Sunday, October 4, 2009
Amidst a teary celebration, the Seattle Mariners end 2009 with big questions
The obvious top story from the Seattle Mariners season finale (which ended with a victory, a hugely improved 85-77 record, and an unusually long and touching celebration from the Mariners on the field) is that this game was quite possibly Ken Griffey Jr's last game ever.
He hasn't formally announced his retirement as of yet, carrying the 'weighing my options' line, but watching his slow fade of the last few years manifest in a so-so effort at the plate this season at age 39, and seeing him on the verge of tears as he came out of the game in the 8th inning after a line drive single (coincidentally, his 1st at-bat of 2009 ended with a line drive single), there's enough signs out there that this is probably it.
From a non-emotional perspective, on the heels of winning a surprising 85 of 162 games this season, it's clear that the Mariners will be looking this offseason for easy opportunities to upgrade the roster, and Junior's designated hitter role (the easiest spot to fill with a good hitter since defense isn't required) is a prime spot for improvement. The only way he could come back is if he, Mariner fans and the organization were okay with him coming off the bench as a pinch hitter and spot starter at DH. And given the condition of his knees from carrying 230 pounds of excess weight, Junior would probably have to overhaul his diet/exercise habits (which have never been the best) and shed 20-30 pounds to be in any condition to come back next year. One can hope a slimmer, healthier Junior could hit a little better, but really the team's safest bet is to let him walk and explore other options at DH.
Also, Felix Hernandez: 19 wins and 230+ innings later, he's finally become the ace everyone thought he'd be, but he was bawling similarly as well. Sure, he's an overtly emotional guy, but is it possible he has an inkling of changes as well? There's been occasional talk of the team being skittish about offering him a huge contract, and could explore trading him this offseason. In light of what other top pitchers are making, it would probably take at least 6 years and around $110-120 million to finish a deal... and that's if Felix and his agent were feeling generous. Jack Zduriencik has shown a willing to trade key pieces of the Mariners (JJ Putz, Jarrod Washburn), so the idea of a blockbuster deal centered around Felix in return for 4-5 valuable pieces is not out of the question. Never mind whether Felix will get the Cy Young... will he be back in 2010?
Also, amidst the multiple extended auditions of rookies (Michael Saunders, Mike Carp, Adam Moore, Rob Johnson) and trade acquisitions (Ryan Langerhans, Jack Hannahan, Jack Wilson, Bill Hall, Ian Snell)... the Mariners found few answers for their multiple question marks. Moore might be a useful option at catcher next season (Johnson and Kenji Johjima showed little this season). If Wilson comes back, shortstop is as good as his, and at his worst he's still an upgrade over the lackadaisically treacherous Yuniesky Betancourt.
There are certainly spots where the team has few liability concerns. Ichiro. Franklin Gutierrez in CF. A deep bullpen that, even when the faces change, the productivity remains the same. Jose Lopez, who isn't great but is reasonably productive at 2B. A slew of young pitching (Ryan Rowland-Smith, Luke French, Jason Vargas, Snell, Garrett Olson, Doug Fister) that can fill in at least a couple rotation blanks. There are, however, other issues:
- Adrian Beltre's impending free-agency departure leaves a huge void at 3B that Hannahan and Matt Tuiasosopo showed little evidence they could fill.
- Left field was already a question mark before Endy Chavez got hurt, and a carousel of outfielders (Hall, Saunders, the departed Wladimir Balentien and Langerhans) did not produce a standout candidate. Saunders was the best option out of the farm system, but he struggled this season and jury's out if he can take the next step in 2010.
- Russell Branyan was a star at 1st base this year, but if he wants a big contract off his biggest season ever, he likely won't be back. If so, does Mike Carp step up and seize the spot, or does the team make a move for an established star?
- If the Mariners don't pick up Wilson's $8+ million option, they need to find a shortstop, and there aren't any real options in the farm system.
- Ian Snell showed erratic form in his extended rotation trial, and it's not clear that he can lock down a high-end rotation spot as was hoped when he was acquired from Pittsburgh.
- Carlos Silva is owed several trucks full of money over the next two seasons and he washed himself out with terrible pitching this season. It's not clear if he'll make it back to form, let alone the rotation (even though it's clear the Mariners still have to pay him).
- Despite winning 85 games, the team was actually outscored. Per Pythageorean projections based on their runs scored versus runs allowed, the Mariners should have had a losing record. They overcame this with an exceptional defense, bullpen, and fortune in close games. The Mariners led the league in one run victories this year.
Now granted, Jack Zduriencik didn't just come into 2009 with a ton of questions, but an empty cupboard. And he managed to turn the team's fortunes around with a handful of savvy moves to upgrade the roster and turn the Mariners into a winner. But it's no surprise that a team that had so much fun playing together in 2009 wistfully hugged one another on the verge of tears and stayed on the field long after the game was over, not wanting it to end. None of them know what the future holds, and it may not be as fun as this season was for them.
It's a lot like Christmas in a troubled household: You savor the kids savoring their gifts, the food, music and good times all you can... because once everyone goes home, you clean up and everyone goes to bed... you've got to wake up and deal with reality, the money problems, the overloaded schedules, the obstacles... all over again. And for the Mariners, their reality is that it's going to take a lot of work just to maintain the level of competition they put forth this year... let alone to build on it.