Say it with me out loud: The Seattle Mariners are going to contend. That’s right; the Ms actually have a real shot to make the playoffs this season.
Last year, the Mariners signed Robinson Cano, the best second baseman in the game, to a $240 million, 10-year deal. They then proceeded to surround the potent-hitting Cano with a whole lot of nothing. Okay, maybe not entirely nothing. Third baseman Kyle Seager is a powerful offensive talent, but like Cano, he’s a lefty and there was no real right-handed threat in last year’s lineup.
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This year the M’s went out and got Cano some real protection. They inked slugger Nelson Cruz to a four-year, $57 million deal. No more seeing the likes of Corey Hart or Justin Smoak at DH. Plus, Cruz adds a much-needed right-handed hitter to a lefty-heavy lineup.
Just for good measure the M’s also signed Seager to a seven-year, $100 million extension. Their homegrown infielder has been solid for them since becoming an every day player in 2012. He’s hit .262 with 64 doubles, 67 home runs and 251 RBI. Now they have Seager, who plays a key position, locked up through his prime.
The Mariners have built themselves a strong middle of the order with Cano, Cruz and Seager. They also have a real deal lead-off hitter in Austin Jackson, who they acquired from Detroit at last season’s trade deadline. Jackson, once the pearl in the Yankees farm system, is speedy and a perennial threat when he gets on base. However, he does strike out a lot, especially for a player who is tasked with setting the table for the rest of the order.
Mike Zunino, the M’s young catcher, had his first full year in the majors. While his average was a paltry .199, he did hit for power with 22 home runs. Catchers mature more slowly and Zunino has done a great job behind the plate. He’s also worked on his swing this past offseason. As a result, he is having a good spring so there is reason to be optimistic that the 24-year-old’s numbers in front of the plate will improve. But, of course, spring training stats don’t always translate to regular season success.
As for the rest of the order, the M’s will be doing some platooning thanks to two new acquisitions. Rickie Weeks, who the Mariners signed in February, has been on fire this spring and has slugged his way onto the roster. He will share time in left field (a position the infielder’s never played in the majors) with Dustin Ackley. He will also spell Logan Morrison at first base. Seth Smith, who was acquired for Brandon Maurer from the San Diego Padres, will platoon with Justin Ruggiano in right field. Smith will get most of the playing time thanks to his consistent offensive numbers. The lefty hitting outfielder did well for a light-hitting Padres team in 2014 with a .266 average, .367 on-base percentage, .808 OPS and 12 home runs.
This is a great strength for the Mariners and not just because Felix Hernandez is their ace. King Felix, who many feel was robbed of his second Cy Young Award last year (myself included), is followed by the talented veteran Hisashi Iwakuma. Kuma has put up solid numbers over the three years he’s played in the States — 3.07 ERA, 1.08 WHIP with 440 Ks. Having those two righties heading up a rotation would make any manager happy.
The M’s also have a trio of talented young pitchers in hard-throwing Taijuan Walker and lefties James Paxton and Roenis Elias. Manager Lloyd McClendon will have to juggle the youngsters’ innings especially as both Walker and Paxton have battled injuries. As a result, there has been talk of going to a six-man rotation at least in the beginning of the season.
That sixth/fifth man is J.A. Happ. The Mariners traded oft-injured outfielder Michael Saunders to Toronto to get the veteran pitcher. Happ has had a spectacularly awful spring. However, if the Mariners only rotation concern this season is not-so-great number-five starter, they should be just fine.
The M’s had the best bullpen in the majors last year, even if closer Fernando Rodney excelled at making the ninth inning a tad uncomfortable. He still shot many an imaginary arrow into the air thanks to his 48 saves.
Set-up man Danny Farquhar was actually slotted to be the closer in 2014 before the Mariners signed Rodney. The hard-throwing righty fanned 81 hitters last year and was a big part of why the M’s bullpen was so effective. Farquhar is also good insurance if the 38-year-old Rodney should go down with an injury or become ineffective.
The other mainstays in the bullpen include Tom Wilhelmsen, who has closer experience and a nasty fastball, Yoervis Medina who throws in the 95 to 96 mph range, but has the propensity to allow too many walks at times, and LOOGY Charlie Furbush. In addition, the M’s have plenty of young arms, such as Dominic Leone and Carson Smith to choose from if something isn’t working.
Opening day lineup
Austin Jackson CF
Seth Smith RF
Robinson Cano 2B
Nelso Cruz DH
Kyle Seager 3B
Logan Morrison 1B
Mike Zunino C
Dustin Ackley LF
Brad Miller SS
Felix Hernandez SP
The Mariners top two prospects are outfielder Alex Jackson, 19, and infielder D.J. Peterson, 23. Both are first round picks. Jackson has a great bat and projects well for both power and average while Peterson has power yet has been criticized for not having great overall hitting skills.
Edwin Diaz, 20, is the M’s best pitching prospect. He can throw in the mid 90s and is working on improving his slider and change up. Diaz is still a ways away from the big leagues, but currently projects as a number-three starter.
The M’s are a popular pick in baseball circles right now and with good reason. This is a well-rounded team with not a whole lot of weaknesses. Last year’s version came just one game shy of grabbing a playoff spot. This year, they will not only make the playoffs, but also go deep into the postseason. The 2015 Mariners are poised to make Seattle a baseball town once more.