Milwaukee and Seattle meet on Tuesday in the first game of a home-and-home spring schedule, giving me an excuse to talk to one of my favorite SB Nation writers: Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing. Jeff was kind enough to answer these questions about the Mariners and their 2013 outlook.
BCB: Seattle enters the season in a pretty tough spot, sharing a division with the high-spending Rangers and Angels and 2012 division champion A's. Is a fourth place finish (ahead of the Astros, at least) more or less penciled in at this point?
LL: Yeah, pretty much. The final top three is a big jumble, but then you have the Mariners, and then you have the Astros, who hopefully won't finish all that close to the Mariners. Right now, people aren't really entertaining many thoughts of the M's getting to the playoffs, but then it's worth remembering that just a year ago, it was assumed that the Rangers and Angels would fight for the title, while the A's and M's would fight for third place. So, unpredictability is our consolation. A fourth-place finish is penciled and not penned. It is a dark pencil.
BCB: The Mariners finished dead last in the AL in hits, runs, batting average, OBP and slugging a year ago. Is there reason to believe they'll be better offensively in 2013?
LL: Superficially, yes, just because they're finally moving in the Safeco Field fences. So the run environment should be made friendlier. But on top of that, the Mariners prioritized offense this offseason, adding Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse most visibly while also bringing in Raul Ibanez and whatever Kelly Shoppach might be. Throw in potential improvement from Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, and Justin Smoak and you have the actual makings of a half-decent Mariners team offense, which is a thing I can hardly remember ever existing. There's no more Chone Figgins. There's no more Miguel Olivo. It would be a miracle if the Mariners' offense in 2013 were worse than the Mariners' offense in 2012. I'm assuming here that miracles don't always have to be good things. Checking Dictionary.com...yeah, miracle. That would be miraculous.
BCB: From an outsider perspective, this team really looks like the Felix Hernandez Show. Hernandez's $175 million contract is worth $50 million more than what Hiroshi Yamauchi paid for the team in 1992. Was it the right decision?
LL: I think it was, but I'm not going to pretend I'm not hopelessly biased in Felix's favor. We're all well aware of the potential downsides here, but the history of big contracts given to pitchers isn't actually as bad as you might think, and I love that the Mariners gained a $1 million option at the end in case Felix has to undergo Tommy John surgery. That helps to mitigate some of the risk, and Felix is starting the contract from a point of utter dominance. He's the face of the franchise, he's perplexingly loyal to Seattle, he's great, and everybody loves him. The Mariners can afford this and I don't know what the situation would look like if the Mariners were to let Felix get away. Yeah, there's risk. As if there's not risk in trading him for prospects? Who the hell can count on prospects? It's not like the M's have many other big-money commitments on the books.
BCB: One-time Brewer farmhand Tom Wilhelmsen had a breakout season in 2012, posting a 2.50 ERA with 29 saves in 73 appearances. Do you think he'll continue to be this good going forward?
LL: Wilhelmsen is a weird story, for the obvious reasons, and also for the reason that he was a bad reliever, then he went to the minors and pitched as a bad starter, then he came back and was suddenly a good reliever. He carried that over, and he has the weapons to keep it up, in a power fastball and a humiliating curve. He also toys around with a changeup that's outstanding on occasion, like many changeups. Wilhelmsen's command isn't to be trusted to the same degree as Mariano Rivera's command and when Wilhelmsen loses the zone he's obviously vulnerable, but he has strikeout stuff, so his margin of error is considerable. I'm not concerned about his 2013 performance; he should be as effective as he needs to be. I'll note the caveat that Wilhelmsen is a reliever and them god damned relievers are annoyingly volatile. But still.
BCB: What would the Mariners have to do for you to consider this season a success?
LL: I'd be pleased if the major pitching prospects took steps forward in the minors, and if the young position players took steps forward in the majors. Montero, Ackley, Smoak -- it'd be super if they established themselves as actual regulars. Hopefully Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager don't take giant steps back. I don't expect contending baseball and I'm not real worried about the guys on shorter commitments, like Morse or Morales or Joe Saunders. I'm looking for signs of sustainable quality, and that's where the young players are critical. Maybe moving in the fences will help, psychologically. Who's to say! I'd like to come out of 2013 knowing who represents the organization's core. Besides Felix, that is. At present it's sort of up in the air.
Thanks again to Jeff for taking the time, and check out Lookout Landing for more on the Mariners!