont, the No. 11 pick overall in the 2007 draft, is a power pitcher with a big-time sinker, the kind of combination that could one day put him in the Fausto Carmona/Brandon Webb class. As a pitcher picked out of high school, he'll need at least three minor league seasons -- he needs to focus on developing his changeup -- but he has all the makings of a No. 2 or 3 starter or, at worst, an elite closer.
Fearless prediction: The offense, which qualified as one of the game's better units into June of last season (5.27 runs per game through June 11), falls flat on its face this time around. Oh, Ichiro, as always, winds up fine, but Raul Ibanez begins to show his 35 years of age, Sexson again is a strikeout machine and Jose Vidro spends more time on the disabled list than off it. The pitching does enough to keep this team afloat, but if you count on 20-win seasons from Bedard or Hernandez or consistent "W"s from Silva on a matchups basis, you wind up somewhat disappointed.
Games plateau: As noted above, Clement might be locked into DH status in many formats, so check your league's eligibility rules. His best chance at value in 2008 is to sneak in enough games to qualify as an AL-only No. 2 catcher.
Vidro didn't play enough games at first base (11) or second base (10) to qualify in most leagues, and a DH who offers a mere six homers and a .775 OPS in a full, healthy season has limited fantasy value. He'd be most useful if he can qualify at second base, which hinges entirely on Jose Lopez, a .213 hitter with a .519 OPS during the second half of 2007. If you're a Vidro fan, surely you'll be rooting for a poor spring from Lopez.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.