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Pressing Questions: Seattle Mariners

Brandon Funston
Roto Arcade

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Felix Hernandez has plenty of fan support, if not offensive support(Getty)

This week, we continue our series of MLB fantasy previews, wherein we consider 5-6 key questions surrounding each team. Baseball is coming, gamers. Pitchers and catchers report soon. Fantasy owners report immediately...

The Mariners are the Imodium A-D of MLB - nothing makes the runs dry up like Seattle. What, you expected a serious discourse about the biggest offensive joke in baseball over the last half decade? Sorry, but toilet humor is an appropriate way to start this forum considering this offense has been last in the AL in runs scored four straight seasons, and second-to-last five seasons ago.

The Mariners looked to turn the tide of offensive ineptitude this offseason, sticking their noses in the middle of the Josh Hamilton bidding, but ultimately settling for cheaper help via trades (Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales). In addition, the team made the decision to move in the fences at Safeco Field, a notorious pitcher's haven. The biggest change will be in left-center, where the gap will be moved 17 feet closer. It's likely that Safeco Field will still be a tough place to hit (can't move that marine layer), but it was clear that many in the youthful M's lineup last season were suffering a crisis of confidence at home, where the team hit .220 as a unit. And if closer fences improve their player's psyche, it'll be worth it.

[Also: Ryan Braun again in middle of PED storm]

If it's not obvious by now, offense dominates our M's Pressing Questions for '13 …


Q: So about Morse and Morales, what can we expect from them in their new digs?
A: If all goes as the Mariners plan (and it rarely does), Morse and Morales are likely to occupy the No. 4 and No. 5 spots in the order. Morse should be the everyday left fielder, while Morales has a chance to be the (mostly) every day DH. Much of that will depend on how well the switch-hitting Morales handles the bat from the right side, where he has struggled throughout his career. It will also depend on how much the M's commit to Jesus Montero as their starting catcher. If not catching, then Montero would figure into the DH equation against lefties, who he has hit at a .343 clip in 201 career at bats. Encouragingly, Morales owns a .292 BA and .905 OPS for his career at Safeco Field in 120 at bats. But it's hard to envision him not seeing plenty of off days against tougher lefties, which means he's not a good bet for more than 500 at bats. He had 484 ABs with the Angels last season, returning a roto line of .273/22/73/61/0, and those numbers feel about right for his '13 projections, though I could see bumping up his run production numbers, if only slightly.

There's no platoon split concern with Morse, who owns a .303 career average against lefties and a .292 mark against righties. His biggest enemy is the training room, where he's spent an inordinate amount of time in his past five seasons. You also won't find Morse on the peripheral stat All-Star team, as he doesn't walk much, strikes out a healthy amount, returned to his extreme ground-pounding ways last season (55.3 GB%) and his numbers have often been supported by inflated BABIP rates. But I tend to subscribe to the theory that, at age 31 and after 1,500-plus MLB at bats, a player is what his stats say he is, regardless of how he comes out in the court of SABR opinion. Fantasy owners should expect Morse to hit .280-plus with mid-20s power, assuming he can play something close to a full season. And, as a contract year player, you can bet he'll be extremely motivated to do just that.

I'm going on record with a .280/24/80/70 projection for Morse. Those are serviceable numbers, but based on his early ADP number in Y! drafts, he's probably going a bit too high (204.1 overall). I'd rather have most of the dozen outfielders that come after Morse on that ADP list.


Q: About those fragile egos you mentioned. Are the kids alright?

A: Around Seattle, there was a buzz about a young nucleus of Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero heading into the '12 campaign. That deflated quickly, as all of them were hitting .245 or less at the All-Star break.

Smoak was the worst of the bunch, and he's down to his last bit of rope in Seattle, as he's expected to still be the team's opening day starter at first base. But mixed league fantasy owners are fine to ignore his plight to live up to his once esteemed prospect status. Let him sink or swim in the waiver pool.

As for Ackley, I have a hard time quitting him. When he's right mentally and physically, he has the ability to square up any pitcher in the league. Unfortunately, he was wrong on both accounts in '12. Physically, Ackley was dealing with a bone spur in his left ankle that was unbearable at times. Said M's trainer Rick Griffin:

“He was really unable to stay on his back leg and drive off his back leg because of the spur ... He would walk into the training room, we couldn’t tell if he was a 23-year old or a 90-year old.”

As his struggles mounted, it was clear that Ackley was also suffering mentally, and if you followed the M's throughout the season, you either saw or heard plenty of discussion about how Ackley wasn't right from a mechanics standpoint. Right around the All-Star break, Ackley declared that he had figured out his plate woes, stating:

"I know what I've been doing wrong – getting too far out on my front foot, not waiting for the pitch to get to me ... I have a narrow stance, and I have most of my life. I tried widening it this season, then went back to my comfort zone. That’s my stance, and I got back to that. The job now is to keep that approach.”

Unfortunately, Ackley had no luck recapturing his past success at the plate, as he only got worse after the break. But in the end, it wasn't all bad. He was a useable 12/13 in the power/speed department, and he scored a respectable 84 runs for the AL's worst offense. With a little luck (.265 BABIP was 13th lowest in '12) and renewed health, there's reason to think that Ackley can at least bump his average up into the .260-.270 range. And if that moves him to 15/15 in the HR/SB department and he scores 90-plus runs in the process as the team's leadoff hitter, that's nice value for someone not even landing, on average, among the top 20 2B-eligible players in '13 Y! drafts, thus far.

Finally, there's Montero, the M's return for dealing Michael Pineda to the Yankees before the '12 campaign. Montero's first full season in the majors really wasn't all that bad, as his .260/15/62/46/0 line netted out at No. 16 among those who finished the season with C-eligibility. But a .228 average against right-handed pitchers was alarming, and the 15 home runs was modest for someone touted by most scouting services as having top shelf power upside.

[Also: Nick Swisher leaves Indians camp after mom dies]

The Mariners plan to open the season with Montero as their main catcher, and there's reasons to love that plan if you are a Montero owner. In his 56 games as a catcher last season, Montero posted an .841 OPS (.310 BA). In 78 games as a DH, his OPS dropped to .576 (.227 BA). The numbers suggest that more games behind the plate will lead to improved plate focus. Bill James, as listed on FanGraphs.com, has Montero projected for a .285 BA, 22 HRs and 82 RBIs, numbers that would have put him in close company with what the NL's catching Montero, Miguel, did last season. And Miguel finished as the No. 6 fantasy catcher in the Yahoo! game in '12. With upside still left to believe in, the Yahoo! fantasy experts are almost unanimous in believing that Jesus Montero is worthy of being drafted as a starting catcher in standard mixed league setups.

Q: Anything to worry about with Felix Hernandez's supposed elbow issue?

A: Nope. Turned out to be a non-issue. If you own Hernandez in a dynasty league, feel good that the M's still gave him the richest pitching contract in MLB history after giving him a full physical workup. Of course, there is the velocity decline to think about, as Hernandez was at a career-low 92.4 mph with his fastball average last season, two miles per hour slower than where he was in '10. But thanks to excellent movement and location, Hernandez's fastball was a very positive pitch for him last season, ranking 14th among starters in overall fastball value. Of course, it helps that Hernandez also boasted a top 20 slider and top 10 curveball and changeup. At some point, all the innings logged from such an early age are likely to bite him. But there's nothing to suggest it's imminent. Any time after the Big 3 starters are taken (Strasburg, Kershaw, Verlander), you should feel free to draft the King with confidence.

Q: Is that former bartender still going to close up the shop in '13?

A: The Mariners have a couple excellent "closer of the future" candidates in young flamethrowers Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps. But the man of the moment will remain Tom Wilhelmsen, who has been mostly lights out in Seattle after returning from a baseball hiatus that included a stint as a bartender. In 112 IP in his MLB career, Wilhelmsen owns a 2.73 ERA and 117 Ks to 42 walks. His upper 90s fastball ranked as one of the best fastballs in the league last season, and he also enjoyed much success with his hammer curve. And he excelled no matter whether he faced a lefty (.223 BAA) or righty (.181 BA).

With filty stuff, little mileage on his arm and ninth-inning job security, I have Wilhelmsen among my top 10 closers for '13. But you won't have to pay a name brand price on draft day. Consider him a solid closer to wait on in your drafts.

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[Also: Jays' Melky Cabrera will get his ring, dodge hard justice for cheating]

Finally, any potential Seattle rookies to keep an eye on this season?

A Some scouting analysts rate the M's as having the second-best minor league farm, and at least of couple of their prized prospects could get noteworthy opportunities at the MLB level in '13. At the top of the list is former University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino, who hasn't stopped hitting since he was drafted No. 3 overall by the M's in '12. After hitting .371 with 10 home runs in his 29-game pro debut for Single-A Everett, Zunino was promoted to Double-A, where he failed to skip a beat - .333, three home runs in 15 games.

The M's top prospect, according to Baseball America, Zunino is lauded for a compact stroke, good bat speed, solid strike zone management and the ability to hit to all fields. He's not going to need much more seasoning at the minor league level, but he'll start the year at Triple-A Tacoma, in a well-known hitter's league. The odds are that he'll continue to make waves with his bat when '13 opens. But, whether the M's admit it or not, he'll probably be limited by service clock issues and won't likely get a callup until the summer, at the earliest. If/when he does finally get the call, be on alert, because the M's won't be calling him up to ride the pine. He's the M's catcher of the future, and that future starts the moment he arrives in Seattle - hopefully Jesus Montero will have figured out how to stay focused in a DH role by then.

[Baseball 2013 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]

On the mound, Tajaun Walker is the consensus top talent in Seattle's farm arsenal. But, not yet 21 years old, he's not likely to see time for the Mariners in '13. Not far beind Walker in prospect status is lefty Danny Hultzen, a top 3 overall pick of the M's two years ago. Until unexpected control issues after a promotion to Triple-A last season, the former University of Virginia star was tearing it up in his pro debut last season, posting a 1.19 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 9.4 K/9 rate in 13 starts for Double-A Jackson. In 12 starts for Triple-A Tacoma, though, the normally under-control Hultzen walked 8.0 batters per nine innings. Most, though, feel like that strike zone lapse is nothing to worry about in the long run. But it clearly sent a message to the M's that he wasn't ready for the final step up the corporate ladder. Hultzen will start '13 in Triple-A, working on regaining command of an impressive arsenal that includes a potent low-to-mid 90s fastball and excellent changeup. When he does arrive in Seattle, he'll have definite AL-only appeal and is at least worth a close watch in standard mixers, as he's generally regarded as having future No. 2 starter upside.

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