Unlike my past prognostications involving the Mariners, this team is actually pretty good. The infield is the stronger unit of the offense. Like Felix Hernandez is to the rotation, Robinson Cano is the cornerstone to the Mariners' lineup. After a rocky start to his Mariners' career, Cano eventually turned it on and put forth a solid season. He hit .314 and had a .382 OBP. His power numbers came down understandably moving from Yankee Stadium to Safeco Field but I think those will rebound somewhat in 2015 now that he is fully acclimated to his new park's dimensions. To his left at first base will be Logan Morrison. LoMo has never been a bastion of good health, but can drive the ball when he's ambulatory. Willie Bloomquist may be platooned with Morrison if he falls ill, as he usually does, or struggles against left handers. The weak link in the infield is shortstop Brad Miller. He's a better player than the departed Nick Franklin but that isn't saying very much. Miller may have the entire 2015 to himself but not much past that as top middle infield prospect Ketel Marte is raking in the minors. However, Marte is still probably at least a year away. Third base belongs to the freshly minted $100 million man Kyle Seager. Seager had a career year in 2014 hitting 25 HR, 96 RBI, and a .268/.334/.454 batting line. Seager added a Gold Glove for good measure to his offensive accomplishments. He's really come into his own since his everyday introduction in 2012 and I still think the best is yet to come. The catching will be handled once again by the third pick in the 2012 Draft, Mike Zunino. The former Florida Gator didn't make much contact last year (.199 BA) but when he did it went far as over half of his 87 hits went for extra bases (22 HR, 20 doubles, 2 triples). He strikes out an absurd amount and walks almost never. He one of the more blatant feast or famine guys in the American League but with no real replacement anywhere near ready, it is Zunino's job until further notice.
Nelson Cruz was GM Jack Zduriencik's big pickup this winter. Cruz had to settle for a one year contract with Baltimore last offseason but responded with an MLB best 40 home runs in helping the Orioles win the AL East and advance to the ALCS. Cruz's 4 year, $57 million contract to return to the AL West is reasonable but expecting a repeat of last year's numbers isn't. Safeco Field hasn't exactly been kind to Nelson over his career. He owns lifetime averages of .234/.309/.440 with more strikeouts (52) than any other road venue he's played in. He could see some time in the outfield but will most likely be the team's DH. Dustin Ackley begins his second year transitioning from second base to left field. The M's are still waiting for that breakout season from the former number two overall pick. The good thing is that he already looks more comfortable in the outfield than he ever did at his more natural position of second base. Center field is manned by Austin Jackson, a player that the Mariners absolutely stole in last year's three way deal with Detroit and Tampa Bay. Jackson was easily the second most valuable player in that trade, behind David Price, and Seattle only had to part with the routinely disappointing Franklin to facilitate the leadoff man's coming to Seattle. Jackson didn't set the world on fire in his 54 games in the Emerald City last season (.229 BA, 0 HR, 14 RBI) but similarly to Cano, I think he now knows what he is dealing with in Safeco Field and will adjust his game accordingly. He still also provides exceptional defense in center field, something he'll need to continue to do in his new spacious confines. Right field has a new face as well in Seth Smith. Smith knows all too well about playing in a pitcher friendly park having spent last year in San Diego. He's a doubles hitter who will fit in well to the top of the Mariners' lineup with his new found patience at the dish (career high 69 walks in 2014).
The main attraction in Seattle is still their starting pitching. King Felix Hernandez still sits atop his throne after another dominant season. He finished second to Corey Kluber in the AL Cy Young voting but many believed he should have taken home the award after posting a 15-9 record, and AL bests of a 2.14 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. The King will get his but his court is what really makes the Mariners realistic contenders. Hisashi Iwakuma gives Seattle perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the American League. He battled a finger injury throughout 2014 but was still able to match Hernandez's 15-9 record and post a dazzling 154/21 K/BB ratio. With Iwakuma ready to go for the start of 2015, Seattle is going to be dangerous from the word go. The emergence of Canadian lefty James Paxton makes the Seattle rotation that much more potent. A shoulder injury sidelined Paxton for the majority of last year but outside of a 9 run blip against Toronto, Paxton had full control of his opposition. The final two spots are Taijuan Walker and J.A. Happ's. The 22 year old Walker is a dynamic right hander but still needs to reign in his control to stick in the Majors. He walked 18 in just 38 innings last year in Seattle. Happ is a left hander who was acquired from Toronto for Michael Saunders. He is a free agent at season's end so barring a hell of a 2015, Happ is no more than a bridge to former number two pick Danny Hultzen or even Roenis Elias in the shorter term.
The bullpen is experienced but a train wreck waiting to happen. Fernando Rodney will once again close for the Mariners. He did save a Major League best 48 games last year but walked the tight rope on more than one occasion. He gave up two or more hits 18 times in 2014. You can only tempt fate for so long. Setting up for Rodney is two former Mariners closers, Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen. Both have pitched much better in the 7th and 8th innings than they did as closers. The lone lefty in the Mariners pen is Charlie Furbush. It'll probably stay that way unless they choose Elias out of the bullpen as well.
For once, my selection of the Mariners as a playoff team is based more on the team than spurious conjecture. I don't think anyone is catching the Angels any time soon with the way that Oakland and Texas are attempting to rebuild. This gives Seattle a couple of prime years to take a stab at the playoffs and see if they can muster some magic. A run as a Wild Card may do them some good because they sure as hell couldn't accomplish anything in their dominant hey day of the late 90's and early 2000's. Kansas City laid out the blueprint last year. Let's see if manager Lloyd McClendon and Seattle can build a contender off those plans.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #16 (UP 8)
PREDICTED RECORD: 89-73
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REPS: Felix Hernandez (starting pitcher), James Paxton (starting pitcher), Robinson Cano (second baseman), Austin Jackson (outfielder)
Trevor Utley feels like a person again after recommitting to this whole picking Seattle to do good thing.
Image Credit: Mariners logo (sportslogos.net)