If we were to play a player-association game about the Seattle Mariners -- that is, I say "Mariners", and you say the first player who pops into your head -- you'd probably go with Ichiro or Felix Hernandez. Maybe you've got a bit of record-store clerk in you, so you'd go with an outstanding player that the common fan might not have heard about yet, like Dustin Ackley. Maybe you're a current-events junkie, so Jesus Montero is your guy.
All of these answers are good answers. But there's a temptation to think the correct answer is Jason Vargas, who is almost a perfect metaphor for the 2012 Mariners. Vargas isn't especially good, but he isn't the worst starting pitcher in the American League. There are things that he does better than the average starting pitcher, and there are things he doesn't do as well. The latter ledger has more entries, but he isn't bad enough to work very well as a stand-alone punchline. He's also someone who you won't think about for several months after closing this tab. All of that is much like the Mariners.
The forced analogy breaks down, though, when you realize that Vargas isn't going to change any time soon. He's not going to surprise with his ceiling; he'll keep being Jason Vargas for as long as his body will let him, no better or worse. There isn't a lot of upside. The Mariners can look ahead to a brighter future, though, even if it's a distant future.
This could be an interesting Mariners team by the end of the year. Not good. Not contending. But with some improved health, some better luck, and more than a few young faces, there should be a reason to watch Mariners games, even if you aren't a Mariners fan. These aren't the insane ramblings of a baseball-deprived fool in the middle of a spring vision quest. The Mariners could be interesting.
Consider the lineup last season:
Batting average is pretty useless by itself if you're evaluating a hitter or a team. But think of hits as an exciting, positive outcome -- something more sudden and immediately favorable than a walk. Now think about Mariner after Mariner trudging to the plate and leaving without a hit. The team OBP was under .300, and they scored the fewest runs in the majors with the help of a DH, but the average hints at something worse than incompetence. They were uniformly boring. Even Ichiro was boring by his standards. No one could escape the gravity of the 2011 Mariners.
The big trade of the offseason will help. Jesus Montero has been one of the top-ten prospects in baseball, according to Baseball America, for each of the last three years. He's hit everywhere he's gone, while usually being one of the very youngest players in his league. His right-handed power might not be a great match for Safeco Field, but he should hit soon, even if the raw numbers take a hit because of his park.
Dustin Ackley only played 90 games for the Mariners last year, but he led the lineup in WAR according to FanGraphs. It's never fair to compare anyone to perennial All Stars, so I'm not going to say that his upside is as a John Olerud-type who can play a mean second base. Heavens no. But I'm not deleting that sentence, either. I'll just leave it there and let you linger over it as you see fit. A John Olerud-type who can play a mean second base. Dude's good.
And there are potential contributors who shouldn't be forgotten just yet. Justin Smoak looked like he was having a breakout year until thumb injuries ground him down. Franklin Gutierrez dealt with irritable bowel syndrome going into last year, losing a lot of weight in the process. Carlos Peguero, Mike Carp, Michael Saunders, and Trayvon Robinson are all young enough to improve substantially, though it's not as if most of them can go in any possible direction other than up.
At the back end of the Mariners' rotation, they'll have very Mariners pitchers. Hector Noesi and Hisashi Iwakuma are both expected to have excellent control, and they might even have a little strikeout potential. If one of them falters, Charlie Furbush is a very Mariners pitcher, too, even if he thought he was pitching at Coors Field for most of last year. All of those pitchers will be interesting in their own way, each with a semblance of upside that extends beyond "generic innings-eater."
Beyond that batch, though, there are pitching prospects who could contribute this year. James Paxton isn't far away. Erasmo Ramirez shouldn't be far behind. And even though Danny Hultzen hasn't thrown a professional pitch yet, the Mariners are expecting him to move on a quick Mark Prior/Tim Lincecum timetable, which could mean that he'll see time this year. Beyond the interesting-if-limited pitchers, there are interesting pitchers with buckets of liquid potential waiting to break through.
And every fifth day, Felix Hernandez pitches.
Good? Nope. Bad? Well, if you're using the strict definition, yeah. Miguel Olivo. Chone Figgins. Gutierrez is already hurt. It looks like a thin bullpen. They'll probably allow more runs than they score, and lose more than they win.
But there are a lot of bad teams that ooze bad from every pore, and it's a stink that doesn't just wash out with a little Lava soap. The Mariners have a few building blocks in place, with more coming up. More importantly for 2012, they shouldn't be dreadfully boring. They should be a flawed, watchable team that will allow their fans to dream about a well-constructed, contending team. That isn't something that every bad team can say.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Hole they didn't fill)
This one depends on if you think Montero can catch. If he can't, then the Mariners will still be giving an awful lot of time to Miguel Olivo behind the plate. Olivo is a bad hitter, and even though evaluating catchers' defense is still in the tea-leaves-and-smoke-omens phase, a lot of metrics point to him as a bad catcher too. If Montero remains a catcher, great. Hole filled. If Montero has to move to DH, though ...
Hultzen was the #2 overall pick last year, and even though he was a bit of a surprise pick (with a lot of Mariners fans expecting Anthony Rendon or Trevor Bauer), he isn't supposed to be in the minor leagues for long. He could come up in August or September if the Mariners donate Kevin Millwood to a worthy cause.
They'll still be kind of boring. I mean, that's not going to vanish completely. But the Mariners will play well enough towards the end of the season to make people think happy thoughts. And unlike after the 2009 season, the happy thoughts will mostly be justified.
And if they aren't, well, there are the Astros next year. They should beat the absolute hell out of the Astros by that point.