Seattle Mariners Checkpoint: Check One

Seager has been M's best hitter (Getty Images)

The Seattle Mariners finished up the first one-third of their season last night in Chicago with their 7-4 loss to the White Sox in game number 54. SeattleClubhouse checks in on the big league club with an inventory of what has gone right and what has gone wrong.

Coming into 2012 fresh off of their third season of 95 or more losses in four years, the Seattle Mariners weren't expected to compete in an American League West that got stronger all around during this past offseason. But with a mix of a couple solid veterans and a lot of encouraging youth, most expected that the club would make noticeable strides on the field this year. The fan base was encouraged by the strong statement from ace Felix Hernandez that Seattle was, "his home", and the club backed that saying that they planned to win with him rather than deal him for a lottery ticket in the form of a gaggle of prospects. Felix has clearly bought in to what the club is doing, and the club hoped that the fan base would remain patient and do the same.

That message was apparent through the reports from all of the baseball prognosticators that spoke about the M's starting back in Spring Training, and the Mariners themselves seemed to embrace this vision with their public announcement and TV commercials touting "The Plan". Those strides were being counted on particularly on offense, where the Mariners had ranked last in the Major Leagues over each of the last two seasons.

But while some improvements are certainly there as we look back over the first one-third of the season, and while the roster construction certainly seems to agree with the message that "The Plan" was sending, there are enough frustrating performances at this point that the club still may have more questions than answers as it looks ahead to the rest of 2012 and into 2013 and beyond.

What follows is a recap of the first 1/3 of the season at the big league level and what it means for the future.

THE PLAN IN ACTION: YOUTH

The move to play the young guys -- the future of the franchise -- started in 2011 as the Mariners had 18 rookies, including 12 who made their MLB debuts. Playing with a very young roster certainly can be a roller coaster ride, but the promise was there late in the season as the offense was improved with the injection of the youth. Still, it was very obvious that the offense needed help to take that next step in 2012.

The biggest move that the team made during the 2011-2012 offseason was to address the offense in the form of the trade of right-hander Michael Pineda and minor league prospect Jose Campos to the New York Yankees for pitcher Hector Noesi and catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero. Montero, one of the most highly touted young hitters in all of baseball over the past four years who performed very well in a September call-up with New York in '11, had long been a target of Jack Zduriencik, who nearly traded for him back in 2010. While many fans weren't fond of the idea of cutting ties with Pineda -- just 23-years-old and coming off of an All-Star season as a rookie -- the thought of most was that acquiring a hitter of Montero's ability made the sacrifice worth it. And while the unfortunate injuries to Pineda and Campos have certainly tipped the trade return scale in the Mariners favor early on in 2012, the fact that Montero didn't immediately step into Seattle's lineup and start putting up monster numbers has been a little bit disappointing to some. He is already firmly entrenched in the middle of the Mariners batting order, but the strikeout totals are still a bit higher than most would like to see while the walks and batting average are a bit lower than what was envisioned. Still, Montero is clearly one of -- if not the number one -- best hitter in Seattle's lineup at the ripe old age of 22.

Noesi has been up-and-down a bit, looking nothing like a major league starter at times and looking like a legitimate, reliable number three starter (at least) at others. His strikeout rate and inconsistency are certainly things to keep an eye on, but his talent is easy to see and it isn't unreasonable to consider him in the conversation for a rotation spot long term with this club. There were rumblings in the internet rumor world that some scouts actually preferred Noesi's profile going forward to Pineda's. Two years older than Pineda with not as much success, I'm not sure that is a realistic forecast, injuries aside, but Noesi absolutely does look like more than a throw-in.

THE GOOD SIGNS

Kyle Seager -- who shined at times during his second half last season but who looked like the odd man out during the spring because of roster construction issues -- could also stake a claim to the title as the club's best offensive player thus far. He leads the club in AVG, SLG, OPS, extra base hits, 2B and RBI and almost immediately made the other players that looked to be squeezing him out find another place to play defensively because of the way that Seager has performed at the plate. And not only has Kyle handled the bat well enough to be hitting in the third spot in the order, but he's also handled the defensive duties at third base very well, and he seems to have taken a stronghold on the third base job of the future for the time being, ahead of fellow rookie Alex Liddi (seeing most of his time in left field now) and a few of the top prospects at the hot corner in the minor leagues.

Hernandez -- despite a fairly significant drop in his fastball velocity -- has been every bit as good as was expected for the most part. Even with his less than stellar outings the past two times out, the right-hander that just recently turned 26-years-old still has a 3.42 ERA, 8.9 SO/9 and perhaps the best change-up in all of baseball. Felix is also still the clear emotional leader for the Mariners and is the unquestioned center piece for this club.

Lefty Jason Vargas has been better than could have been reasonably expected as he's looked like the pitcher that the league saw down the stretch in 2011, after he added a slight twist -- a la Hernandez -- to his delivery. 12 starts for Vargas here in 2012 have yielded six wins, a 3.45 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. Going back to the start of last September, when that twist was incorporated, Vargas has a 3.27 ERA over his last 17 starts (110 IP). He may offer more value than originally forecast for him as the club looks ahead, either as a part of the rotation or as a trade chip.

The rotation's other two starters -- Blake Beavan and Kevin Millwood -- have both had their highs and lows, but certainly both should be counted as plusses for the team. Millwood threw one of the finest games of the MLB season a couple of starts ago in Colorado while providing that strong veteran presence and a 3.56 ERA and Beavan is continuing to show exactly what he is to the Mariners, which isn't that bad, honestly. A 4.72 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 5 1/2 innings every fifth day out of your No. 5 starter is incredibly valuable to a ballclub. Neither player figures to be counted on heavily as the Mariners move into 2013 and beyond, but anything that either of these two give the club now is valuable -- and could turn into value in the form of trade return.

Perhaps one of the biggest bright spots to date has been left-handed reliever and Rule 5 selection Lucas Luetge. Luetge was a player that Zduriencik knew about from his days in Milwaukee, and while his minor league numbers suggested that he could pitch a little bit, I think that everyone is surprised by the success that the -year-old has had so far. In fact, Luetge's selection

But second baseman Dustin Ackley, looked at as perhaps the safest bet to perform in 2012, hasn't really got untracked through the club's first 54 games and is hitting just .254/.327/.378 in 50 games, but he is showing signs of a better approach and getting some better results of late, getting on base nine times over the last three games and driving the ball to both corners of the outfield. There is little doubt that Ackley will right the ship and become exactly what we thought he would be after his breakout rookie year.

Backup catcher John Jaso was an early season cult hero with some of the fan base when he won a few games late with clutch RBI (not that that is a thing) and slowly started getting more PT. His defense behind the plate isn't great, but it hasn't been as bad as advertised, and while his bat has cooled off, he gives solid plate appearances more often than not and is cheap.

Although he started the year in the minor leagues, lefty Charlie Furbush can certainly be counted as a positive with the work he's done out of the pen since being recalled when George Sherrill went down for the season. Furbush worked almost exclusively as a starter for Seattle last year, but his stuff really plays up in the pen and his delivery and release give hitters a real tough look when they don't get to see him multiple times. He has 21 K's and just four walks in 18 games (18 IP) since his recall and he and Luetge are combining for a very effective left-handed bullpen duo.

The bartender, Tom Wilhelmsen, has had some growing pains, but the fireballing 28-year-old is one of four bullpen arms averaging more than a strikeout an inning (10.7 SO/9 to be exact) and his control has stayed on par with how he pitched following his second promotion last season as he has taken hold as the primary set-up man. If (when) League is traded, Wilhelmsen figures to get the first look at being the M's closer for the rest of 2012.

THE BAD SIGNS

Chone Figgins -- handed the third base job ahead of Seager and the leadoff hitter role on a silver platter early in Spring Training -- quickly slumped and saw his role changed to "designated sitter". Now, just two and a half seasons into his four-year deal, Jack Z and the M's need to face the fact that their $36 million investment was a bust. A .230/.303/.286 line over 276 games for Figgins isn't worth trying to get any juice out of via trade if the expense costs younger players valuable development time on the field; he is a sunk cost and it is time for the club to cut bait and move on.

The face of the franchise over the past decade plus, Ichiro Suzuki, came into the year with a new spot in the batting order (third) and what we were told was a slightly altered swing and approach to hitting that was going to enable him to hit for more power and be more of a run producer. That has never really materialized, and Ichiro seems to have reverted to his slap-hitting, half-swinging ways as the season has progressed while he has struggled to replicate even the toned down success he had in 2011, his worst season as a pro. Perhaps fittingly, he was moved back to the leadoff spot last night and if anything can get him going in the "Ichiro of old" kind of way, maybe that move is it. Despite the frustrations of some of the fan base, Ichiro was an extremely effective and good (although unconventional a bit) leadoff hitter before 2011.

Closer Brandon League, coming off of an All-Star season that saw him save 37 games, is still fairly young (29), but he is set to become expensive and figured to be working this season in the closer's role for Seattle to build up his value for a mid-season trade to a contender. But much like a year ago (6.92 ERA, .815 OPS against), Brandon really struggled this May (6.48 ERA, .873 OPS against) and has once again been removed from closing for the time being. League certainly has value on the trade market regardless, but a good month or two before the deadline could help push the return for the Mariners in any potential trade a bit higher.

Maybe Mike Carp should get an incomplete grade because of the time he missed with injury, but he just hasn't been the same hitter he was in the 2nd half of last season. He has nine walks and six XBH in just 73 plate appearances and is still playing pretty darn well defensively in left field for a first baseman, but I'm not sure if he'll ever hit enough to stave off the younger guys that have to play somewhere.

I don't hate Miguel Olivo like so many fans in Seattle seem to. I understand that there is a lot more to catching than meets the eye and that he does a lot for the pitching staff -- young and old. But he has been flat out awful at the plate and he has a worse OPS than Figgins and Ryan. With Montero and Jaso here and hitting and with Miguel's contract situation, he should probably start seeing less and less time catching for this club.

Defensive wizard Brendan Ryan is being quite wizardly defensively and has shown more patience and discipline (BB and P/PA) than at any previous time in his career, but any bonus points he gets from those checkmarks quickly flush down the drain when you realize that he is hitting just .174/.271/.264. The Mariners have a few guys pushing their way up at shortstop in the minor leagues and with Ryan's contract expiring at the end of this year, the 30-year-old may be traded or even flat out replaced before too long if he doesn't get his bat going.

Shawn Kelley got a tough break last night when Saunders let that fly ball hit him in the face, but he wasn't exactly shutting the White Sox down and he has been hit pretty hard in his limited action in the big leagues. Kelly is clearly too good for Triple-A, but his fastball has been extremely hittable even though he has regained most of his velocity. Like Delabar, he mainly works with a two-pitch arsenal, but he seems reluctant to even throw his fastball (just 44.6% this season as compared to 67.7% in his two healthy years in '09 and '10).

THE QUESTION MARKS

Justin Smoak started slowly once again, too, and although he has picked it up considerably of late, hitting .333/.375/.600 with six homers in his last 19 games, it still doesn't look like a foregone conclusion that he can be the long-term solution at first base or in the middle of the order for Seattle. He is really good when he is on, but as a guy with a lot of moving parts in his swing that has shown wildly varying rates of success in his 271 MLB games, I don't think anyone knows just how often he will be on.

Michael Saunders got off to a lightning-fast start, but his offense tailed off for a while as the poor habits in approach that have seen him on the Tacoma-Seattle shuttle for most of the past three years are popping up again here in 2012. He broke out of it a bit in Texas (didn't everyone?) and is handling center field admirably in the absence of Franklin Gutierrez. Gutierrez's continued struggles with his health and battle with multiple ailments again have him waiting to start full-tilt baseball activities. And following what is now two years of recurring issues, the club has to seriously question if he can be counted on for the future.

Steve Delabar's control was much improved, but he was absolutely destroyed by the long ball as teams have learned to sit back and wait for their pitch to come. As a guy that primarily works with two pitches, the club recently demoted Delabar to Tacoma to work on developing a more reliable third pitch as well as working on "pitching downhill".

Besides being the club's cheerleader and all around good guy, Munenori Kawasaki has shown that he can play solid defense, put the bat on the ball and run the bases soundly. He has the fewest plate appearances of any hitter on the 25-man roster, partly because of the saga of Chone Figgins. Even from the limited looks, it is doubtful that he can hit enough to be a cog of a first division club, but he does have value because of his speed and defense.

Outfielder Casper Wells didn't get much chance to play early in the year and he was sent to Tacoma about a week ago, but he could still be in the cards for the Mariners in 2012 and beyond. With good power, decent range and a strong throwing arm, Wells could figure prominently into the club's corner outfield look down the road, particularly if Ichiro opts to retire or return to Japan after this year. Wells is tearing the cover off the ball and drawing walks in Triple-A and has played all three outfield positions in both the minors and majors, and is still only 27-years-old. That is a valuable asset.

I touched on Alex Liddi a bit earlier, but his profile isn't exactly set in stone at this point either. The Mariners lack power, and Liddi has that. He doesn't really have a position, however, and is still strikeout prone. Can he learn left field and get comfortable enough that he would be on par with Carp as a defender? I don't see it, but he has great hands and can turn around a pitch when he gets it. Look for him to get more looks in the outfield for the time being, but he is the most likely roster casualty if Gutierrez ever makes it back.

For a while there, no one was really sure if Hisashi Iwakuma was actually on the club. His first appearance was in the team's 15th game, and because of the routine he is used to in warming up as a starting pitcher, getting him into games has remained to be a challenge. He pitched just twice in April and only three times in May. And while he has been very good in 60% of those games, his limited use makes him hardly worth the roster spot. If the club can figure out a way to alter his routine a bit and make him more readily available, he has good enough stuff that he could be a very effective middle reliever. But if that simply isn't in his makeup, I'm not sure what the point of Iwakuma is.

Small in stature, big on heart righty Erasmo Ramirez has made five starts for Triple-A Tacoma as he gets himself stretched out as a starter after pitching seven games out of the big league bullpen for Seattle earlier in the year. Ramirez handled himself fairly well in Seattle, but it is clear that he needed a little better fastball command and a little more work on the offspeed pitches. Just 23, Ramirez could have a spot on the Mariners as either a starter or reliever before this year is out, and his bulldog approach would be a welcome addition.

SUMMATION

This first one-third of the season has shown signs of promise and it has shown signs of frustration, but it is good that "The Plan" is clearly being practiced along with being preached. The above breakdown isn't the end all, but it is a report card of sorts to see where these players stand. The Mariners fans and the front office are starting to get a feel for what they have in their coffers as they look ahead. And the goal is to have the right mix in the coming seasons when the goals include more than just improving.

Looking for more Mariners prospect player interviews, news and articles? "Like" SeattleClubhouse on Facebook and follow SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall on Twitter at @randallball.

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