In 2009, the Seattle Mariners won 85 games, turning to a defense-first philosophy. The next two seasons saw every hitter struggle mightily, leading to a 128-196 record. The pitching has remained okay, but the league's worst offense must get better to begin thinking about .500, much less playoff contention.
It's hard to explain how poorly the Mariners' offense really was last season. Only two players accumulated more than 1 WAR and only two with at least 50 PA had a wRC+ above average. Their three most expensive players were a combined 1.5 wins below replacement. The biggest story was the staggering drop off by Ichiro. He's always been a BABIP-dependent hitter, and last year was the first time his BABIP was below .300. This resulted in a wRC+ of 82, after a previous career low of 109. His defense also rated below-average for the first time in his career, leaving him as essentially replacement level for the season. He is entering the last year of his contract at age 38, so if this continues, we may very well be seeing his last season.
Joining him in the outfield is "Death to Flying Things" Franklin Gutierrez. Despite a nasty gastro-intestinal problem last season, he lived up to his nickname, recording a UZR of 15 in half a season. His bat, however, suffered tremendously. His .224/.261/.273 line was good for a 52 wRC+, but he has regained muscle and should provide at least 3 WAR this season. Left field looks to be Mike Carp's job to lose if Jesus Montero is not able to catch every day. Underrated Casper Wells, Trayvon Robinson, Michael Saunders and Carlos Peguero will look to get time if Carp gets DH duties.
Behind the plate, Jesus Montero is the future plan, but not necessarily the present. If they decide to have him primarily DH, Miguel Olivo and John Jaso, with their no and all plate discipline approach respectively, get the chances. At first base, Justin Smoak should continue progressing, especially considering his poor BABIP luck so far in his career. Dustin Ackley had a very strong debut in the majors last year, despite fading in September. He held his own defensively at second base, while showing more power than originally thought. Brendan Ryan was a steady defensive presence at SS and wasn't a black hole at the plate. Third base will be a fight between Chone Figgins and Kyle Seager. Figgins could not crack a .250 OBP or SLG last season, but with $17M still owed to him the next two years, they may hold out hope again for a rebound. Seager makes solid contact but provides little power and does not seem to have any great defensive skills.
If you've made it this far, you will be rewarded. No more offensive offense talk, and the first word associated with Mariners pitching is Felix. While it looks like 2011 was a down year due to his ERA, he maintained his K and BB rate, with just a small decrease in GB%. Turning 26 in April, you can still count on 6+ WAR seasons from him for a few years. Behind him, Jason Vargas is the only proven starter. As a left-handed flyball pitcher, Seattle suits him better than most any park with its deep LF gap. With Michael Pineda, Doug Fister, and Erik Bedard gone, a bunch of kids and possibly one veteran could round out the rotation. Hector Noesi was a side piece in the Pineda-Montero deal, and his control arm likely slots into the rotation. Charlie Furbush had an ugly 5.48 ERA last year, but his 4.02 SIERA shows he has skills to succeed. Hisashi Iwakuma was signed from Japan, and the 31-year-old should be able to eat innings with a pitch-to-contact approach. Other possible starters are Blake Beavan, non-roster invite Kevin Millwood, and last year's #2 pick Danny Hultzen. The bullpen has groundball machine Brandon League closing, whose 96-97 MPH sinker and nasty splitter are unrivaled. David Pauley had a nice ERA, but expect major regression from him, and LOOGY George Sherrill returns as the only other veteran arm.
With the Rangers and Angels in the division, the Mariners have no reason to think they'll win the division. Development is key, and they have some good pieces to do so. Big-name free agent hitters, especially right-handed sluggers, won't go to Seattle, so plate discipline will be the key to creating a manageable offense. Defense and pitching will be the main strengths of the franchise, and if they can develop a couple quality starters behind Felix, they should rebound to respectability the next few years.