Monday, April 6, 2009

Its Finally Here...

...opening day. It snowed here in Chicago last night and its a brisk 33 degrees today. Not really spring weather, but that's okay. Opening day is here. Much to Nicole's annoyance, from here on out I'll be spending a lot more time watching MLB Gameday on the computer, listening to WGN on the radio, and commandeering the remote for Baseball Tonight.

Most of us Seattle fans were duped last year when the 2007 Mariners managed to win 88 games and come in 2nd in our division, we thought the addition of Eric Bedard to the starting pitching would put us in contention for for the AL West title. Instead, we got an injury plagued pitching and a total offensive implosion which resulted in 101 losses, the second worst in baseball. This was a scenario worse than dead last, because this year's draft includes the most important prospect in decades: San Diego State's pitching phenom Stephen Strausburg. The guy has a 101 mph fastball and a wicked slider. He once struck out 23 batters in a game. I wouldn't be surprised if this summer he wasn't some team's number three or four starter. The Washington Nationals will have the first shot at him, but had we lost just two more games he could have been ours! We'll see what happens around midseason.

But what about this year? With a new GM and field manager has Seattle put together a better team than last years? Absolutely.

First off, defense: The acquisition of OFs Franklin Guitierez and Endy Chavez combined with Ichiro in right field means we have one of the best defensive outfields in MLB. Our number 4 and 5 starters Jarrod Washburn and Ryan Rowland-Smith are fly-ball pitchers. This outfield will help them win games that last year's outfield could not. There are still big defensive holes in the middle infield, particularly with Yunieski Betancourt at shortstop, but with Ronnie Cedeno as a legitimate starter on the bench it could put some pressure on Betancourt to either sharpen up his game or ride some pine. Last year Tampa Bay proved that defense and speed can get you to the World Series (of course, a big offensive year from Evan Longoria didn't hurt either).

Some Seattle fans are concerned that without power hitters in the outfield that this team won't be able to score runs, but I think subtle offensive upgrades we've made combined with some more speed on the basepaths from Guitierez and Chavez will keep this team competitive. I'd like to think we've made a big upgrade at first base this year by picking up Russ Branyan from Milwaukee. Because he couldn't get playing time from Prince Fielder the last couple of years, he doesn't have a lot of career numbers to brag about, but he hit a lot of homers this spring and almost anyone would be an upgrade Richie Sexson. Manager Don Wakumatsu has been working on playing "small ball" this spring. Kenji Johima is unlikely to be as bad as he was last year. Sure we'll miss Raul Ibanez's RBIs, but Griffey is likely to be a power upgrade over Jose Vidro in the DH spot and if Jose Lopez continues to improve his power and contact, this line-up could certainly produce runs.

If Eric Bedard stays healthy, the Mariners will have that 1-2 punch in their starting rotation that we hoped for last year. Felix Hernandez has shown flashes of brilliance in his young career, and we should hope that he continues to improve. I remember one game in particular last season when he struck out the heart of the Tiger's line up on 9 pitches. He's got the stuff to be a Cy Young winner. Carlos Silva was absolutely dreadful last year and did not look good this spring. One of the bright spots of last year was seeing the young Brandon Morrow get stretched out from the bullpen to become a starter. In his starting debut he 1-hit the Yankees through 6 innings, and I was glad to see another great starting pitcher in our rotation. Unfortunately, Morrow has type-1 diabetes and the stamina demands of starting has forced him to return to the bullpen. Morrow will be a great closer, but we are more in need of a great starter in the back half of the rotation. Aside from Morrow the bullpen doesn't have any superstar relievers, but they can all throw hard and there is plenty of competent relief arms in Tacoma to call up as the season goes on.

Finally, the bench has been greatly improved and that means more than some people might think. After cutting a bunch of the dead weight from last years team, the Mariners were basically sending a AAA team out on the field night after night to get slaughtered. GM Jack Zduriencik deserves kudos for cutting $20million out of the budget but building a team with better depth than last years. Cedeno can plug any holes in our infield, Chris Shelton would be a fine option at 1st base if Branyan is injured, and if Mike Sweeny isn't washed up he could serve as a fine pinch hitter.

The AL west might be a toss up again this year. I don't know anyone picking the Mariners to run away with it, the Angels are certainly still the favorites, but if all the pieces fall together we could see Seattle and Oakland contending late into the season. If at mid-season we aren't in second place, expect management to unload some of our best talent in their final year of contract (Beltre and Beddard) and watch the team fall to 3rd or 4th.


In the NL central I think the Cubs are destined to dominate again this year. They might have been the best club in baseball last year, and they're almost certainly better this year with the addition of Milton Bradley. Defense is the Cubs only weakness. The can score runs in all kinds of ways, and they have an excellent rotation. Carlos Marmol will be as good a closer as Kerry Wood was. The trick is not choking in the first round of the playoffs three years in a row. You might be getting tired of hearing it, but this is the year. The Brewers are a fun team to watch, I hope they can win the Wild Card again this year. Then again, Albert Pujols and the Cards could always come up with some surprises too.

The AL Central is another "toss-up". Of course I like the Twins, but if Joe Mauer doesn't get healthy and stay healthy they could struggle to keep up with Cleaveland. The White Sox squeeked it out last year, but its hard to imagine lightening striking twice for a team that doesn't look any better on paper.

I was thrilled last season when Tampa Bay finally pushed past the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East--especially when you consider the Rays have the second lowest payroll in baseball and the NE teams have the two biggest! Rooting for the Rays again this year, though most people are picking the Yankees barring a meltdown from A-Rod after his offseason from hell.

Aside from that I got the Mets in the NL East and the Dodgers in the West. Even though last year was a miserable season to be a Seattle sports fan, the level of parity in baseball last year and this year makes for some excitement as "dark horse" teams keep just keep us guessing. As the saying goes, every team starts the season in first place.


. said...

i'm glad to see you are as excited as i am that baseball is back. go twins!!

originalrolf said...

Gotta love beating a division rival in 10!! Are you going to any games at the cell Ap 27-29?