Sunday, July 08, 2007

If the Mariners were a Sergio Leone movie

A little past the halfway point the season finds the Seattle Mariners in an unusual position: contending for a playoff spot. Dead last in the AL West for the last three years, the M's find themselves at the All-Star Break only behind 2.5 games the LA Angels for the division lead and 1.5 behind in the wild card race.

It's been an interesting year to say the least. During one stretch Seattle won 9 of 10, then dropped 6 straight before winning 10 out of the next 11 contests. Despite outscoring their opponents by only 17 runs the M's are 13 games over .500. Most Mariners fans certainly didn't see it coming.

The season began with low expectations. Coming off another 90-loss season, ownership publicly put the manager and GM on the hot seat. A series of atrocious trades further dampened hopes. Then the season started with a shutout win over the rival Oakland Athletics. King Felix dominated and looked poised to live up to all the hype. After taking two out of three from the A's Seattle didn't play for another week due to weather problems. By the end of April the Mariners were 10-10 and looking completely average. In late May they were plugging around at 21-22. Furthermore, Felix was sidelined with an elbow injury.

June came along and Seattle heated up. They went 4-2 in their first six games, then proceeded to win the six games -- all by one run. Seattle, at 35-26, had the chance to be ten games over .500 for the first time in almost four years. Then they ran into the Cubs and Astros, who swept three games apiece. Felix was back, but the pitching staff and defense looked lost. Seattle was 35-32 and Jeff Weaver, the worst pitcher in baseball, was scheduled to start. The Mariners seemed destined for an okay season instead of an outstanding one. The remainder of the year had all the makings of a combination of potential fulfilled and progress derailed. But a funny thing happened: Weaver threw a shutout and the M's have proceeded to go 14-4 since.

Let's look back at the contributors of the topsy-turvy season.

The Good

Ichiro Suzuki - Arguably his best season in a Mariners uniform, Ichiro is batting a robust .365, manufacturing runs (on pace for 200 RBI+R) and playing a stellar center field. Ichiro, a free agent after this year, has a unique combination of talent and international appeal that makes him worthy of a contract starting at $20 million per year. He's that good and hopefully still playing in Seattle in 2008 and beyond.

Mike Hargrove - The old Hargrove gave way to a much more competent version in 2007. The bench and bullpen strategies were the kind of sound, reasonable judgments that help ballclubs win tight ballgames (see the RS/RA comparison above). No longer was gas can Julio Mateo allowed to come out of the bullpen and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (full disclosure: Mateo was suspended from the team for allegedly hitting his wife). Willie Bloomquist, a decent utility player, has been given sporadic opportunities at the plate and ample chances on the basepaths. While Mike's midseason left a strange taste in the mouths of Mariners fans -- unsure whether to blame him for three mediocre seasons or thank him for the turnaround -- there's no doubt Grover left this team in good shape.

George Sherill and J.J. Putz - The most dominant 1-2 punch coming out of a major league bullpen. Don't believe it? Check their combined stats: 3-0, 69 IP, 30 H and 75 K. Against them batters are hitting .145. Putz is a perfect 24 for 24 in save opportunities. Once the M's have a lead late in a game it's as good as over.

The Bad

Raul Ibanez - Raul was an average left fielder in 2002. Five years later he's flat-out awful. The former 30 HR, 120 RBI and 100 R hitter has been hampered by a shoulder injury, which severely curtailed his power. Ibanez's been heating up at the plate lately, but even a 200 RBI+R projection for this season can't justify Raul's spot out in the field. Seriously, he's a small notch above Manny Ramirez.

Jeff Weaver - Three consecutive good starts have somewhat dimmed memories of Weaver's atrocious introduction in a Mariners uniform. Here's a refresher on Jeff's April and May: 0-6, 14.32 ERA, 22 IP and 50 H. He was historically awful and it'll take a mighty second half to forget that woeful first two months.

Jose Vidro - Shouldn't a DH and #2 hitter who makes $6 million a year have a OPS higher than 700? At least he's tied for third in GIDP.

Mariners Front Office - Jose Guillen has been a nice pickup. Veteran bats are a good thing. How about that Jose Vidro? Oh. Well one good hitter is better than two anyway and batters don't win games, pitchers do. How's Horacio Ramirez coming along? Oh, I see. Let's hope for a speedy recovery. What about the acquisition of Miguel Batista? Hmph, I heard about good things about him too... minus the whole writing a novel about a child serial killer thing. We've already discussed Jeff Weaver. Okay, just more one more question. WHY ISN'T ADAM JONES IN A MARINERS UNIFORM???

The Ugly

Felix Hernandez - He's shown flashing of the King, but Felix has been mostly pedestrian. A hot start to the season (including a one-hit gem against the Red Soxs at Fenway) quickly gave way to an elbow injury. Since his return from the DL Hernandez has struggled with his command and pitch selection.

Brandon Morrow - 32.0 IP, 33 BB, 32 K. Whenever Morrow's on the mound it's insanity at 60 feet, 6 inches.

Yuniesky Betancourt - Yuni's reputation is a slap hitter (.685 OPS this season) with Gold Glove potential. I'm pretty sure Omar Vizquel never made 18 errors by the All-Star break.

Richie Sexson - .206 average and .415 slugging for a first baseman making $15.5 million.

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