It safe to say that the Mariners exceeded everyone's expectation by a substantial margin in 2001. But how close can they come to that performance in 2002? There's probably no way that players like Bret Boone and Paul Abbott can come close to matching last year's career high performances, but can they get close enough to keep the Mariners on top?
The Mariners led all teams in scoring despite playing in the 2nd toughest park to score in. One of the big reasons for their success was Japanese hitting sensation OF Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro came to the US as one of the best ever players from Japan, having won 7 straight batting titles, several MVPs and numerous accolades from major league scouts hoping to land him for their teams. Most felt he'd hit for decent average, but power was a question mark. His power, as it turns out, was not that great - .457 for a corner outfielder is not much better than replacement level. However, the superior bat control that made him the best pure hitter in Japan, surprisingly translated almost directly to the majors. He not only won the American League batting title, but broke the major league record for hits by a rookie and became the first hitter since 1930 to top 240 hits. He also showed astonishing speed, both out of the box and on the basepaths. Even though his on base + slugging look rather mediocre, he is an offensive force.
The heart of the Mariners batting order is headed by two very similar hitters, one from each side of the plate: 1B John Olerud and DH Edgar Martinez. Both are high average hitters with 20-home run power and an excellent eye for balls and strikes. Although neither is a threat on the basepaths, they are almost constantly on base, providing numerous opportunities for their team mates to drive them in.
The M's should also expect better production out of their shortstop, Carlos Guillen, who battled tuberculosis over much of the second half of last season. Also, newly acquired Ben Davis will strengthen the offense from the catching corps. Davis had somewhat of a breakout season in San Diego last year before tiring badly in the second half. Used judiciously with incumbent Dan Wilson, Davis could match or surpass last year's numbers.
2B Bret Boone provided the power in the lineup, posting a career best season and one of the most productive ever by a second baseman. To call it simply a career best season, however, doesn't do justice to the magnitude of his improvement: he compiled 360 total bases in 2001, bettering his previous career best by almost a hundred. It's somewhat far fetched to believe that he'll come anywhere close to matching last season, especially in batting average - a career .265 hitter, he hit .331 last season - but he should still post respectable slugging numbers, somewhere in the mid .400s.
Another place where the M's got career-best production was 3rd base. This year, they might be even better there with the addition of Jeff Cirillo. Cirillo, coming off an injury plagued campaign in Colorado, is a substantial upgrade over the man he replaces, David Bell. He would only have to post career average numbers to top Bell's 2001 season by 52 points in OPS. In Cirillo, the M's added another hitter much like Martinez and Olerud, but with a tad less power.
Super utility man Mark McLemore enjoyed the best season of his career, posting career highs or near career highs in batting average, on base, slugging and steals. Playing every position but first and catcher, he gave the M's above average production whenever other players had an injury or a day off. Lightening the load for him somewhat are the additions of LF Ruben Sierra and utilityman Desi Relaford. While no one expects Sierra to match his production from last year's comeback campaign in hitter friendly Texas, he should be an upgrade offensively over Al Martin.
CF Mike Cameron enjoyed his best season last year as well. Unlike the other career performances the Mariners benefited from, Cameron might be able to match or surpass his 2001 production. He's just 29 and he had a similar season in Cincinnati in 1999, so there's no reason to believe we've seen his ceiling.
However, to expect the Mariners to top 900 runs again is probably overly optimistic. Even with the upgrades at third, left and catcher and the return to health of Guillen, it's unlikely that Boone can come close to what he did last year, or that at age 39 and 37 respectively, that Martinez and McLemore won't start to show signs of aging. If Boone reverts to career average, that drop alone would negate any gains from the new additions. Still, this should be one of the top 5 offenses in the AL
The Mariners come into this season with the reputation of a dominating pitching staff. But other than ace Freddie Garcia, there's not a lot of intimidation here. In fact, this could be a significant weakness of the team. At age 39, lefty Jamie Moyer is coming off the first 20-win season of his career. But Like John Burkett in Boston, his performance was way out of line with his career norm. As nice a story as it was, it's highly unlikely he can keep the magic going another year.
James Baldwin was brought in to replace departed Aaron Sele, but he's a significant drop-off in ability. A tenacious competitor and by all accounts a strong clubhouse presence, Baldwin will fall well short of what the M's got from Sele.
Paul Abbott was pretty much the definition of journeyman pitcher until the M's offense gave him a league leading 7.79 runs of support last season, resulting in his sterling 17-4 record. Unless he gets that kind of cushion again this year, expect him to be exposed as a .500 winning percentage innings eater.
On the plus side, Garcia is emerging as one of the best starters in the AL. Still only 25, he showed dramatic improvement in control and presence on the mound. His fastball isn't as intimidating as it's reputation, but he's got good enough command of it to set up a superior change-up and a curve ball he can throw at 2 speeds.
Rookie sensation Joel Piniero was fantastic down the stretch last year, but his performance was notably better than what his minor league record would support, both in terms of control and strikeout rate. However, that shouldn't prevent him from becoming Seattle's second best starter by the end of this season.
On the horizon, the M's have a couple of highly regarded pitching prospects. Rafael Soriano, a converted outfielder, dominated two level in the minors and might get a shot either in the pen or the rotation this year. Lefty Ryan Anderson, whose 6'11" height has caused him to be unfairly compared to Randy Johnson, is again out with arm surgery, but might contribute next season.
The bullpen is headed up by another Japanese import, Kazuhiro Sasaki. Sasaki has decent fastball, but his out pitch is a terrific splitter. Sasaki's control improved - walking 20 fewer batters than in 2000 - in part due to the higher strike being called. He'll be set-up by lefty Arthur Rhodes and right-hander Jeff Nelson. No bullpen in baseball features a complementary pair of more dominating set-up men. Rhodes, one of those rare left-handers who can throw in the mid-90s, also features three solid breaking pitches. Nelson, whose slider is so good he can practically get batters out without a second pitch, has a decent enough fastball to keep batters honest.
The rest of the pen is decent, but not all that intimidating. Shigetosi Hasegawa is a rubber-armed right hander capable of filling any role in the bullpen. Lefty John Halama adds depth from the left side. Neither guy is remotely overpowering. Ryan Franklin showed some promise last year and is the best candidate to move into the rotation should anyone falter.
Probably the most solid aspect of this team is it's defense. The only potential weakness will be left field: Sierra is more suited to DHing and McLemore is merely average out there. The rest of the team defense is superb. Cameron is one of the top 3 defensive outfielders in the game. Both Boone and Guillen have above average range in the middle infield and few, if anyone, turns a double play better than Boone. Wilson has a reputation as a good defensive catcher and Davis has the talent to dominate the running game the way Ivan Rodriguez does in Texas. Olerud's range at first is adequate, but he's great at digging out bad throws. Even with back trouble last year, Cirillo ranked second in overall range at third last year and is always among the league leaders in fielding percentage. Finally, there is no better right fielder than Ichiro. His range is among the league leaders, he never makes an errant throw, and while his arm isn't as strong as Vlad Guerrero's, it ranks among the best in both strength and accuracy.
There was a time when Lou Pinella was a young pitcher's worst enemy. He would routinely leave guys out on the mound for 125+ pitches and then wonder why they'd break down with serious arm injuries. Sweet Lou is older and slightly wiser now, keeping a closer track of pitch counts and getting much healthier results. While age has mellowed his fiery temperament, he still gives the fans a good show whenever he's ejected. Pinella has always been one of the best game tacticians. When GM Pat Gillick took over, he was faced with the unenviable possibility of losing one of the best players to ever play the game. Surprisingly, without ARod, the Mariners record improved dramatically. Gillick is one of the best talent evaluators in the game and does an excellent job of getting value in both trades and free agent signings. His one weakness is that he's reluctant to make the big trade to put his team over the top. He's more likely to make a much smaller, less costly deal in an effort to shore things up rather than give his team a surplus at the expense of a few prospects.