By Jason Wojciechowski on March 27, 2012 at 5:00 PM
In just a few short hours (or a few long hours, depending on whether you're going to go to sleep and try to get up early vs. just staying up all the way through the night), the A's and Mariners will kick off the 2012 regular season in Japan. The game starts at 3am Pacific. I'll be watching on MLB.tv, though I believe I'll only have the Mariners' feed to rely on. If you don't have that, you'll have to wait for the tape delayed broadcast on MLB Network.
To get you ready for the series, Jon Shields of the excellent Pro Ball NW, the Mariners SweetSpot blog, has done a series preview with me. You know how to look up stats and such for yourself, you know who the starting pitchers are, and you know that the A's are going to get whomped by Felix Hernandez. The thing that's left for us two bloggers to talk about is what we're excited about, both on our own teams and the opposition squad. To that end, each of us wrote a three paragraphs about the things we're excited to see from the other team, and then we replied with our own perspectives. I'm probably confusing you. Let's just get to it, starting with what Jon is looking for on the A's.
Jon: For me, the most exciting thing the A's did this offseason was sign Manny Ramirez. I don't watch as much non-Mariners baseball as I should, so the idea of him -- as an all-time feared hitter, a compelling psych study, and unpredictable goofball -- landing in the A.L. West on an Oakland squad that always seems to play the Mariners 50 times down the stretch is incredibly appealing. The only drawback (as an opposing fan) is that he won't likely see any time in the outfield where he is his most entertaining. But Manny won't play in Japan -- a perfect stage for him -- and this is a series preview, so moving on... I just felt the need to get that in given that we somehow neglected his Oakland signing in our hour-long podcast.
Another guy the A's signed who will play is Cuban superstar Yoenis Cespedes, who will have all eyes pointed in his direction this series for a number of reasons. He has been hyped as the type of freakish athlete that causes spectators to resist blinking or making a hot dog run for fear of missing something they haven't seen before. But despite his obvious physical gifts, skepticism regarding his baseball skills remain. What exactly do the A's have in Cespedes? These two games won't answer the question, but maybe we will get glimpses one way or the other. It will be fun to watch whether he hits three dingers or strikes out seven times. Or both.
Jason: I've become somewhat invested in the idea that the "both" at the very end is entirely possible and maybe even likely, at least in the first year Cespedes spends in the big leagues. The power looks legit and the stories out of spring training and the exhibitions in Japan are that he puts on a show every time he takes batting practice, but major-league pitching is a beast and Cespedes was apparently not even a big contact hitter in Cuba. People love to make fun of Mark Reynolds, but imagine if Mark Reynolds were a center-fielder. Imagine he's a center-fielder with the potential to be a good defender! At the very least, I expect him to run through a wall at some point during the year.
Jon: Jemile Weeks is another athletic Athletic (I'm sorry) that I'm excited to see this series and throughout the 2012 season. For me, foot-speed has to be one of the most exciting tools in sports and, as such, the traditional baseball leadoff man holds a high level of appeal. As I understand it, Weeks is just that; he'll put the ball in play and sprint until he has no choice but to hit the brakes, if then. With Ichiro and Chone Figgins in the twilight of their respective careers, the Mariners do not currently possess this type of player. While hoping he does minimal damage to the Mariners' chances of winning, I'm eager to see Weeks use his speed and athletic ability to drop my jaw and fire up my sports fan within.
Jason: Weeks is a delight to watch, not only on offense, where he's a constant threat to leg out a triple or steal two bases after a walk, but on defense. He's surely not the defender that Mark Ellis was in his prime, as Ellis combined superb instincts with positioning and extreme sure-handedness, but Weeks brings a level of excitement to fielding plays that Ellis never really did (or needed to, honestly). A few times last year, Weeks and shortstop Cliff Pennington tried the old "second baseman goes up the middle and flips to the shortstop rather than making a jump throw to first" play, though I think it only worked once. As he continues to get better at actual defense, every ball up the middle or toward the hole into right-field is a chance to see Weeks try something special. Even if he doesn't actually make the play, it'll probably be fun to watch him attempt it.
Jon: On one hand, I hope the Mariners don't grant save situations to A's pitchers. On the other hand, I want to watch Grant Balfour pitch. Scratch that-- I want to watch Balfour pace the field, yell at his glove, beat his glove, yell at his teammates, yell and point angrily at Orlando Cabrera, and other Grant Balfour things. I take much more joy in his enthusiasm than that of, say, Big Potato Jose Valverde.
Jason: Ha, "grant save situations" -- I see the pun! You can't fool me.
I'm almost a little sad that this is the year Balfour finally gets to be a closer because being a closer on this A's team probably just means a July trade to a contending team that wants to use him as a strong setup man. He'll still do all these great Grant Balfour Things when that happens, of course, and maybe he'll even get to do it on TV during the playoffs, but it's a lot more fun when he's on the team you root for. Anyway, none of this is terribly relevant to the upcoming two games in Japan because Balfour isn't getting traded tonight, but it does kind of put a damper on any saves he does get because it'll feel like each one will be pushing him one step closer to a trade to Milwaukee. All of that said! The joys of modern management are such that closers often seem to pitch on Opening Day whether it's a save situation or not, so even if Felix Hernandez shuts down the A's and Chone Figgins hits a grand slam, Balfour could still be glimpsed stomping around and cussing very soon.
Ok! What follows are the three things I'm looking for on the Mariners, and Jon's responses.
Jason: I shouldn't admit this, being a blogger and all, but I was pretty checked out from baseball last September. I re-engaged for the playoffs, but I watched a lot less in that last month of the regular season than I usually do. What this meant, besides not having to watch Michael Taylor on my own team, was not seeing a single Jesus Montero at-bat during his callup to the Yankees. I haven't seen the Mariners at all this spring, either, so Montero's first at-bat in Japan against the A's will be my first glimpse of the man in action, and I'm pretty jazzed about it. The man's already a legend, a destructive force with the bat at every professional stop (except a small hiccup at AAA last year, a level he was repeating. Even then, he hit very well). I don't want to see the Mariners beat up on the A's, but if anyone has to lead the charge, I hope it's Montero.
Jon: With all due respect to the Dustin Ackleys, Justin Smoaks and Jose Cruzs of the world, Montero has to be viewed as the greatest hitting prospect the Mariners have possessed since one Alex Rodriguez in the early-mid 1990s. The weak (or at very least unvalidated) Mariner lineup won't allow him to be eased in; the rookie will hit fifth on Wednesday while every Mariner fan eagerly waits to see whether he's up to the challenge. There is little doubt in my mind that he is, but that's what makes this so terrifying. Montero failing to live up to lofty expectations would be a true heartbreaker. Yes, I'm "jazzed" as well, but also worried that I've let my expectations grow to dangerous heights. I want Montero to be great so bad.
Jason: Brendan Ryan's defense is a stunning thing to watch. FRAA, Baseball Prospectus's fielding system, rates him nearly 50 runs above average in the last three years (years in which the vast majority of his innings have come at shortstop). He gave me occasion three different times last year to remark on some play or another that he made, including a 360-degree spin to finish a double play that astounded me. The A's own shortstop, Cliff Pennington, is kind of an all-hat no-cattle guy, where the hat in question is his cannon arm, so I'm excited to see a true wizard work his magic for a few games.
Jon: Mariner fans endured schmucks like Mike Morse(!) and Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop during the tail end of the Bill Bavasi era, so you can imagine what a delightful change of pace GM Jack Zduriencik's shortstops have been. While the position has remained a black hole offensively, Seattle-focused defensive nerds like myself have been spoiled rotten by having Jack Wilson succeeded by Brendan Ryan. I still have a soft spot for Wilson, but Ryan's dazzling play has caused me to begin shifting my allegiance. He deserves all baseball fans' excitement.
Jason: I'm not a big rivalries guy (the Giants are all right by me), but I have significant antipathy for the Angels. The exception was always Chone Figgins, which is why I feel so bad about him suffering through such a horrendous 2011 after a down 2010. I know he's 34, so I know, objectively, that 2010 and 2011 are probably the signs that he's done, but I have an irrational belief that he actually can bounce back again, the way he had a stellar 2009 after a mediocre 2008, that he can pick it at third base, walk and single his way to a stellar OBP, steal and take the extra base once he's on, and generally do all the great things he used to do. Of course, the upside of rooting for good things from a player on the opposite team is that the A's are more likely to win if Figgins isn't good. It's win-win!
Jon: At this point I can't get excited about Chone Figgins. Like you, I hope he miraculously returns to form, but the excitement won't come until he does it for two-three weeks. He's been such a bummer to watch that it might actually be more exciting to see him completely tank (ie stay the same), allowing the Mariners to turn their attention to a prospect like Alex Liddi, who at very least can hit the ball a long way, or Vinnie Catricala, who might just be the complete package offensively.
Play ball! And make sure you check in at Pro Ball NW after the games for the Mariner-fan side of the recap. You'll probably learn things.