Three Questions – Seattle Mariners

With the 2011 Starting Pitcher Guide slated for next month, I have a jam packed volume covering all the ins and outs of starting pitching in the 2011 season for your viewing pleasure.  Of course that doesn’t do much to address the offensive side of things so I decided to start this “Three Questions” where I will cover some key offensive issues for each of the 30 teams.  There will be more content here dealing with offense, but this is the beginning.

Will Justin Smoak start to look like the guy who was the centerpiece in a deal for an ace?

Smoak, a blue chip prospect coming up through the Rangers’ organization, drew rave reviews in three minor league seasons ranking 13th (2010) and 23rd (2009) on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect list the last two years.  He was being compared to former Ranger Mark Teixeira, likely due to the easy surface comparison of switch-handedness, a deft eye at the plate, first round draft status and first base positioning on the diamond.  It will be tough to find out how apt those comparisons were as Smoak is now a Seattle Mariner.

His career started off with a whimper in 275 plate appearances with the Rangers, but he still showed the ability to draw walks with a 105-point split between his batting average and on-base percentage, although both lagged with the latter topping out at .316.  His 8-home run total wasn’t horrible either.  Across a full season, that projects to the low-20 power Smoak was projected for in his young career.  Results on the whole were slightly better in Seattle (93 OPS+ v. 79 in Texas) though they came at the expense of his batting eye as the difference in average and OBP dwindled to 48 points.

As the centerpiece return for the M’s in the trade that sent Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers the expectation for Smoak to hit Teixeira likely won’t go away, however the capacity to do so will be seriously diminished in his home park of Safeco Field.  According to StatCorner.com, Safeco Field has a park factor of 91 on home runs for left-handed batters and just 84 for righties.  For the uninitiated, anything below 100 favors pitchers.  So for 81 of his games, Smoak is going to be playing in an environment that eats away at his ability to do the thing fantasy owners need most out of a first base/corner infield option, hit for power.

Factor in the historically bad lineup which has no chance but to improve but will still struggle and you’ve got a player bringing very little to the table in terms of production.  If the low-20s was Smoak’s ceiling for the early part of his career in Texas, then 15-17 is the new ceiling playing in Seattle.  Combine that with below average runs scored and driven in totals and you have waiver wire fodder in most league formats.  He will get drafted because of his name and because of his hot September (.340/.421/.580, 3 HR, 9 RBI), both of which are factors that will price me out for sure.  I don’t need a hit before I pass this Smoak.

Where do I draft Ichiro now that he’s 37 & stuck in that lineup?

I am less concerned about the age than I am his awful supporting cast who last year cashed in Ichiro’s .359 on-base percentage for a whopping 74 runs.  SEVENTY-FOUR!!!  He hit .315 with 214 hits and scored 74 runs.  We have already seen within his early-to-mid 30s that Ichiro isn’t aging normally.  He continues to be an age-defying star and there is no reason to bet that he drops off the table suddenly in 2011.  As I have mentioned many times before, I would be careful subscribing to these trends, but he has an on-off trend with his batting average that is schedule for an on year.  His last four years in order have been .351, .310, .352 and .315 meaning if the trend held he would be in for another transcendent batting average year that can carry a fantasy team.

On-off trends are hardly the statistical work of Baseball Prospectus and company, but maybe he dedicates himself in a different way during the offseason of those “down” seasons to come back and have another huge year.  Flimsy at best, so don’t use it as the reason to draft him.  Draft him because he hits .300+ in a ton of at-bats with 35+ stolen bases.  Unfortunately he cannot be counted on for runs until further notice, but he is a stud in two categories.

In a recent “Experts” Draft held over at CBS, he went at the top of the 5th round.  I might be more prone to take him in the back of the 4th round when all of those picks were being wasted on starting pitchers, but it’s inconsequential to say he is late 4th instead of an early 5th round pick.  Anywhere in that pick 40-60 range suits me just fine.  The age is scary to many so you may even be able to hold off until the 6th round or get a few dollars shaved off of his auction price.  When you are dealing with superstar once-in-a-lifetime players, things like natural age progression and mistrusting the stats is how you get burned.  He is as solid as they get in this game on unpredictability.

Is there anyone besides Ichiro worth caring about in this lineup?

Yes, there is some hidden value.  Off the top, I would be willing to bet on a Chone Figgins rebound.  The price is likely to be ripe for a profit as his .259 average left a sour taste in the over-reactionary populace of fantasy baseball while you are smart enough to wade through the belly-aching and see a guy who still stole 42 bases and hit much better from June on (.280) after entering the month with a .211 average.

But for the purposes of this question, I would like to shift your attention to the former AL West foe who was brought to the Mariners to provide some punch to their lineup, Jack Cust.  You may recall about 500 or so words ago I lamented Safeco Field and what it does to a hitter’s power.  However the “hitter” in that example is a mere mortal when it comes to power hitting, he is no Jack Cust.  Cust’s power isn’t to be stifled by cavernous stadiums whether in the Bay Area or the great Northwest.

Cust popped a .501 slugging percentage in McAfee Coliseum, his former home in Oakland, which has a home run park factor just a point higher at 92 for lefties than his new home.  This means his power won’t be stifled, just as the power of the guy whose shoes he is filling, Russell Branyan, wasn’t during his two stints with Seattle.  Cust has a legitimate shot to replicate Branyan’s 31 home run season from 2009 and he certainly doesn’t cost what 31 home runs should (went 29th round in the aforementioned “Experts” League) so put a star next to him on your draft list.

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