AL Preview: Northern Exposure Edition
With Spring Training underway throughout baseball, we will take a look at the offseason moves made by the other American League teams. Two teams will be reviewed each Sunday until the beginning of the regular season. Previous previews include: TEX/HOU; OAK/LA.
By Bob Toth
In 1977, two new franchises began play in the American League. The Mariners were the second incarnation in the city of Seattle in Major League Baseball history, as the city had lost its previous franchise – the Pilots – to Milwaukee, where they became the Brewers. The Toronto Blue Jays gave Canada their second major league franchise, joining the Montreal Expos at the time.
Their shared births into baseball are not their only similarities, as both great cities have seen significant stretches of struggles on the diamond after periods of great success throughout the 1990’s.
Will either of these previously linked franchises be able to make 2013 the year they break out and return to the postseason?
The Seattle Mariners (75-87) finished in fourth place in the American League West in 2012, marking the third straight finish at the bottom of the division and the fourth time in five years. Seven times in the last nine years the Mariners have dwelled in the cellar of the West, many years removed from their last playoff appearance in 2001, when the team was eliminated in the American League Championship Series after winning 116 games for Lou Piniella.
Seattle will enter their third year of the Eric Wedge era. The former Indians’ manager saw an eight game improvement from his squad in 2012, but the team was still 19 games out of first place come season’s end and 14 games behind the third place Los Angeles Angels.
The Mariners were led at the top of the rotation by Felix Hernandez. Despite posting a 13-9 record, he still found himself in the discussion for the Cy Young Award in the AL after another dominating All-Star season. With five complete games (all shutouts) and one of which was the ever-elusive perfect game on August 15th, Hernandez limited the opposition with a 3.06 ERA and led the league with just 0.5 home runs allowed per nine innings. His 1-0 piece of perfection against the Rays was the 23rd such game in baseball history.
The team saw some good power production from their young lineup at the plate. Third baseman Kyle Seager led the way with 20 home runs and 86 runs batted in, leading the team in both categories. Rookie catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero led the team with a .260 batting average while slugging 15 homers and driving in 62 runs. Outfielder Michael Saunders tied for second on the team (with first baseman Justin Smoak) with 19 home runs and led the team on the base paths with 21 stolen bases in 25 opportunities.
Quite possibly the biggest addition the Mariners made this offseason was securing the services of staff ace Hernandez well into the future. After some changes to the original contract language after concerns arose surrounding Hernandez’s pitching arm, he and the club agreed upon a seven-year contract worth $175 million. A team option for 2020, when “King Felix” will be 34 years old, may be exercised for $1 million if the pitcher spends more than 130 consecutive days on the disabled list due to any surgeries or procedures to repair a right elbow injury.
The team dealt one of its more productive starters, left-hander Jason Vargas, to the division-rival Angels in exchange for Kendrys Morales. The workhorse Vargas had led the staff in wins with 14 in 2012.
Morales batted .273 in 2012 for the Angels after finally returning from a leg injury he sustained celebrating a walkoff grand slam against the Mariners in May of 2010. In 134 games, he hit 22 home runs and drove in 73 and became expendable when the Angels signed Josh Hamilton. Morales will provide the M’s with depth at first base and designated hitter.
The Mariners also made a big splash when they re-acquired Mike Morse from the Washington Nationals in a three-way trade. Seattle sent catcher John Jaso to Oakland as part of the trade. Morse, who struggled through four big league seasons in Seattle before being dealt to the Nationals in June of 2009 for Ryan Langerhans, rejoins the Mariners with the new-found ability to hit the long ball. After hitting just six home runs over his first five major league seasons, he hit 15 in 2010 in Washington before having his breakout season in 2011. In 146 games that year, he hit 31 home runs, 36 doubles, and drove in 95 runs while batting .303. His numbers fell off last season a bit while playing in just 102 games in D.C. He had 18 homers and 62 RBI while batting .291. He played the corner outfield positions last season after splitting time between first base and the outfield the previous years.
The team also added several potential pieces to their bench bunch, including former Indians catcher Kelly Shoppach, who is reunited with Wedge, infielder Robert Andino, and outfielders Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay.
The club parted ways with starting pitcher Kevin Millwood and utility player Chone Figgins, who had underperformed in Seattle after being signed away from the Angels three years ago. An All-Star in 2009 in Los Angeles, he batted .259 in 161 games in his first season in Seattle in 2010, but batted well below the Mendoza line in the next two seasons.
Shortly after Spring Training began, the team dealt first baseman Mike Carp to the Boston Red Sox. Carp had showed some promise in 2011 with 12 home runs in a half-season worth of games played, but slumped last season while batting .213.
The Mariners hold the lead in the all-time series with the Indians, 205-162. The two clubs split the season series last year with four wins apiece. Both teams had three-game winning streaks against the other over the course of the season.
A strong Cleveland connection remains in Seattle, starting with manager Wedge and his coaching staff, which includes former Indians pitching coach Carl Willis and coaches Jeff Datz and Robby Thompson. Joining Shoppach as former Indians players on the Mariners roster is outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, who is returning after another injury-plagued season in the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle’s rotation appears to be an unknown commodity beyond Hernandez, but the team boasts several top pitching prospects.
Twenty-year-old right-handed pitcher Taijuan Walker, the team’s first round pick in 2010, was the youngest pitcher in the Southern League last season and appeared in the 2012 Futures Game during the All-Star break. He has allowed just one walk and one hit in three innings so far this spring with a pair of strikeouts in Seattle’s camp.
Left-handed starter Danny Hultzen, a 23-year-old 2011 draft pick (second overall, just ahead of Trevor Bauer) struggled at Triple-A but had been dominant at Double-A in his first full season of professional baseball. He has struck out six of the twelve batters he has faced thus far this spring.
The Mariners did well to supplement a young roster base (Dustin Ackley, Montero, Seager, Smoak) with some established veteran bats (Morse, Morales, Ibanez, Shoppach). The team’s success in the very competitive AL West will rely on what the starting rotation, beyond Hernandez, can provide.
While the Mariners were very active throughout the offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays were actually even more active, revamping their entire starting rotation in one expensive swoop while adding several other experienced players to the lineup.
With ripples made in the landscape of the AL East over the course of the last several seasons by the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles and both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees showing that they are vulnerable, the Blue Jays have gone all-in in their effort to compete in, and possibly even steal, the East.
Toronto (73-89) had a season similarly disappointing to that of the Mariners. In what was a tight battle at the top of the East, the Blue Jays were far, far removed from the competition, finishing 22 games behind the division-leading Yankees and 17 games behind the Rays for third place.
The problems for the Jays began on the mound. The team used a total of 34 different pitchers (including twelve different starters) throughout the season and did not have any one who was largely successful. Brandon Morrow led the team with ten wins. Veteran Ricky Romero and youngster Henderson Alvarez each finished the season 9-14.
They also struggled with the loss of All-Star slugger Jose Bautista. With him in the lineup, the team was 45-47. He played every game through Toronto’s first 90 games, but was then lost for 34 games with a left wrist injury. He returned for one game and three innings before re-aggravating the injury. The Blue Jays were 28-42 without Joey Bats in the lineup.
The changes in the offseason came quick, as manager John Farrell was essentially traded to the Boston Red Sox for infielder Mike Aviles, who would later be flipped to the Indians with infielder Yan Gomes in exchange for reliever Esmil Rogers.
Former Blue Jays coach John Gibbons was eventually rehired by Toronto to replace the departed Farrell and will take over a roster far different than the one present when Farrell left the organization. Gibbons was an even 305-305 in parts of five different seasons as the Blue Jays’ manager from 2004 through 2008, before being replaced by Cito Gaston, another Toronto skipper who saw two tours of duties through the dugout with the club.
It seemed at times that Toronto acquired every single player who was placed on waivers. Seven different waiver claims were made in October, including former Indians reliever Scott Maine. Three more claims were made in December, including ex-Indians player Russ Canzler. An additional three claims have been made since the start of 2013.
The team made easily one of the biggest, most surprising moves of the offseason when they acquired a substantial number of players and contracts from the Miami Marlins in a November trade. Heading north of the border were starting pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, shortstop Jose Reyes, and outfielder Emilio Bonifacio. Catcher John Buck, who also came in the trade, would be traded again in December in a deal with the New York Mets. Seven different players, including Yunel Escobar and Alvarez, were sent to the Marlins in the deal.
Buehrle signed a four-year, $58 million deal with the Marlins during their big spending spree following the 2011 season. The four-time All-Star with the White Sox will return to the American League after posting a 13-13 mark for the disappointing Marlins last year. He finished the season with a 3.74 ERA in over 200 innings of work and earned his fourth consecutive Gold Glove Award.
Johnson enters the final year of his four-year, $39 million contract that began in 2010. After missing the majority of the 2011 season with right shoulder inflammation, he went 8-14 last season while posting a 3.81 ERA. During his last full season in 2010, he led the National League with a 2.30 ERA. He is a two-time All-Star and tends to not allow many home runs.
Reyes adds an instant speed threat to the top of the Blue Jays lineup. He has stolen 30 or more bases in seven of the last eight seasons (he played only 36 games in 2009). Three different times he led the league. He led the NL in triples in four of the last eight seasons and three times led the league in plate appearances. In 2011, he won the National League batting title while hitting a league-best .337.
Less than a week later, the Blue Jays inked free agent outfielder Melky Cabrera to a two-year deal. Cabrera was atop the National League batting title race for the San Francisco Giants before a suspension for performance enhancing drugs ended his season. Cabrera finished his 113-game season with a .346 batting average and 159 hits overall. He drove in 60 runs and had 25 doubles, ten triples, and eleven home runs at the time of his suspension. He made his first All-Star team and was MVP of the game.
Still looking to bolster the rotation, the team also pulled the trigger on a deal with the Mets, sending Buck and several touted prospects to New York in exchange for reigning NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, catcher Josh Thole, and catcher Mike Nickeas.
The 38-year-old won his lone Cy Young Award in easily his best professional season. The first-time All-Star went 20-6 for the Mets with a 2.73 ERA. He led the NL in starts (33), innings pitched (233 2/3), strikeouts (230), batters faced (927), complete games (five), and shutouts (three). He has three years left on his contract with a team option year for 2016.
Bonifacio, Thole, and the signings of infielders Maicer Izturis and Mark DeRosa provide the team with veteran bench pieces to supplement Bautista and the existing core, including Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, and Edwin Encarnacion.
The Blue Jays lead the all-time series against the Indians, 190-188. Toronto also took the season series last year, four games to two. The two will again square off to start the season, after Toronto took two of three in Cleveland to open last season.
The Blue Jays have several former Indians in camp this year. In addition to Rogers, Izturis, and DeRosa, former Columbus Clippers player Lars Anderson was picked up in a waiver claim from the Chicago White Sox in February, who had done the same in acquiring him from Arizona. The Diamondbacks had received Anderson from the Indians as part of the Bauer deal.
The Blue Jays ranked in the top five in the AL last season in home runs and would figure to be there again. Despite missing the services of their number one threat for the latter portion of the year, Encarnacion replaced Bautista as the team’s leading supplier, slugging 42 home runs and driving in 110 RBI. Reyes will add a speed threat and another run producer to the top of the lineup and Cabrera should be able to get on base to set the table for the Blue Jay big boppers. The rotation should not be remotely close to the mess it was last season with the additions of three quality veteran starting pitchers.
The Blue Jays have invested in the here and now and should make the AL East a dogfight throughout the 2013 season. The lone question marks will involve how quickly the team can gel with one another and how the bullpen will hold up.
Next week – a trip through New England and down the coast to the Big Apple.
Photo: Otto Greule, Jr. / Getty Images