By Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Expectations are at an all-time high in the Pacific Northwest.
And why not? The dynamic duo of general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu orchestrated a 24-win turnaround from Seattle's disastrous 101- loss campaign of 2008.
Right-hander Felix Hernandez had the breakout season that everyone was waiting for since he burst upon the scene as a 19-year-old in 2005, as he anchored a pitching staff that pitched to an AL-best 3.87 earned run average.
As good as the pitching staff was a year ago, it should be even better this coming season with the acquisition of former AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee. The lefty was picked up from the Philadelphia Phillies for a trio of prospects after leading his team to an NL championship with one of the most dominating performances in postseason history.
Unfortunately, though, it may be some time before we get a chance to see that lethal 1-2 punch, as Lee has been dealing with an abdominal strain and could miss the first month of the season.
If you could point to one reason why the Mariners did not finish better than third last season it could be because of their offense, which produced a staggeringly AL-low 640 runs. Zduriencik addressed that need this winter, though, adding Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley and Casey Kotchman.
Bottom line is, the offense should be better, but this team will only go as far as Hernandez and Lee can carry them.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2010 edition of the Seattle Mariners, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2009 FINISH (85-77) - Third Place (AL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Cliff Lee (LHP); Chone Figgins (3B); Milton Bradley (LF); Brandon League (RHP); Eric Byrnes (OF); Josh Bard (C); Kanekoa Texeira (RHP)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Adrian Beltre (3B); Russell Branyan (1B); Bill Hall (UTIL); Kenji Johjima (C); Carlos Silva (RHP); Chris Jakubauskas (RHP); Endy Chavez (OF)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Ichiro Suzuki (RF); Chone Figgins (2B); Milton Bradley (LF); Jose Lopez (3B); Ken Griffey Jr. (DH); Casey Kotchman (1B); Franklin Gutierrez (CF); Rob Johnson (C); Jack Wilson (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Felix Hernandez (RHP); Cliff Lee (LHP); Ryan Rowland-Smith (LHP); Ian Snell (RHP); Doug Fister (RHP)/Jason Vargas (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: David Aardsma (RHP)
MANAGER: Don Wakamatsu
Late in spring training Wakamatsu announced that newly-signed free agent Figgins will start the year at second, while the incumbent Jose Lopez shifts over to third base.
As versatile a player as there is in the league, Figgins hit .298 with a .395 on-base percentage last season for the Angels, adding 42 steals and 54 RBI for the American League West champion Angels while receiving his first All-Star selection.
Figgins, who will likely hit second, and Ichiro Suzuki should make things interesting atop the order and should provide plenty of RBI opportunities for Lopez, who slugged 25 home runs and knocked in 96 runs a year ago.
Across the diamond from Lopez will be Kotchman, who was acquired from Boston in January. Kotchman, who is keeping the seat warm for top prospect Dustin Ackley, split last season with Atlanta and Boston, batting .268 with seven homers and 48 RBI in 126 games.
Shortstop Jack Wilson's acquisition at the trade deadline last year shored up Seattle's middle infield. As good as he is in the field, he is just as bad at the plate, where his .684 OPS is fifth-worst among all active players with at least 3,000 at bats.
Behind the plate there will be a new face, as Kenji Johjima returned to his native Japan. So, Rob Johnson will get the bulk of the action after starting 80 games there last season. He doesn't offer much at the plate, but is an upgrade defensively over Johjima.
Then there's Ken Griffey Jr., who returns for his 22nd big league season as the team's designated hitter.
Griffey, who turned 40 in November, appeared in 117 games for the Mariners this past season, but hit just .214 with 19 home runs and 57 RBI, while serving primarily as a DH.
Suzuki remains the face of the franchise and is still the best leadoff hitter in baseball. Not to mention he is also one of the best outfielders in the game, with nine Gold Gloves to prove it.
The 36-year-old Suzuki had a bounce-back year offensively in 2009, hitting .352, while posting his ninth consecutive 200-hit season, breaking the major league record held by Willie Keeler (1894-01).
Next to Suzuki in center field will be one of the best defensive players in the league in Franklin Gutierrez. Given the chance to play everyday last season Gutierrez responded with his best year from an offensive standpoint, as he hit .283 with 18 home runs and 70 RBI.
The Mariners took a chance when they acquired volatile outfielder Bradley from the Chicago Cubs for free agent bust Carlos Silva.
On the heels of his first-ever All-Star appearance in 2008, Bradley inked a three-year, $30 million deal with the Cubs. However, as has been the case in almost everywhere Bradley has played, things did not go smoothly for him, as he feuded with manager Lou Piniella, his teammates and the fans.
Bradley hit .257 with 12 homers and 40 RBI before being suspended in September for the remainder of the season for conduct detrimental to the team.
There is no better 1-2 combination atop any rotation in baseball better than Hernandez and Lee. The only problem is that we don't know when we will see the dynamic duo together, as Lee is slated to start the season on the disabled list due to an abdominal strain.
Hernandez, though, should be more than able to hold down the fort in his absence following a sensational 2009.
The 23-year-old right-hander, who last season finished second to Kansas City's Zack Greinke in American League Cy Young voting, enjoyed the best season of his young career, as he tied for the league lead in wins with Detroit's Justin Verlander and New York's CC Sabathia, going 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA, while striking out 217 in 238 2/3 innings -- all personal bests.
He and Toronto's Roy Halladay were the only pitchers in the top five in all three pitching Triple Crown categories (W-ERA-K).
Seattle rewarded their young superstar this offseason, inking him to a five- year, $78 million extension which eats up Hernandez's final two arbitration years, as well as his first three years of free agency.
Lee, on the other hand, has already had a rough beginning to his time in Seattle. First he underwent foot surgery in February to remove a bone spur, then was ejected from his first Cactus League start and subsequently suspended five games, and now is dealing with his abdominal injury.
It is a far cry from his short time in Philadelphia, where he went 7-4 in 12 starts down the stretch with a 3.39 ERA, and carried the National League champions in the postseason with a 4-0 record and 1.56 ERA in five starts.
There is not much certainty after the top-two, as lefty Ryan Rowland Smith and righty Ian Snell hope to carry their late season success from a year ago into 2010. With Lee sidelined at the start righty Doug Fister and lefty Jason Vargas should get a chance to come north with the club.
The team also brought back left-hander Erik Bedard with a one-year deal. However, he won't be able to pitch until at least June. If he is healthy, though, the Mariners' rotation could be downright scary.
Following a few unsuccessful candidates, righty David Aardsma surprisingly emerged as the team's closer last season. Aardsma, with his fifth team in as many seasons, recorded 38 saves in 42 chances, while posting a 2.52 ERA and a 10.15 strikeout/per-nine innings-pitched. His WHIP also dropped from 1.73 in both 2007 and 2008 to an incredible 1.16 last season.
Mark Lowe developed nicely as Aardsma's right-handed setup man, a position that should be even better this season with the acquisition of Brandon League from Toronto.
Chris Seddon and Garrett Olson will be called upon to get lefties out, while righties Shawn Kelley and Sean White will help build the bridge to Aardsma as well.
Eric Byrnes was signed to be the team's fourth outfielder. If he can get back to the player who hit 48 home runs from 2006-07, Byrnes will also offer some pretty good right-handed pop off the bench.
Veteran Mike Sweeney will again make the team as a backup first baseman who also sees some time at DH. Sweeney, though, is on this team for his leadership, which could come into play with the volatile Bradley.
Jack Hannahan will serve as a jack-of-all trades for Wakamatsu, filling in both the infield and outfield.
When was the last time that the Seattle Mariners came into a season with expectations like they have this year? It has been a while. This year, though, the hype is for real. The Mariners are top-to-bottom the most talented team in the AL West. Not to mention it looks as if Wakamatsu is on the verge of becoming a top-tier manager. As long as they can tread water without Lee in the early going, they will be fine. Not to mention most teams won't be able to add the type of arm around the All-Star break that Seattle will with Bedard. You know at some point Bradley will cause problems, but with veterans like Griffey and Mike around it likely won't be something that tears the whole team down. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are vulnerable this year. If Seattle ever had a shot at its first division crown since 2001, this would certainly be the year.
03/30 12:55:25 ET