The 2011 season will be shaped over the next 30 days.
PEORIA, AZ The Cactus League season opened Sunday.
The matchup with the San Diego Padres was the first of 31 games in Arizona for the Seattle Mariners in the Valley of the Sun and will be followed by one game against the Dodgers March 30 in Los Angeles before the season proper starts on April 1 in Oakland.
In those 32 games, the Mariners 2011 season will be shaped.
Here are 10 things (in no particular order) I think the Mariners need to do in the time between now and April 1 to maximize their potential for the 2011 season:
10. Find a No. 3 hitter. Almost without exception, the No. 3 hitter in any baseball team is the teams best hitter. In Seattle, theres an exception. Ichiro Suzuki is the teams best hitter, but hes also the leadoff hitter, and for better or worse thats not going to change. Can Milton Bradley fill the bill? Maybe, if he plays back to his 2008 levels (.321, 22 homers with Texas). If not, though, then who can? Seattle has issues throughout the middle of the order, but it starts with the third slot.
9. Develop a closer. David Aardsma, the closer the past two seasons, is going to be out until at least May in the wake of hip surgery. That means for somewhere between five and eight weeks at a minimum, someone else is going to have to pitch the ninth inning. Brandon League and former Orioles closer Chris Ray are the front-runners and Dan Cortes is a promising youngster. But now would be a good time for a well-traveled veteran pitcher to step up much in the way Shigetoshi Hasegawa did for the better part of the 2003 season (16 saves, a 1.48 ERA). Once a closer is determined, the Mariners still have to build a bullpen around him, but you start with the man who pitches last.
8. Dont rush Dustin Ackley. Scouts tend to love what Ackley brings to the table. But almost all of them say that he needs another 300-500 at-bats in the minor leagues before hell be ready to play second base in the big leagues. Much of that has as much to do with his defense he was made a second baseman just last year as it does with his offense, but he may not be quite ready for big league pitchers.
7. Show a little patience with Michael Pineda. First and foremost, this guy isnt Felix Hernandez Jr. He does, however, have the potential to be quite good with a power fastball and nice breaking pitch. Whether he starts the season in Tacoma or in Seattle, the Mariners need for the moment to control his innings and maximize his confidence by playing good defense behind him, not always easy in Arizona.
6. Make sure Adam Moore gets plenty of at-bats. There was a reason the Mariners brought in Miguel Olivo to be the starting catcher Moore was a disappointment last year. He still has potential, and hes probably going to be the Seattle catcher in 2013, if not sooner, so make sure he gets to know all the pitchers now and down the road.
5. Work on bunts and hit-and-run plays in early morning workouts. Teams that cant hit home runs have to find other ways to win. Seattle wasnt nearly as good as it needed to be last year in these two categories, but that doesnt have to be the case in 2011. These forms of bat control are learnable skills, and the Mariner hitters all of them need to finish their schooling.
4. Decide on the up-the-middle combination. Will it be Jack Wilson at short and Brendan Ryan at second or vice versa? The decision has to be made on who is the better shortstop, and spring training is the place to find out. Wilson wasnt as good as the club hoped when he was playing short last year and Ryan had great grades in St. Louis, but either way, the jury is out.
3. Make a call on left field. If its Milton Bradley, then it might well be best to start Michael Saunders at Triple-A rather than to have his bat go dormant on the bench. If its Saunders, then the club has to be prepared to swallow the $12 million Bradley is making in the final year of his contract.
2. Test the waters on trades. General manager Jack Zduriencik is all about improving the overall depth of the organization as he looks toward the future. If thats the case, then moving some of the veterans now in a year when Seattle doesnt figure to win the majority of its games later, makes some sense.
1. Re-establish a progressive, positive clubhouse culture. Things were great in the clubhouse two years ago when Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney and, to a lesser extent with the pitchers, Jarrod Washburn, helped make things fun and help make the Mariners the little engine that could. Felix Hernandez has moved into Washburns role, but beyond him, leadership and esprit dcorps has yet to be developed.
John Hickey is a Senior MLB Writer for AOL FanHouse (www.fanhouse.com)