The Seattle Stunners

The first half 2009 brought surprises in all shapes and sizes.

There was Raul Ibanez’s resurgence and Milton Bradley’s regression. But among teams, almost nothing caught more people off guard than Seattle remaining in contention at the All-Star Break.

There have been no surprises from nine-time All-Star Ichiro. Since arriving in American in 2001, Ichiro has been the epitome of consistency. He has hit at least .300 with at least 200 hits, 30 steals and 20 doubles in all eight of his seasons. He is in no danger of breaking any of those streaks this season.

With a team that stunning, production must be coming from more unexpected areas than Ichiro and the Mariners have their fair share.

Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, first baseman Russell Branyan and closer David Aardsma find themselves key pieces of their team for the first time ever.

Branyan, a journeyman with 210 minor league home runs, hit the All-Star Break just two home runs behind Carlos Pena for the top AL spot. Aardsma’s 20 first half saves rank fifth in the league and Gutierrez has been one of the most productive players in the last month.

In most leagues Gutierrez is still available on the waiver wire, but Branyan and Aardsma are widely owned. But which of the three big Seattle surprises will keep producing in the second half?

In 12 seasons, Branyan has only played something approximating a full year twice, and he hasn’t played in more than 95 games since 2002. It’s a small sample size, but in 2001 and 2002 his All-Star Break splits were close to even. But, curiously, his BABIP went up in the second half of both seasons. Since he already has a BABIP of .335 this year, that trend seems unlikely to continue.

Branyan’s power is for real, but that .279 average is not. Add in his unnaturally high home run/fly ball percentage of 22.8 and there’s a recipe for a drop-off.

After being acquired as a part of the three-way deal that sent J.J. Putz to New York, Gutierrez started slowly. He has since started hitting the ball much better, improving his batting average each month. It’s difficult to tell how much of that improvement has been based on luck and how much better Gutierrez is actually hitting the ball.

His BABIP has also increased each month, reaching the astronomical level of .425 in July. He doesn’t help much with steals or home runs and doesn’t walk often. If he’s to be a productive fantasy player he has to keep his average up, something that is possible, but was never seen in his
four years in Cleveland.

Gutierrez will continue to play every day because of his superb defense, and that peace of mind seems to have helped him swing the bat more consistently. But if you’re a prospective owner, a close watch is advised.
By Ted Cahill

Of the three surprises, Aardsma is the safest long-term bet. He has taken advantage of the opportunity to close after Brandon Morrow proved ineffective in the role. In 11 innings during June, Aardsma did not allow a run, while striking out 20 batters. He held opponents to a .139 average and only walked four hitters. He seems to be finally showing the talent that led San Francisco to make him their first round pick in 2003.

Aardsma won’t be easy to snare in a trade and if you own him, hold on for the second half. The only concern with his continued success is that he will set a new career high for innings around the middle of August. If he can withstand the increased work load, Aardsma should continue to produce for fantasy owners and the Mariners.