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Despite stellar offseason, M's face trouble
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The Mariners received near-universal praise for their off-season moves. Their defense again figures to be among the game’s best. But their cracks already are showing.
Designated hitter Ken Griffey Jr. believes the team will be strong simply because of the 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation (Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee) and top of the order (Ichiro Suzuki and Chone Figgins).
The problem in both areas is the 3-4-5, or lack thereof. Lee’s right abdominal strain and five-game suspension amount to another ominous sign. So do outfielder Milton Bradley’s back-to-back ejections last week and possible decline.
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik is under no illusions. While he knows his restructuring raised expectations, he never bought into the hype.
“I’ve made this statement all along: I’m not sure how good this club is,” Zduriencik says. “I think there are things we do that are really good. But we need everything in place for us to be a pretty good club.
“We need Cliff to be Cliff, Felix to be Felix, Milton to be what he was a couple of years ago, Figgy to do what he did last year.
“We’re not going to go up there and go toe to toe with a lot of clubs initially. We can’t. We don’t have that. It’s not what we are. And I know it.
“If somebody knocked on my door right now and said, ‘I’ve got a 40-home run hitter. Will you take him?’ I would say, ‘Yesterday.’”
The offense is indeed Problem No. 1, or perhaps 1A along with the starting pitching. Zduriencik, as the Brewers’ scouting director, drafted Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. The Mariners do not have one such slugger, let alone two.
Milton Bradley is a big question mark for Seattle.
Third baseman Jose Lopez is the only returning player who hit 20 or more homers last season. Casey Kotchman, sitting on a career .743 OPS, might bat third. Bradley, after going backward with the Cubs last season, could hit fourth.
The M’s should expect the usual Milton Meltdowns, even though Bradley’s former teammate, Brewers outfielder Jody Gerut, told FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi, “Seattle’s the chillest town there is. If you can’t find peace playing the game in Seattle or San Diego, it’s time to hire a full-time Sherpa.”
Bradley does not need a guide to help him climb Mt. Everest, but might require assistance returning to the dugout from the batter’s box. Even neutral observers believed that at least one of his ejections was unwarranted, the jumpy work of minor-league umpires. Still, to borrow Gerut’s phrase, Bradley needs to chill.
An even greater concern, raised by a scout following the Mariners, is that Bradley, a switch-hitter, may no longer be an offensive force. His batting/on-base/slugging line in 25 at-bats this spring is a respectable .280/.379/.400, but the scout sees cause for alarm.
“I’m afraid he can’t play anymore,” the scout says. “He has some holes in his swing. The fastball right over the hands, he can’t get to it (batting) left-handed. The hole above his hands has gotten bigger.”
The caveat to such remarks is that it’s only spring training, and Bradley simply might be getting ready for the season. For all his troubles with the Cubs last season, he batted .287/.411/.439 from April 28 through Aug. 30.
Still, there is no getting around it: The Mariners are relying too heavily on a player with a history of injury and volatility, a player who is hardly anyone’s idea of middle-of-the-order fun.
Lee, on the other hand, figured to be a spectacular fit. But in 2007, he was sidelined for more than a month by the same problem he has now, a right abdominal strain. His season never got on track; he even was demoted to the minor leagues.
Even a short-term loss of Lee, who experienced pain Tuesday in his first throwing test session since he suffered the injury on March 15, would create a disturbing domino effect:
- The Mariners would get fewer starts than expected from Lee.
- The M’s leading fifth-starter candidates — righty Doug Fister and lefty Jason Vargas — both might crack a rotation that includes two other marginal starters, lefty Ryan Rowland-Smith and righty Ian Snell.
- The bullpen might be strained from the outset by a rotation that — with the exception of King Felix — is unlikely to pitch to deep into games.
Bedard was scheduled to throw a bullpen session off a mound for the first time Tuesday, but the Mariners put the exercise on hold.
“I’ve said, since we re-signed Erik Bedard, that he’s going to play a huge part in the success of this club,” Zduriencik says. “That might not be for a month after the season starts. But he’s ahead of schedule.
“If you roll into any city with a healthy Erik Bedard and you go Felix, Cliff and Erik . . . anybody in baseball would take those three. And that helps your No. 4 and 5.”
Fair enough, but right now the Mariners are missing their No. 2, Lee, and their No. 3, Bedard. They plan to give considerable playing time to a rookie catcher, Adam Moore. Their closer, David Aardsma, must prove that his breakthrough 2009 season was not a fluke.
Manager Don Wakamatsu will provide stability; outfielder Ryan Langerhans compares his positive approach to that of Braves manager Bobby Cox. But the M’s are short on offense, short on starting pitching, unlikely to overachieve for a second straight season.
I’m with the scouts.
They are a disappointment waiting to happen.