With 2010 dawning and Spring Training not much more than a month away, it's time to start answering some of the many questions pertaining to the Seattle team that will hit the field trying to improve on its 85-win season of last season.
Here's a top 10 of hot-button topics for the season to come:
1. What do the Mariners have to do better in 2010?
Hit, hit, and hit some more. Despite winning 85 games, a 24-game improvement over 2008, Seattle finished last in the American League in runs scored (640) in 2009 and tied for last in batting average (.258) and on-base percentage (.314). The Mariners addressed some of the concerns by signing productive and patient third baseman Chone Figgins, who led the AL in walks last year and should fit in well behind leadoff man Ichiro Suzuki, and by trading for home-run threat Milton Bradley, a switch-hitter who will play some left field and designated hitter. Pitching-wise and on defense, the Mariners might have improved already-stellar numbers with the additions of Cliff Lee and Figgins and with the assumption of a healthy upcoming season for shortstop Jack Wilson, and they're not done yet in remaking their 2010 roster.
2. Do the Mariners have enough power to contend?
This is kind of a trick question, because on the surface, they don't. They'll lose two corner power threats if free agents Adrian Beltre and Russell Branyan sign elsewhere, and if Branyan goes, the Mariners will need to fill the first-base slot, unless they plan to go with Mike Carp, who spent most of 2009 in Triple-A. However, the Angels have proven that the AL West isn't necessarily won by the long ball, the Mariners won 85 games last year with subpar offensive numbers across the board, and Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik clearly is fashioning his team to make the most of speed, contact and aggressiveness on the basepaths for Safeco Field -- a somewhat National League-style approach. That said, there's no doubt the Mariners are still in the market for a little bit of good old-fashioned pop.
3. What does Felix Hernandez do for an encore?
If Hernandez improves as much in 2010 as he did in 2009, there isn't much more he can do. Hernandez will turn 24 in April and just came off a watershed season that saw him reach the potential everyone knew he had since his big league callup in 2005 at the age of 19. If it weren't for Zack Greinke's breakout year for the Royals, Hernandez would have won the AL Cy Young Award, and for good reason. He established career highs in wins (19), innings pitched (238 2/3), strikeouts (217) and posted his best ERA (2.49) while making his first All-Star team. Also evident was his growing maturity to become a leader of the pitching staff and a keener focus on holding runners, which had been a weakness in the past. The Mariners go into 2010 knowing they have a true No. 1 pitcher, and that's got to be comforting.
4. Which Bradley will show up in Seattle?
Based on the temperamental outfielder's unpredictable past, it's tough to answer this question, but if any clubhouse could be a welcoming, peaceful place for Bradley to land, it's this one. The Mariners bonded as a team in 2009 under the leadership of first-year manager Don Wakamatsu, who quickly put the feuds of 2008 to rest in a character-building Spring Training. Wakamatsu also got a lot of help from veterans Mike Sweeney and Ken Griffey Jr., who kept it light, fun and full of camaraderie in the locker room throughout the year. Sweeney probably won't be back, but Griffey will, and already Bradley has said he's always looked up to the Seattle legend who wears uniform No. 24.
5. Can the bullpen be as good as it was in 2009?
Yes, and it might even be better. Entering 2009, Brandon Morrow was the closer, David Aardsma and Mark Lowe were hard-throwing back-end pieces, and the rest of the 'pen was in flux. Now, Morrow is gone to Toronto, and Aardsma, who took the closing job early on and put up 38 saves in a stellar 2009, has his role clearly defined. Lowe did well setting him up and should repeat in that job, and new acquisition Brandon League throws hard enough to warrant back-end consideration. Add in last year's rookie surprise Shawn Kelley and established middle- and long-relief arms in Garrett Olson, Jason Vargas, Sean White and Kanekoa Texeira, and there's plenty of talent and depth to get those valuable outs to preserve wins.
6. Can the defense be as good as it was in 2009?
Ditto on the bullpen answer. As good as the Mariners defense was last season, and according to FanGraphs.com it was the best in baseball by a significant margin, the Mariners look like they've improved it. Shortstop Wilson is considered one of the best in the business, and he came over at the Trade Deadline and then only appeared in 31 games as a Mariner because of injury. As great as Beltre was at third, Figgins was ranked third-best in baseball at the position by FanGraphs last year, the site ranked center fielder Franklin Gutierrez as easily the best defender in the Major Leagues, and Ichiro continued his Gold Glove excellence in right.
7. Who's on first?
If the season started today, it would be Carp. The left-handed hitter turns 24 next June and hit .271 with 15 homers and 64 RBIs and an on-base-plus-slugging line of .372/.446/.818 in 413 at-bats for Tacoma and .315 with one homer and five RBIS in 54 at-bats for the Mariners. However, Seattle has been in talks with a few free-agent first basemen, including Adam LaRoche, and Zduriencik said as recently as the Winter Meetings that the club was still in talks with Beltre. If Beltre re-signs to pay third, Figgins would move to second, which could push Lopez to first. In other words, at this point, first base for the Mariners is anyone's guess.
8. Who will turn heads in 2010?
Last year, there were plenty of surprises, including Aardsma, Gutierrez, Branyan, and, to some degree, Kelley -- all players who blossomed when given a chance. In 2010, the Mariners are banking on improvements in 2010 from Bradley, who's rebounding from an unfortunate experience in Chicago, League, who has a 97 mph fastball but hasn't put it all together yet, and maybe some of their recent Minor League acquisitions, which include Josh Wilson, Corey Patterson, reliever Mike Koplove and right-hander Yusmeiro Petit. Also, again, Carp isn't even 24 yet, so if he's handed the reins at first base, he could be a breakout candidate.
9. Will Ichiro get 200 hits for a 10th straight year?
As long as he stays healthy, this is about as good a bet as there is in baseball. Ichiro keeps himself in excellent shape, and even at the age of 36, he will unquestionably be prepared for the physical grind of the 162-game season. He's averaged 226 hits per season since his Major League rookie year of 2001, racking up 225 last year while hitting .352, and he's a student of history. He was proud to have broken Wee Willie Keeler's record of consecutive 200-hit seasons by achieving the mark for the ninth straight time in 2009, just as he was proud to break George Sisler's single-season hits record when he rapped out 262 of them in 2004. And if personal motivation isn't enough, Ichiro wants to win, and when he hits, the Mariners win.
And finally ...
10. Can the Mariners win the AL West?
Well, why not? They won 85 games last year and have improved their team significantly when it comes to what Zduriencik and Wakamatsu are trying to accomplish in building a team to fit Safeco Field. Meanwhile, the team they're chasing, the Angels, lost their leadoff hitter in Figgins, watched their No. 1 starter, John Lackey, depart for Boston via free agency, and essentially swapped designated hitters by allowing Vladimir Guerrero to leave while signing Hideki Matsui. Texas finished ahead of Seattle last year and should be better, but the Mariners might now possess the best 1-2 starting-rotation punch in the game with Hernandez and Lee and a better lineup with Figgins and Bradley adding speed and on-base percentage.