Seattle’s Best? Mariners off to Hot Start

It has been 13 years since the last time the Seattle Mariners even made the playoffs. The franchise has essentially been in the midst of a messy and prolonged rebuilding period for much of recent history. In the past decade alone, the Mariners have cycled through eight different managers and finished higher than third in the American League (A.L.) West just twice.

However, there might be reason to believe that this season could be different in Seattle. General manager Jack Zduriencik made a huge splash this past December by signing the league’s top free agent, second baseman Robinson Can??, to a massive 10-year, $240 million contract. Over the next couple of weeks, Zduriencik followed this move up with the acquisitions of designated hitter Corey Hart, outfielder Logan Morrison and relief pitcher Fernando Rodney.

After just over a week of baseball, these moves look like they may already be paying off for the Mariners. The team opened the season with a three-game series sweep over the Angels and are currently off to the franchise’s best start in over a decade at a record of 4-2 as of April 8. Early in the season, the A.L. West looks like it could be up for grabs: no team has the pitching depth necessary to run away with the title, and despite Seattle’s big offseasib, there is much uncertainty surrounding the team. For now, the question will be whether the Mariners can keep up this level of play or if they will revert back into mediocrity as the season progresses.

Despite all the hype and expectations surrounding Can??, the Mariners’ season will most likely be decided by the development of the team’s core of young players. The Mariners are one of the youngest teams in baseball after calling up most of the organization’s top minor league prospects over the last couple years. Because of this wealth of young talent, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think the team does have the potential to be a legitimate contender as early as this year; however, it will likely take a lot of things falling into place for Seattle to even reach the postseason in an A.L. West filled with competitive teams.

As previously mentioned, the Mariners’ biggest advantage over the rest of the division was projected to be in their starting pitching depth. Barring major injury or regression, perennial Cy Young contender F?elix Hern??ndez will anchor the staff. After Hern??ndez, however, the rotation becomes a little less clear. The Mariners do have a second ace in Hisashi Iwakuma, but he will be forced to miss the first month of the season with a sprained finger. The remaining three rotation spots will be filled by a combination of Taijuan Walker (currently on the 15-day disabled list), James Paxton, Erasmo Ram?-rez and Roenis Elias. All four pitchers are under 26 years old but have significant upsides.

In many ways, the Mariners offense could mirror their starting pitching this season. While they know they will be able to rely on the production of five-time All-Star Can??, the rest of the lineup is full of question marks. Hart is an excellent example of this; the former outfielder fits the mold of a proven slugger, but his contributions will likely depend on whether he can stay healthy after missing all of last season with knee injuries.

Additionally, the Mariners’ recent history has been littered with prospects not reaching their potential; many of these prospects can still be found on the team’s current roster. In order for the offense to take a significant step forward in 2014, the Mariners will need players like Abraham Almonte, Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Brad Miller and Mike Zunino to either find some consistency or truly break out this year.

In the best-case scenario, the veteran presences of Can??  and Hern??ndez will enable the younger players to thrive and allow the team to win the division behind a dominant pitching staff and respectable hitting. In a worst case scenario, the Mariners could very realistically finish fourth in the division behind Texas, Oakland and Los Angeles if the organization’s prospects fail to pan out and injuries continue to hinder Iwakuma, Hart and Walker.

Overall, the chances of all these things falling into place for the Mariners this season are probably low. However, since the franchise has seen a great deal of change this offseason, seeing a couple moves work out might send the team in the right direction.

Contact Sam Linnerooth at [email protected].