The Seattle Mariners have found themselves a window where they now have the opportunity to become the elite team in the American League. Part of it has to do with their strong starting pitching and another part of it has to do with the addition of Nelson Cruz (.271, 40, 108) as a free agent from Baltimore. The third reason has to do with the reduced state of the American League, particularly with the AL East division being as weak as it is right now. If the Mariners can push the right buttons, an AL Pennant is for their taking for the first time in their 38-year history.
The Mariners’ starting pitching looks to be as strong as any team in the American League. Led by Felix Hernandez (15-6, 2.14, 148 Ks, 236 IP), the team has the perfect combination of youth and leadership that should keep them in most games. RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (15-9, 3.52, 28 starts) is the one concern as he did struggle in the second half of last season. However, he does seem healthier this spring and pitching through injuries may have been a key to his struggles. LHP James Paxton (6-4, 3.04, 13 starts) had a very impressive stretch for the Mariners and along with top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker (2-3, 2.61, 8 games, 5 starts), provides the balance of youth and leadership. Both young pitchers should benefit from having Felix as the staff ace as well as Iwakuma and fifth starter J.A. Happ (11-11, 4.26, 26 starts). Happ was acquired in a deal with Toronto for OF Michael Saunders.
The Mariners also have LHP Roenis Elias (10-12, 3.85, 29 starts) and RHP Erasmo Ramirez (1-6, 5.26, 14 starts) which will be insurance in case there is an injury. Hope is, though, that the Mariners can run their five starters out similar to the Cincinnati Reds of 2012. If that is the case, it will be an indication the Mariners have arrived. If that is not the case, veterans Kevin Correia and Joe Saunders are in camp as NRIs.
Seattle’s offense features 2B Robinson Cano (.314, 14, 82), Cruz and 3B Kyle Seager (.268, 25, 96). The most intriguing thing about the Mariners lineup will be the potential platoon options manager Lloyd McClendon has. McClendon himself was a platoon player during his days with the Pirates under Jim Leyland. Among the potential platoons include RF, LF and 1B. The Mariners traded for OFs Seth Smith (.266, 12, 48) and Justin Ruggiano (.281, 6, 28) from the Padres and Cubs, respectively. This has the potential to be their most effective platoon with both players hitting the opposite arm particularly well. Add the HR and RBI and the Mariners will sign up for 18 HR and 76 RBI out of their RF. The other two platoons are a little more confusing, as they really do not have to be platoons. If McClendon wants to play the percentages, he can use LH 1B Logan Morrison (.262, 11, 38) against righties and former top catching prospect Jesus Montero (4-17, 1 HR) against lefties. Montero has had some issues with the Mariners brass and has served a suspension for the use of PEDs. Montero did hit .286 with 16 HR in AAA and has seemed to come into camp in pretty good shape. If not a platoon, I can see one or the other playing 1B everyday with the other being in more of a reserve role.
The other spot is a little more confusing. LF Dustin Ackley (.245, 14, 65) has struggled to live up to potential, mostly because he has batted about .200 against left-handed pitchers. While the Mariners do not have a conventional platoon partner for Ackley in LF, perhaps former Brewers 2B Rickie Weeks can be the answer. Weeks looked better in a platoon role last season with Milwaukee (.274, 8, 29). Weeks has never played another position in the field other than 2B, but Seattle has played him out there in ST.
CF Austin Jackson (.256, 4, 47) came over at the trading deadline in the David Price trade involving Detroit and Tampa Bay. He was terrible for the M’s last season, hitting just .229 with 59 Ks in 54 games. Though he does play very good defense, which is an asset to the pitching staff, he does need to his 2011 to 2012 form, or at the very least 2013 form, which the Mariners will settle for. If not, I can see the Mariners putting a supposedly healthy Franklin Gutierrez out there or maybe even James Jones, the defensive-minded OF who played more games in CF than any other Mariners player last season. SS Brad Miller (.221, 10, 36) is likely to lose the job to Chris Taylor (.287, 9 RBI in 47 games). Taylor has a track record for hitting for a higher average and is the superior defensive player. C Mike Zunino (.199, 22, 60) will be the starter behind the plate with Jesus Sucre being the backup. The Mariners lineup I would go with would contain the platoons, but doesn’t have to. Jackson CF, Ackley/ Weeks LF, Seager 3B, Cano 2B, Cruz DH, Smith/ Ruggiano RF, Morrison/ Montero 1B, Zunino C, Taylor SS. The Mariners bench is led by the platoonees, Willie Bloomquist and Sucre.
The Mariners’ bullpen is one of the weak spots on the team. Closer Fernando Rodney (1-6, 2.85, 48 saves) has been too up and down from year to year and the team does not necessarily have many options to back him up. I like the depth on the roster but that same depth does not exist when it comes to the bullpen. RHPs Danny Farquhar (3-1, 2.66, 81 Ks in 71 IP) is their next best option with RHPs Tom Wilhelmsen (3-2, 2.27, 57 games) and Yoervis Medina (5-3, 2.68, 66 games) also part of the crew. LHP Charlie Furbush (1-5, 3.61, 67 games) the lone lefty with Lucas Luetge and veteran Rafael Perez also trying for a spot.
3B D.J. Peterson headlines the Mariners top players in the farm from 2014. He hit .297, 31, 111 in A and AA last season. Another 3B prospect, Patrick Kivlehan, put up some solid numbers at A and AA last year (.295, 20, 103). As far as this season goes, the biggest MLB impact will be felt by Walker, Paxton and Taylor.
The Mariners were given a Las Vegas O/U of 86 1/2. I have them finishing better than that, at 89-73, 1st place in the AL West and best record in the American League. I think the Mariners will be able to score runs, though every position in the batting order will be productive. McClendon’s NL managerial style will be put to the test as he has the ability to get more out of this group by platooning. The pitching staff should speak for itself and Felix will soon be joined by another star in coming, Walker. Lets see if the Mariners can get to the World Series for the first time in their history. If that happens, that will leave just the Expos/Nationals as the only team to have not made it to a World Series. Hmm…