I have a friend in Houston, an Astros fan, who asked me what I though of the Mariners this year. What started as a brief reply morphed into a chance for me to crystallize my thoughts at some length regarding the team. I decided to share this with my SSI friends, for what it's worth, so without further ado, look over my shoulder as I tell a 'Stros fan about this year's Seattle Mariners.
The 2015 Mariners have expectations this year well beyond anything they've seen since 2003. You're probably aware they are a trendy pick to win the AL West or possibly even go to the World Series. In my view there are solid reasons for this optimism, but like with most good teams that aren't juggernauts things have break right. I actually think there is some chance for the M's to be amazingly good, even a juggernaut.
If what Taijuan Walker has shown this spring is any indication, and if James Paxton stays healthy, and if Hisashi Iwakuma does for another season what he's done so far, the M's will have among the most formidable rotations in all of baseball, perhaps the most formidable. That's assuming Felix is Felix. Like with any team, health is a huge factor with the pitching, but the M's have some great starting depth, to the point where Roenis Elias, who pitched very well as rookie last year and won 10 games but wore down toward the end of the season, will start in AAA and be available for callup in case of injury. There's also former second overall draft pick Danny Hultzen whose making great strides in his recovery from a torn labrum and rotator cuff in 2014. And one other minor league starter I don't recall who could make an MLB impact if needed.
The bullpen exceedingly deep and capable last year, statistically exceeding the vaunted Royals' bullpen. A highly effective rookie reliever from last year, Dominic Leone, is starting the season in AAA because he's had a shaky spring and there's simply no room for him now that Carson Smith is back and healthy, and Smith is even better than Leone. The Mariners have a recent history of developing a boatload of good relievers.
The lineup is further improved and looks to be capable of leaping into the upper third of the AL or even higher. But this is where some things have to break right. This is not your father's inept Mariners' offense. With the addition of Nelson Cruz to Cano and Seager they have a pretty formidable middle of the order. Seager has improved every year, he became an All-Star and a Gold Glover last year, and there's no reason to expect he will not continue to build on the production that is beginning to gain him a national reputation. Having watched Cano change this team last year, I have to admit he is the real deal. He, Cruz, and Felix are all good buddies, and I think they are capable of leading this team to the promised land.
All that said, it's the success or failure of the fill around these strengths that will either fulfill or fail these expectations.
C, third overall draft pick in 2012, Mike Zunino was rushed to MLB and thrust into the starting catcher role as a rookie last year. Defensively, as a limiter of the running game, and as a handler of pitchers, he was amazing given his lack of MLB experience. Drafted because of his defense and power, he belted 22 home runs but batted only .214 with very few walks and a TON of strikeouts. But he is wowing us this spring as the total package. I just read somewhere that he has the third highest slugging percentage among all MLB players in spring training. That may mean nothing, but it's clear he's progressing overall as a hitter, and he has legit 30 homer power.
1B, Logan Morrison, seemed to figure things out as the season progressed last year, and he was one of the M's most productive hitters in the last two months. But he hasn't stayed healthy and productive for three seasons now. Still, the M's have alternatives already in place. Former Yankee stud prospect Jesus Montero, obtained in the Michael Pineda deal a couple of years ago, has morphed from spoiled, overweight prima donna to a lean, hungry, dedicated hitter ready to realize his potential. His physical transformation has been amazing, and he has the potential to be a devastating force against LHP. If he ever figures out RHP's, he hast the potential to be a devastating force period. But even before Montero, the M's have veteran Rickie Weeks who many think would be a productive first baseman given the chance.
2B, Cano. 'Nuff said. Having watched him for a full season for the first time in my life, I have come to understand why he is so highly regarded. He doesn't look flashy. In fact, defensively he makes plays look almost effortless, even nonchalant, but he is outstanding. Nobody turns the DP better. I believe his HR's totals will come back somewhat to his career norms with a full season of Safeco under his belt. I count him for 20 up from last year's 14. His biggest weakness offensively is a penchant for hitting into double plays. His footspeed is not what it used to be.
SS, like first base, is a question mark position for the M's. What was supposed to be a spring training duel to the finish between Brad Miller (bat first) and Chris Taylor (glove first) was resolved when Taylor went down with an injury. Miller has shown flashes of outstanding offensive production and the ability to handle the shortstop position, but too often he has failed to make the routine play, and he is prone to errant throws. Handed the shortstop position out of spring training last year, Miller floundered, was demoted, and Taylor was called up. Taylor did great in the field and even hit well. The M's also have young Ketel Marte in AAA. The thing is, like any other question mark positions, the M's have redundancy and options.
3B, Kyle Seager. This guy is legit and improving every year. And unlike previous years, if the M's want to rest him they can, because there should be enough offense to carry the team when he takes a day off.
LF, Dustin Ackley. He's been an enigma. Drafted second overall in 2009, he was supposed to quickly become established as a bona fide MLB three-hole hitter. After a solid rookie campaign in 2011, he's shown flashes of his potential but also a marked tendency to constantly fall behind in the count and struggle for long periods, especially in the first half of seasons. In the second half of each of the last two years, he has done much better. In the second half last year he hit .269 and slugged .476. Many here think he's finally ready to blossom. Some think he's another young Mariner who struggled because he was thrust right away into a position where his bat was required to carry the load because the lineup was pitiful. Manager Lloyd McClendon has said he realizes now that made a mistake last year by trying to hit Ackley second in the order early in the season. Personally, I think if Ackley does indeed blossom this year the M's it will bring huge upside to this team and may propel them into an elite offense. But I'm not convinced yet. I'm Missourian with Ackley. If Ackley struggles again this year, the hook will be quicker, and Rickie Weeks again appears as a solid backup plan, since he's played some LF in spring training. He can also spell a successful Ackley against tough lefties. Finally, the M's again have some impressive candidates in AAA who have shown some near term MLB-ready prowess this spring.
CF, Austin Jackson, who has been a question mark since being obtained from Detroit mid-season last year. He was supposed to be a solid, veteran CF'er who would anchor the position for a season-and-a-half and supply the M's lack of a leadoff hitter. To be kind, he struggled offensively in Seattle. He is, of course, a favorite of Lloyd McClendon because of the manager's recent ties with Detroit as hitting coach. Local media are parroting McClendon's confidence that this year Jackson will be as advertised. I'll believe it when I see it. To me he looked like a young veteran whose lost his bat skills. He can cover CF thought. One of the secondary reasons the M's brought in Justin Ruggian this offseason was to give Jackson rest in CF when he needs it. There is also AAA depth in James Jones, the speedy rookie who for awhile last year took over the position and amazed us until the league figured him out. But that kid is golden on the basepaths, like Herb Washington with the Oakland A's. He stole 27 of 28 bases in just over half a season, many of them with the M's in desperate need of a run and everybody knew he was going.
RF, platoon, Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano. Nice pickups to fill a real hole in the M's lineup. The platoon should work, Smith is a veteran with a reputation as a solid hitter, Ruggiano is supposed to whack LHP's. Nelson Cruz can play the position occasionally as needed.
DH, Nelson Cruz. I don't think anybody expects him to hit 40 HR's with half his games in Safeco, but he should definitely provide some much-needed punch and RBI-productivity in the middle of the order, so much so that his effect on the team could be multiplicative. Cano should definitely benefit with Cruz hitting behind him. He should just take some pressure off of hitters who have felt so much pressure with an under-producing offense that just didn't have enough horses. One other thing. Last year M's DH's hit .190 and slugged barely over .300. Digest that, and you realize what a huge addition Nelson Cruz will be.
Rickie Weeks, I think the kind of veteran addition that can really make a difference (IF or OF) if and when injury hits. He has the pedigree to take over a position and not miss a beat. He'll have to morph into a multi-position guy, and he's now on board with the plan and willing to do that (he wasn't in Milwaukee). The guy can still hit, and in spring traning McClendon has taken a shine to giving him a chance to hit leadoff when he plays, which I'm told he has done very successfully in Milwaukee. In my book, Weeks may prove to be an important piece if this club reaches expectations.
Willie Bloomquist, perfect utility guy who has starting experience if needed, though not the skills to even be considered for a starting position on this team. He can field literally anywhere except catcher (and perhaps even there in a pinch). He can hit a little. He may not be as fast as he once was, but he still has some speed and is a savvy baserunner. He give you lots of options late in game if you're behind.
Jesus Sucre, young backup catcher, got experience last year, a very good defensive catcher. Easily good enough spell Zunino, though it would have been nice to see the M's pick up a veteran LH-batting catcher for this role.
LOL, I ended up writing a tome, but I enjoyed actually putting down my thoughts about this team as we prepare to open the season. Being a Mariners' fan, I'm used to disappointment. So I don't count my chickens even when the team is expected to do well. There's enough question marks that this team could underachieve. But to me if things click this team could be stunningly good, a combination of outstanding pitching with a very effective offense where young veterans really begin to reach their potential.
Lo, 83 wins, second or third place in the division
Mid, 88 wins, second or first place in the division
Hi, 93 wins OR HIGHER, first place in the division, and the potential to go far in the playoffs because of their pitching