Pressing Questions: The Seattle Mariners

Brandon Funston

As a Mariners fan who just endured a 90-loss season for the third time in the past four years, calling this series "Depressing Questions" might be more apt. Especially since the answer to the biggest question of the offseason — Will Seattle get a Prince (Fielder) to go with their King (Felix)? -- is looking more and more like a, "No!" Without a proven big bopper like Fielder, the Mariners lineup, as it currently stands, remains a threat to finish last in the league in runs scored for a third straight season, that is unless Jesus Montero's bat immediately delivers with the Miguel Cabrera-type upside that many believe its capable of. And that brings us to our first Pressing Question for the M's …

Without Prince Fielder, will this team be able to generate at least a serviceable amount of runs?

The Mariners made a major move towards addressing its offensive deficiencies by trading future ace Michael Pineda to the Yankees for Jesus Montero, widely regarded as an impact bat in the making but with only 18 games of major league experience. As fantasy owners, we don't have the same concerns about Montero's ability to play defense as the Mariners do, but we do care about whether he has C eligibility in fantasy leagues, which he'll likely attain fairly early in the season in Yahoo! leagues (5 starts or 10 games eligibility requirement). Whether at DH or C, Montero figures to be plugged immediately into the center of the M's lineup, behind Ichiro and Dustin Ackley, and surrounded by the likes of Justin Smoak and Mike Carp. Montero may not be as hurt by the move to Safeco Field as most right-handers because of his ability to go the other way with power. Montero should be pushed to play 140-plus games, and he's more than capable of delivering like the other notable Montero catcher, Arizona's Miguel Montero, who posted a .282/18/86/65/1 roto line in '11, fifth-best among catchers in fantasy.

As for the rest of the batting order, most of the players in the Mariners regular lineup have their best days still in front of them, and for players like Ackley, Smoak and Carp, breakout campaigns will be needed to make this a respectable offense. In Smoak's case, he's a former top prospect of the Rangers who has been a mixed bag in his two years at the MLB level. Last season, he dealt with a thumb injury and the death of his father, two obstacles that helped derail a strong start. If the stars align for Smoak, he's very capable of delivering a .260-.270, 20-25 HR campaign this season. He's a nice bat to reach for late in deeper leagues, as the protection of Montero will certainly help his cause, as will the 223 games of experience he's already gained to this point.

Carp is the biggest X factor in the lineup. He hit 33 HRs last season between Triple-A and the majors, 12 coming the final 64 games of the 79 games he played with the Mariners. According to Fangraph's Michael Barr, Carp averaged 413 feet on his home runs, more than top-shelf sluggers Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista and Prince Fielder, to name a few. Given the way he crushed the deep ball last season and the fact that he hit 29 home runs at Triple-A in '10, his power breakout has to be taken seriously. And the fact that he's only 25 years old lends credence to the possibility that he's still got room for improvement. Best case scenario, he's this year's Michael Morse. As a player with an ADP of 368 in early '12 drafts, Carp is a serious sleeper that owners need to keep on their Watch Lists this spring.

Seattle's most draftable offensive commodity is Dustin Ackley, and he's the topic of our next PQ …

In a deep 2B class, where does Dustin Ackley fit in?
Ackley looked entirely comfortable and at ease in his '11 rookie campaign, deftly handling his duties at 2B (only his second season playing the position) and holding up like a veteran at the plate. Because of fantastic hand-eye coordination and an ability to effortlessly get his bat through the zone, Ackley is a strong candidate to hit .300-plus for years to come. Projecting him for somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-17 home runs and 12-17 steals is more than reasonable, and as the likely leadoff or No. 2 hitter, he's a strong candidate for 90-100 Runs if Montero, Smoak and Carp hit at least in the neighborhood of their capabilities. Ackley has a valid argument to push the top 12 at the 2B position, vying with the likes of Howie Kendrick, Danny Espinosa and Neil Walker for the final spots on that list.

With Pineda off to the Big Apple, are there any employable starters remaining in the M's rotation?
After Felix Hernandez is typically selected, there's not another Mariners starter currently going among the next 120 starters taken in average drafts on MockDraftCentral. Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma is interesting as he's tallied a sub-3 ERA in three of his last four seasons in Japan. But he only throws in the low 90s with his fastball and he doesn't project to be anything more than serviceable in the strikeouts category. Two things that Iwakuma has going for him are fantastic control and Safeco Field, a well-established haven for pitchers. It's possible that Iwakuma could come in and be the next Hiroki Kuroda. And, with a one-year contract, he'd stand to become a much richer man if he can deliver in Kuroda fashion. But he's more of a player to keep tabs on this spring than someone that needs to be seriously considered right now in standard Yahoo! league drafts.

If there's to be anyone else to emerge as a viable fantasy commodity in this rotation, it'll probably come after the All-star break when there's a good chance that the team could take a look at some of its top-shelf pitching talent currently awaiting their turn down on the farm (see below).

Harold Reynolds
Harold Reynolds

Any farmers worth keeping tabs on?
The reason the M's even considered dealing Pineda is because of nearly-ready future top-of-the-rotation starters in lefties James Paxton and Danny Hultzen, the No. 2 pick in the '11 MLB draft. Both should find their way to Safeco Field at some point in '12.

Hultzen is very polished for a 22-year-old, showing good command of his strong fastball and slider offerings. He also throws a changeup that easily rates as his best pitch. Given his college seasoning at Virginia, a polished repertoire and an ideal pitcher's frame, Hultzen is on the fast track and a very strong spring could make him a serious contender to break camp in the rotation. Most likely he'll spend a couple months in Triple-A and join Seattle in the summer.

Paxton doesn't have Hultzen's command, but he's more of a power pitcher, averaging 12.4 K/9 in 17 minor league starts last season split between Single- and Double-A.

Both Paxton and Hultzen have the skills that profile as a No. 2 starter down the road in the majors. And like Hultzen, Paxton is a candidate for a '12 arrival in Seattle, though Hultzen is most likely to make the move up first. And when these southpaws do arrive, they'll merit the attention of fantasy owners, be it AL-only or mixed league setups.

Offensively, the Mariners are thin on impact bats at the upper-levels of their minor league system. Shortstop Nick Franklin, who turns 21 in March, has 20/20 skills, but his ascent was stuck in a holding pattern last season because of a concussion and a food-borne illness suffered in the first-half of the '11 season , so he's expected to spend the year in the minors getting back on track.