The Mariners performed badly enough last year to earn themselves their own section in the sidebar I set aside for the Rockies' competition as worst team in the majors (to which I should probably add the Marlins, but more about them later). Unlike Colorado, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and now Florida, Seattle wasn't particularly young last season, and they won't be any younger in 2006. Kenji Johjima, their big offseason get from Japan, will probably be pretty good, but for certain he will turn 30 in June. Yes, there is one glaring exception to Seattle's overall grayness: Felix Hernandez. I assume you've heard about him. Hernandez is 19 and will probably be the best player on the M's this year. If you grabbed him for your fantasy team, feel free to tent your fingers in a Mr. Burns manner right now.
But besides Hernandez and (maybe) Cuban shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, who do the Mariners have on the upswing of their careers? Certainly not Adrian Beltre, who has three more years until he has to worry about his next contract push. Not Jamie Moyer, who got thrashed on the road last year (3-7, 6.11 ERA versus 10-0, 2.95 at home). Not Ichiro, who will remain a good player long enough to build a very interesting Hall of Fame argument, but more than likely won't win any more MVP's. Not Richie Sexson, who was really more than the Mariners could have asked for last year, for all the good it did them. Their free agent pickups fit the same mold. Jarrod Washburn ought to maintain his inflated reputation pitching his home games at Safeco, but he's not going to win a lot of games in front of Seattle's lineup. Matt Lawton isn't fit to be a full-time player any longer (.207/.301/.317 against lefties last year). The White Sox won the World Series, so all is forgiven, but Carl Everett was dire down the stretch last year (as BP '06 notes at length), and now he's a newly-minted Mariner.
Then there's Jose Lopez and Jeremy Reed. Lopez isn't ready, but the Mariners really didn't expect the Great Bret Boone Implosion of 2005, and they didn't have much of a backup plan. Seattle's attitude towards Lopez seems to be, well, he's already here, so he might as well play, a common franchise strategy which brought us such seasons as Bucky Jacobsen's 2004. (So it can't be all bad.) Conversely Reed has been ready for some time, or at least that was the word when the Mariners acquired him in the Freddy Garcia deal. The centerfielder had a rough 2005, though, his first full year in the bigs. Between Lopez, Reed, and Betancourt, the Mariners are abusing their privilege to field young players who are "already great with the glove, so we'll just wait for their hitting to come around." (I feel obligated to disclose that Jeremy Reed is the first major league player ever born in San Dimas, CA. I have no word on whether he ever shopped at the Circle K or tried the slides at Waterloo.)
Seattle's offense was pretty terrible in 2005 (a 29th-in-the-majors .709 team OPS), and it won't be better this year. Ichiro will hit his singles, and Sexson will hit his homers, and after that, good luck. Can the pitchers pick up the slack? Hernandez, yes. Washburn, maybe a little. Moyer is three years overdue for a precipitous collapse. The other guys are Gil Meche and Jor-El Pineiro. Eddie Guardado is still around to anchor the bullpen, a decent if unheralded group also featuring Rafael Soriano, Julio Mateo, and J.J. Putz. Clint Nageotte fills the requisite failed-starting-prospect-now-a-swingman role. Former Rockies reliever Marcos Carvajal could lend a hand in this department, but if the Mariners were really clever they'd send him to the minors for seasoning as a starter as Colorado was planning to do before they swapped him for Yorvit Torrealba. The bullpen is really only the team's strength by default, as the lineup and rotation sure don't qualify. Don't even get me started on the bench.
Seattle's close-but-no-cigar run in the late '90s/early '00s was marked by a number of major contributors who peaked relatively late in their careers -- Boone, Moyer, Edgar Martinez, 27-year-old "rookie" Ichiro. That doesn't excuse the fact that they've allowed their farm system to go completely to seed. Quite the opposite, really. There's no way they can claim now that they believed the good times would roll forever, or at least until, say, 2007. Now they're stuck with a talent core that's either retired, spent, or untradeable for other reasons (Ichiro). Plus they play in a murderous division. The Angels and A's are perennial contenders now and for the forseeable future, and the Rangers, if flawed, will certainly drain your bullpen resources rather quickly if you're not careful. Seattle has to be hoping that Ichiro stays healthy and Hernandez remains on course for megasuperstardom, because they're not going to be drawing fans in with division titles for the next several years.