I've been very critical of the Mariners under general manager Jack Zduriencik, for good reason, but the emergence of righty stud Michael Piñeda in the rotation and first baseman Justin Smoak as the team's number-three hitter this season has given Mariners fans real hope, not just the emerald-tinted glasses kind that made me something of a whipping boy for M's fans early last year until they realized I was right about their team.
The Mariners still aren't a good team, but they finally have assets beyond King Felix and their aging right fielder. In fact, I'm not sure I'd even list the 37-year-old Ichiro among their assets anymore (sound familiar?). He's having his worst season across the board, hitting just .286/.342/.325, all career-low rates, his already limited power has vanished (.039 isolated slugging!), and both Ultimate Zone Rating and Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs are hating on his range in right field all of a sudden.
Rather, the Mariners' best hitter is the sophomore Smoak, who has rebounded from a punchless rookie campaign, in the midst of which Seattle acquired him from the division-rival Rangers as the central player in the Cliff Lee deal, to deliver on his promise as one of the game's top prospects. Smoak hit .315/.413/.576 through May 6, and though he has slumped over the last three weeks, the 24-year-old switch-hitting first baseman looks to be entrenched in the heart of the Mariners' order for years to come.
Dustin Ackley, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, should be summoned to the majors to join Smoak in short order, though the Mariners still have some concerns about the converted outfielder's play at second base. Still, the lineup isn't really the story here. Even with Smoak smoking the ball, the M's have scored just 3.59 runs per game this season, third-worst in the American League.
No, the story is the starting rotation, and specifically the one-two punch of defending Cy Young award-winner Felix Hernandez and 22-year-old rookie sensation Michael Piñeda. As a unit, the M's rotation has posted a 3.14 ERA, second best in the majors behind the A's, but while Erik Bedard has made a nice return from a year-plus lost to shoulder surgery, and softballers Jason Vargas and the unfortunately named Doug Fister, the former of whom starts against CC Sabathia, on Sunday, have held their own, it is Piñeda and Hernandez, who will start in that order in the first two games of this series, who strike fear in the hearts of opposing hitters and have helped the Mariners stay within striking distance of a winning record.
In fact, rather than waste more time up here, let's get right into those pitching matchups:
A.J. Burnett (5-2, 4.02) vs. Michael Piñeda (6-2, 2.16), Friday, May 27, 10:10, YES
Here's what I wrote about Piñeda in my look at the Rookie of the Year races on April 25:
Piñeda has been the most impressive of the AL's rookie starters thus far. Rated the 16th-best prospect in baseball coming into the season by Baseball America, the 22-year-old, 6-foot-7, Dominican righty throws both his four and two-seam fastballs in the mid-to-upper 90s, averaging 96 miles per hour with the latter, and misses even more bats with his nasty slider, which has a sharp, downward break.
A month later, Piñeda is fifth in the league in ERA, tied for second in wins, sixth in WHIP, first in K/9, fourth in K/BB . . . in other words, he's not just one of the most impressive rookies in the league, he's one of the league's best starters. Period.
It should come as no surprise that Piñeda has been at his best in pitching-friendly Safeco. He's hardly a mark on the road (3-1, 2.61), but at home, he has allowed just five runs in 27 1/3 innings (1.65 ERA) while striking out 28 against four walks. Piñeda has turned in eight quality starts in nine turns, and the lone exception was a blown quality start in which he gave up his fourth run in the seventh inning. He has allowed one or no earned runs in five of his nine starts, and he enters this game with an active 14-inning scoreless streak stretching back over his last two starts.
A.J. Burnett is not Michael Piñeda.
Ivan Nova (4-3, 4.29) vs. Felix Hernandez (5-4, 3.01), Saturday, May 28, 10:10, YES/MLBN
Felix Hernandez remains King Felix. Over his last seven starts, he has posted a 2.31 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, and 3.86 K/BB and averaged nearly 7 1/3 innings per start. In his Cy Young winning season last year, Hernandez faced the Yankees three times and dominated them each time out: An 11-strikeout shutout in the Bronx on June 30, another complete game (one run, 9 Ks) in Seattle two weeks later, and another 11-strikeout performance across eight scoreless innings on August 20. The net results: 3-0, 0.35 ERA, 31 Ks in 26 innings against the best offense in baseball.
Ivan Nova has posted a 2.83 ERA over his last six starts without an excess of luck on balls in play, but he's still not getting enough groundballs or strikeouts to inspire much confidence.
CC Sabathia (5-3, 3.17) vs. Jason Vargas (3-2, 3.86), Sunday, May 29, 4:10, YES
Acquired from the Mets in the massive, three-team Franklin Gutierrez trade after the 2008 season, Vargas is a 28-year-old lefty fly-ball pitcher with an 87-mile-per-hour fastball and a good changeup. He had a solid season for the M's in 2010, but his home ERA was two runs better than his road mark. Thus far this year, his split has reversed, but he's still holding his own as a league-average starter with twice as many quality starts as disaster outings. His two starts against the Yankees last year followed his home/road split, dominating the Bombers at home despite a lack of strikeouts and an excess of fly balls, then coughing up seven runs in the Bronx.
Here are CC Sabathia's numbers through his first 11 starts in 2010:
4-3, 4.16 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 1.3 HR/9, 6.8 K/9, 2.35 K/BB, .271 BABIP, 6.5 IP/GS, 6 QS
And here are his numbers through his first 11 starts this year:
5-3, 3.17 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 0.4 HR/9, 7.3 K/9, 2.82 K/BB, .309 BABIP, 7.0 IP/GS, 6 QS
Last year, Sabathia went 21-7 with a 3.18 ERA, led the majors in wins, made the All-Star team, finished third in the Cy Young voting, and even got some down-ballot MVP votes. He's having a better season this year, so far.
Two starts ago, Sabathia dominated the Orioles, striking out nine against no walks in eight scoreless innings. In his last start, against the Blue Jays, he gave up four early runs, but then retired the final 16 men he faced for his first complete game of the year. In three starts against the Mariners last year, he went 3-0 with an 0.86 ERA.
2011 Record: 24-25 (.490)
2011 Third-Order Record: 25-24 (.512)
2010 Record: 61-101 (.377)
2011 Record: 69-93 (.426)
Manager: Eric Wedge
General Manager: Jack Zduriencik
Home Ballpark: Safeco Park
Bill James Park Indexes (2008-2010):
LH Avg-95; LH HR-92
RH Avg-98; RH HR-75
Who replaces whom:
• Justin Smoak inherits Casey Kotchman's playing time
• Miguel Olivo replaces Adam Moore (DL) and Rob Johnson
• Adam Kennedy replaces Jose Lopez
• Brendan Ryan replaces Josh Wilson
• Jack Cust replaces Russell Branyan, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mike Sweeney
• Carlos Peguero replaces Milton Bradley
• Mike Wilson takes over some of Michael Saunders' and Franklin Gutierrez's playing time
• Chris Gimenez replaces Josh Bard and Eliezer Alfonzo
• Luis Rodriguez replaces Matt Tuiasosopo (mL)
• Michael Piñeda replaces Cliff Lee and Ryan Rowland-Smith
• Erik Bedard (DL) replaces Luke French, Ian Snell and some of David Pauley's innings
• Aaron Laffey replaces Garrett Olson
• Chris Ray replaces Brian Sweeney and Sean White
• Jeff Gray is holding a roster spot for David Aardsma (DL) while Brandon League replaces Aardsma as closer.
1B - Justin Smoak (S)
2B - Adam Kennedy (L)
SS - Brendan Ryan (R)
3B - Chone Figgins (S)
C - Miguel Olivo (R)
RF - Ichiro Suzuki (L)
CF - Franklin Gutierrez (R)
LF - Carlos Peguero (L)
DH - Jack Cust (L)
R - Jack Wilson (IF)
L - Michael Saunders (CF)
S - Mike Wilson (OF)
R - Chris Gimenez (C/1B/OF)
S - Luis Rodriguez (IF)
R - Felix Hernandez
L - Jason Vargas
R - Doug Fister
L - Erik Bedard
R - Michael Piñeda
R - Brandon League
L - Aaron Laffey
R - Chris Ray
R - David Pauley
R - Jamey Wright
R - Jeff Gray
RHP - David Aardsma (UCL sprain in right elbow, rehab from left hip labrum surgery)
C - Adam Moore (torn meniscus in right knee)
RHP - Shawn Kelley (surgery to resecure UCL ligament in right elbow)
LHP - Mauricio Robles (elbow debridement surgery)
L - Ichiro Suzuki (RF)
S - Chone Figgins (3B)
S - Justin Smoak (1B)
L - Jack Cust (DH)
R - Franklin Gutierrez (CF)
L - Adam Kennedy (2B)
R - Miguel Olivo (C)
L - Carlos Peguero (LF)
R - Brendan Ryan (SS)