A year ago, the Seattle Mariners opened their season with a lineup that included Milton Bradley, Jack Cust, Chone Figgins, Michael Saunders - in center field - and Jack Wilson. The results, long term, weren't good, and the team finished last in the American League with a .233 batting average and 556 runs.
As the team stands today, an opening day lineup would look something like this: Ichiro RF, Dustin Ackley 2B, Mike Carp DH, Justin Smoak 1B, Casper Wells LF, Franklin Gutierrez CF, Miguel Olivo C, Kyle Seager 3B, Brendan Ryan SS.
Would that be an improvement and, if so, how big an impriovement.
First, consider the obvious - Carp, Ackley, Wells, Seager and Gutierrez are better hitters than Bradley, Wilson, Figgins, Cust and Saunders.
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The Mariners are expecting development from their young players in 2012, and they're likely to get some from young and old. Ichiro may never hit his .326 career average again, but he's probably not a .272 hitter, either. In the final year of a contract, coming off the worst season of his career, Ichiro will have every motivation to improve.
Ackley batted .273 in 2012, but wore down in September and hit .219 that final month. Counting on him to hit between .280-.290 doesn't seem too great an expectation. Carp hit .313 with six home runs and 25 RBI in August, his first full month with Seattle, then .230/4/12 in September. While he's not a classic heart-of-the-lineup hitter, Carp had 110 RBI in 136 games split between Tacoma and Seattle.
Figure Carp may not improve on his .273 batting average, but his RBI count will continue on pace of 2011. The guy drives in runs. A healthy Gutierrez, who missed much of last year with stomach ailments, can be expected to hit his lifetime average of .256 and perhaps a bit more.
The bigger question marks are Smoak, the switch-hitting first baseman, Wilson and Seager.
Smoak had an awful season marred by the death of his father and a handful of minor, nagging injuries. Healthy in September, he batted .301 with three home runs and 11 RBI in 73 at-bats. Can he be the power-hitting presence Jack Zduriencik saw when he acquired Smoak in trade from Texas? The best that can be said thus far is he has been, but only in short stretches.
Casper Wells was two players after arriving from Detroit in the Doug Fister trade. He batted .333 with six home runs and 14 RBI in his first 15 games with Seattle, then was floored by 'vertigo-like symptoms' and hit just .067 over his final 15 games. There's a job to be won in camp, and Wells could be a major factor in the Mariners 2012 lineup - or playing for Tacoma.
Third baseman Seager batted .258 a year ago, and was sent home in October with the command to get stronger, in hope that his opposite field fly balls might become up-the-alley line drives. Everywhere he's played, Seager has hit - a .328 average over 289 minor league games. A strong spring gets him the job at third, and a solid season - say, .280? - makes the Mariners a better team.
This offense, even without a thumper in the middle, should be better than ther 2011 editiion. Significantly better. With continued good pitching, that could mean a jump from 67 wins to 78-81 wins - if everything goes right.
'Everything' never goes right, and part of the problem is, good pitching and improved offense or not, Seattle plays Texas and Los Angeles more than 30 times, and both those teams appear to have gotten stronger.
Bottom line: The Mariners, without adding another bat, will be a better team in 2012. If the improvement turns out to be marginal, will fans - or management - have the patience to endure?