OK, so I was one of those people who thought the Mariners were in really, really good shape at about this time last year. Every single move they made made sense, at least in isolation. And in retrospect, they certainly needed to do more -- in particular, a first baseman who could do more than play defense would have helped -- but I still think it should have been pretty good. I never picked them to win the division (or at least I don't think I did...please don't look it up), but I certainly didn't see 61-101 coming, and I think anyone who says he or she did is a liar. Any reason to hope for anything more this year?
1. Have they improved at all?
Last year, Jack Zduriencik was the busiest GM of the offseason, pretty much from start to finish. This offseason, you barely heard anything from the M's at all...which is what tends to happen with 100-loss teams who don't have a superstar to sell off. Moves were made, though. Jack Cust is in, Russell Branyan is out. Jose Lopez is gone, with Brendan Ryan, however temporarily, taking his place.
So that's not much, but on the other hand, there are a lot of guys who really can't be as bad as they were in 2010. Figgins, in particular (assuming he isn't traded), isn't the near-MVP candidate he was in 2009, but he had the worst year of his career in 2010, and he's not that guy either. Ryan certainly isn't quite the offensive zero he was in 2010, it's unlikely Milton Bradley has completely forgotten to hit, and so on. If the M's hadn't done anything at all, they'd very likely be better, just through regression and better luck.
And it's not just the dreadful offense that sunk them last year. The defense took a big step back, too, from close to the best in the game in 2009 to something like the middle of the pack in '10. Moving Figgins from second back to third, where he seems to perform much better, a healthy Jack Wilson, and plugging in the excellent Ryan for the plodding Lopez should all help. People will tell you that they need offense, not defense, to win. I don't buy it; until the point where their defense and pitching combine to allow 0.0 runs per game, permitting fewer runs will help them win roughly as much as scoring more runs will.
Baseball Prospectus' AL West preview went up yesterday, and PECOTA sees the Mariners going 68-94 (with some really dryly funny commentary from Mr. Wyers). For the second post in a row, I just can't buy that. That's a seven-game improvement over 2010 (and a nine-game improvement over their 2010 Pythagorean record), but between their being better and the Rangers and Angels being worse, 75 or so wins seems to me like a better bet.
2. Can the kids help?
The Mariner prospect everybody knows is Dustin Ackley, whose offensive potential has been compared to Chase Utley. If he can hack it at second base -- and there are still some significant questions about that -- he should be a great asset whether he reaches those heights or not. It remains to be seen, though, what (if anything) he can contribute to the big club in 2011. They've got another top prospect, pitcher Michael Pineda, who could join the rotation sometime this season.
And then there are the guys who have already hit the majors. Justin Smoak was the big get from the Cliff Lee trade, and enters 2011 as the starting first baseman. He had a terrible rookie season, but isn't far removed from being an 11th overall pick and a top-20 prospect, and has a career .288/.404/.466 minor league line. Michael Saunders was never quite as highly touted, but did hit .310/.378/.544 in AAA in 2009 before struggling all over the place (in sporadic playing time) in 2010.
Regardless of whether the 2011 Mariners are a 68-win or 75-win or 81-win team, if a Mariner team is going to contend in the next four or five years, these (or a couple of them) are the names you're going to be hearing from that team, much more than the guys in question 1. It's been a long time since the Mariners have had a prospect pan out. (Other than Felix Hernandez, can you remember one? I mean after, say, A-Rod?) There are all kinds of contenders to change that right now, and they're going to need at least a couple of them to do it.
3. So is Jack Z a genius or not?
Z -- more than the Mariners themselves -- was the talk of the 2009-10 offseason, at least in our little corner of the baseball world. One stats-savvy baseball site now-kind-of-infamously named them the sixth-best organization in the majors. Nowadays, it's not so much that people have turned on him as that they've just stopped talking about him.
So call me naive, fool me twice shame on me and all that, but I still think Z is pretty great. The Common Man ranked the last Mariner offseason the 25th worst of all time. I called it premature in the comments, but more to the point, I'd call it insane. The list is about results, and the results for that offseason are still woefully incomplete; all we've really got to go on is the process, and the process was very sound. He made a great deal to get Cliff Lee, then got a very strong return for him (whether Smoak pans out or not). The Bradley-for-Silva swap looked like a minor steal for the M's at the time, and still might be. Losing Beltre was unfortunate but understandable, and Figgins looked like a great pick to replace him (for a reasonable price)...and still might be, while Beltre has already moved on. Everything that could have gone against Z went against him in 2010, but that doesn't mean that what he did was wrong. It'll be at least another year before we can really say, after this particularly nondescript offseason, but it still seems to me that the Mariners are in awfully good hands with Zduriencik.