By Jason Wojciechowski on April 13, 2012 at 2:50 PM
With yet another series with the Mariners coming up, Jon Shields of Pro Ball NW and I have decided to do another cross-bloggy thing. Rather than a simple preview, though, each of us has written a bit about early-season items about our teams that have us hoping and despairing, and one thing that's surprised us. Below find Jon's about the Mariners, which should provide some useful insight for A's fans not as familiar with Seattle as Jon is as the teams square off this weekend.
The Mariners have been actively hyping their "big three" AA pitching prospects Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, at least two of whom can be expected to finish this season in the big league rotation alongside still-young Felix Hernandez. Offensively, the Mariners have less going on. Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero are cornerstones of the rebuild, but the roster is otherwise littered with young players that look more like bench or fringy starters than key cogs. Michael Saunders has showed signs of life starting for the injured Franklin Gutierrez, but the man on the margin who has garnered the most attention has been second year infielder Kyle Seager.
Most often projected as a utility infielder since being selected in the third round of the 2009 draft, Seager has refused to play down to expectations. He hit .328/.401/.474 in the minors and appeared in just 24 AAA games before making his Major League debut last season. He had his ups and down during his 53 game rookie season but those ups left Mariner fans wondering why he was consistently written off as a bench player by prospect analysts. Seager hit the ground running in 2012, getting the team's attention during Spring Training and making the roster as a backup infielder before being thrust into the starting lineup when injury struck in game one. All he's done in his 7 starts is scorch line drive after line drive and produce a .321/.345/.500 batting line.
It's early yet, but the hope is that his unassuming physicality allowed him to be overlooked by prospect analysts and that he might turn out to be a solid, starting-caliber MLB player. He looks great in the box, swinging with serious intent from the left side of the plate, pulling the ball when possible, and maintaining an excellent contact rate in the process. He hit a 440+ foot bomb against Derek Holland on Thursday. He's attacking pitches within the zone while laying off anything outside of it. His fast start to this season combined with a strong Spring Training and what he did in his rookie year is causing me to think that I, along with so many others, might have been wrong about Seager. It's a great feeling, even if a little premature.
It hasn't gotten the same level of attention as Tim Lincecum or even Michael Pineda, but Felix Hernandez's fastball has been sluggish to start the season. Once able to touch the upper 90s at will, King Felix has been sitting in the 89-92 range with his two-seamer through his first couple starts. His great assortment of secondary pitches should keep him pitching decently enough, but as long as he's in the very low 90s his command will be more crucial than ever. He failed to hit his spots during his last start in Oakland, allowing the A's to elevate his pitches, string together some hits and tack six runs onto his record.
We focus on effectiveness to avoid the elephant in the room. Felix claims to be fine, but most players claim to be fine. He might be concealing an injury. He might be concealing a major injury. Just the idea serves up a punch to the gut of Mariner Nation. Fans will be holding their breath as they await the first radar reading from Safeco Field, for another day at 90 MPH could be another day closer to an appointment with Dr. James Andrews.
True despair would come with Felix's arm in a sling, so this might be better described as dread. Maybe he rebounds at some point this season. Maybe throwing softer isn't injury related and just represents the next chapter of a great career. Whatever the outcome, there is a gray cloud hanging over his starts. What is going on with the King?
Whether it proves to be a dead cat bounce or a real career revival, Chone Figgins has looked like the player the Mariners were hoping for when they signed him in 2010. He's batting .303/.343/.424 through his first 8 games, making a lot of hard contact and showing renewed plate discipline. Many scoffed when Figgins blamed his struggles on hitting second in the lineup, but given all his quotes about needing to be more aggressive as a two-hitter, maybe there was something to it. If Figgins' flawed view of hitting and lineup construction caused him to try and do things that weren't native to his game, a move back to leadoff could actually be meaningful.
No one is ready to proclaim that Figgins is back, but this early season performance from Figgins has been a pleasant surprise nonetheless.