Rebuilding is a slow and painful process.
There really are no ifs, ands or buts about it. The Seattle Mariners are still rebuilding, and the question of whether or not they are rebuilding in the right direction remains just as much of a question mark at the end of the 2012 season as it was at the beginning of the 2012 season. Usually, in a year end review sort of piece, someone can pull a takeaway from the season, something to condense into a little nutshell and say this is the state of affairs. But those wiley Mariners make it hard to even do that.
What went right:
It is always good to start out with what went right. Because when talking about the Seattle Mariners, hope is the key. If you start out with what went wrong you might run out of steam, brain cells or overall ability to process emotional responses to the Mariners and never ever get to what went right. And things did go right! Not as many as everyone would have liked, and not as often as everyone would have liked. But rest assured beleaguered Mariners family, things went right.
Felix Hernandez pitched a perfect game.
Bold text and and that photo is all that is needed to explain the joyous occasion when King Felix became the 21st pitcher in the modern era to pitch a perfect game. The Mariners tried to out-Mariner King Felix as they barely won 1-0. But King Felix out-Felixed his fellow Mariners and literally put the team on his back and carried them to victory. All perfect games are special, but you will be hard pressed to find a perfect game closed out in a more authoritative fashion than King Felix slammed the door on the Rays 27 consecutive times.
Six Mariners pitchers combined to no-hit the Dodgers on June 8.
Not nearly as cool as King Felix's perfect game and not nearly as cool as the other six no-hitters thrown in 2012, but the Seattle Mariners helped fuel the year of the pitcher with their second of three involvements in various feats. It was the third no-hitter in Mariners history as Eric Wedge tied a major league record, using six Mariners pitchers to shut down the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Seager's final line: .259/.316/.423, 22 home runs
Believe it or not, it was the less heralded of the University of North Carolina 2009 draft picks that made the biggest impact on the Mariners final line. Seager topped all Mariners hitters with a 3.7 WAR, while putting together a fairly respectable year at the plate. He wasn't the best fielder in the league at third base but he held his own. Most of all, he was frighteningly clutch (at least by Mariners' standards) with runners on and two outs. Seager tallied 44 RBIs with two outs, more than half of his final total of 86. Mariners baseball has recently been known for its striking ability to strand runners on the base paths in new and interesting ways, but Seager tried to distance himself from old Mariner baseball.
Saunders' final line: .247/.306/.432, 19 home runs
Saunders is one of the finest examples of why patience is a virtue in baseball. He has come through the major leagues only to get completely overwhelmed by major league pitching and get sent back down to AAA. For the first time in his career, Saunders pieced together a year which justified him being on the team. Granted, injuries to Franklin Gutierrez and Mike Carp forced Saunders into the outfielder more than his stats would justify - but Saunders took his opportunity and ran with it. He didn't run with it like Mike Trout did, but Saunders isn't nearly as good as Trout. What Saunders did do was prove to the team that as long as they have no better options, he belongs in the outfield next year, and if the team somehow finds better options, he will be a very serviceable fourth outfielder with power, speed and a solid glove.
John Jaso became the best hitter on the team, in half a season's worth of plate appearances.
Jaso's final line: .276/.395/.456, 10 home runs
The key thing with Jaso is that he clubbed his line in just a shade over 100 games as he sat in a platoon split with Jesus Montero and Miguel Olivo for way too often of the year. The platoon was fair. Jaso hit a mere .119 against left handed pitching, but he made up for it by mashing the seams off most of the right handed pitching he faced. If you are into sabermetrics, only a handful of players had a higher wRC+ score (weighted runs created) against right handed pitching than Jaso, just some chumps by the name of Joey Votto, Robinson Cano, Miguel Cabrera, David Ortiz, Mike Trout, Brandon Moss and Prince Fielder. Against right handed pitching, Jaso was literally a top 10 hitter.
Brendan Ryan played shortstop like his life depended on it.
The sad reality of baseball is that people don't appreciate defensive gems as much as they should. Sure, every night Baseball Tonight puts out its web gems, but if you are Ryan - you don't get appreciated by the common fan for your everyday defense because your everyday defense is so off the charts that when something pedestrian happens is the only time people take time to note. Ryan was in the top five in UZR at 15.5, and his defense was such a substantial impact on his line that despite his horrendous year behind the plate, Ryan still ended up with a WAR of 1.8.
Yay! Good things. The thing is, there is plenty that went incorrect for the Mariners this year. In fact, as much blind hope as the team had been able to build up on the basis of youth, things pretty much went according to plan. Some young guys did well, other young guys struggled. The only problem is that the young guys that struggled were at the beginning of the year the "young talent" that everyone knew the Mariners were building their team around. Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero (to a certain degree) all had years that would be nice to forget.
What went wrong:
Dustin Ackley's disappearing act.
Ackley's final line: .226/.294/.328, 12 home runs
Ackley regressed a lot in his first full season as a Mariner. Granted, he had a lot of hope and high expectations riding on him. He had a successful rookie campaign and started out the year supplanting the ever-eternal Ichiro Suzuki as the Mariners' leadoff hitter. But Ackley struggled constantly throughout the year. He successfully lowered his strikeout rate from 2011, but his walk rate went down as well. Rookies often have to make adjustments in their second year after pitchers have seen them once or twice, and it looks like the pitchers did and Ackley didn't. Ackley had a brutal June at the plate which eased into a less brutal, but still kind of brutal, July at the plate. If the Mariners expect this rebuilding plan to be on the right path, the second overall pick of the 2009 draft needs to play like someone who was chosen that high.
Jesus Montero's bat has a long way to go.
Montero's final line: .260/.298/.386, 15 home runs
It seems a bit unfair to put Montero here, considering it was his rookie season and his above average, OBP, and slugging percentage really don't seem too horrid (relative to the rest of the team at least). But the thing is, Montero is on the team for his offense, not his defense, and his offense couldn't supplant his defense. He finished the year at -0.2 WAR, largely in part because he isn't a very good catcher. This is fine. Everyone knew Montero wasn't praised as a prospect for his skills in front of the backstop. Ryan isn't known for his bat, but gets by on his defense. The thing is, his defense is excellent. Montero's bat wasn't excellent. It was there at times, and at other times it completely vanished. Although he finished September and October with an OBP of .309, he hit a total of four extra base hits. The Mariners traded Michael Pineda to the Yankees to acquire a big bat. Montero can wield a big bat, but it disappeared for two separate stretches throughout the year and it disappeared in a big way. The Mariners need that bat if they plan on doing anything next year.
Miguel Olivo still worked his way into the lineup 86 times.
The fact that Olivo even had his name stiched onto the back of a Mariners jersey still is something for another story. But with the Mariners bringing in Montero to test him out at catcher, and the fact that Jaso hit so well throughout the year, the fact that Olivo showed up in 86 games is mind melting. Olivo's bat obviously didn't do much. He finished the year with a .222/.239/.381 line. Olivo only walked seven times in 323 plate appearances - a new career low for him (unless you consider his career low in 2002 when he walked only twice in a mere 21 trips to the plate). Olivo also finished the year with eight passed balls, which placed him eighth out of all Major League catchers. Thing is - Olivo only played in pretty much half a year.
Ugh. Justin Smoak.
Smoak's final line: .217/.290/.364, 19 home runs
We've all seen and heard enough about how terrible Smoak was this year. But hope was on the horizon as Smoak hit the seams off the ball in September with an OPS of 1.005. That is star caliber OPS right there. It is hard to ignore the rest of the months that Smoak had to make up his full year that are quite a bit less than star caliber. Smoak shouldn't be coming into next year as the starting basemen. Although he ended hot, he did the same thing last year and at the beginning of last season. The most frustrating thing about Smoak is his ability to put together streaks which almost make you forgive him for how utterly terrible he is when he isn't streaking. The dead horse will not be beaten here, however. Smoak can't be thought of as the penciled in Mariners first baseman next year. It is a job he needs to re-win.
So what comes next year?
Well for starters the Mariners will be bringing in the fences. That is now a fact. Secondly, the Mariners already fired their hitting coach. That is also now a fact. After that, there is a lot that is up in the air.
The team needs to decide if the current rebuilding plan is going in the correct direction. On one hand, the Mariners have a plethora of players who seem to be, or are very near to being, major league ready. But there are several log jams that are presenting themselves. Outside of Gutierrez (who has a hard time maintaining any semblance of health), the Mariners have a whole load of fourth outfielders. Between Eric Thames, Trayvon Robinson, Saunders and Mike Carp, neither of the players really deserve to be playing a full seasons worth of at bats on a winning team.
2012 draft pick Mike Zuzino tore up the minor leagues, so much so that it seems like a high probability that he will either break camp with the team or make the standard call up in June for arbitration year purposes. Zuzino has the better defensive arm over Montero and seems like he should be starting at catcher over him. That leaves Smoak, Jaso and Montero to battle it out over the first base and DH platoons.
The team needs to figure out what is going on with Ackley and whether or not it can be fixed. Ackley is young, and only in his second year, but his struggles were literally all year long without any hot streaks like Smoak finished his year out on. If Ackley is going to be part of the plan, he needs to be fixed. His 2011 season was great. His 2012 season was broken.
The team needs to make some smart, cheap, Billy Bean-esque signings. Jaso was a diamond in the rough for Jack Z, and he needs a few more of those. The Mariners cannot rely on a pitching staff that will lose some of the benefits of Safeco's spaciousness with an offense that struggles to put men on base - and when it does struggle to bring them home.
The Houston Astros are coming to the AL West. So at least the Mariners probably won't end in the cellar like they did this year. The Astros can't be counted on for much, but they can be counted on to be terrible next year. Thing is, all the other AL West teams get the same Astros-boost that the Mariners are getting. With the Oakland Athletics doing that thing that makes them the A's, it is a question of whether or not they will be competing next year. But lets give them the benefit of the doubt. The Mariners are now competing with three potential playoff teams out of five. .500 might be a realistic goal next year, but they will need some smart signings and some smart production from underachieving players if they hope to make a run at the wild card next year.