Sports Out West

Seattle Mariners 2014 season preview: Can a young club win now?

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Seattle is still preoccupied celebrating its Super Bowl champion, but baseball is rapidly approaching. Pitchers and catchers report to the Seattle Mariners this Wednesday as the team begins the 2014 MLB season with some new faces and an overhauled coaching staff.

The Mariners return a young core from last year’s 71-91 team, along with some new additions that instantly make Seattle better. With some cautious optimism surrounding the Mariners heading into the season, here’s a breakdown of the club’s strengths, weaknesses and unknowns in 2014.

Strengths

Infield: The ultra-young Mariners’ infield was one of the most exciting parts of the 2013 team. Adding possibly the best second baseman in the majors isn’t going to do anything to change that this year.

The reaction around Seattle to the Robinson Cano contract was hit-and-miss due to the amount of money the Mariners will be paying Cano when he is in his late thirties and early forties. Seattle doesn’t have to worry about that in 2014. Coming off four consecutive seasons of putting up at least 5.3 WAR, Cano will provide a force in the middle of the Mariners’ lineup that hasn’t been seen in years. His home runs might decrease moving from Yankee Stadium to Safeco Field, but other than that Cano should be tremendously productive for the foreseeable future.    

Meanwhile, Kyle Seager has quietly turned into a strong hitter for the Mariners at third base and will have a much stronger lineup around him than in any other point of his major league career. He should again be good for around a .260 average with 20 home runs and 30 doubles. The only reason Seager has not put up more impressive full-season statistics the past two years is due to massive late-season slumps. Seager played just about every inning for the Mariners in 2012 and 2013, but with super utility man Willie Bloomquist and Nick Franklin on the bench, Seager might not get as worn out in his third full season.

Of all the young position players, rookie shortstop Brad Miller might have been the best a season ago. Miller provided a solid average and sneaky power while flying around the bases. With a season of progress, Miller could develop into an ideal leadoff hitter, possibly even this season.

That leaves Justin Smoak at first base. Smoak has shown flashes of great ability but is also prone to month-long slumps. Despite injuries and a high strikeout rate, Smoak put together a strong end to 2013 to give hope moving forward. If Smoak can finally put it all together, it would be a huge boost for the Mariners’ lineup. This could be his last year to prove himself at a major league level.

Two aces: The Mariners are going to have an excellent chance to win when they send the top two of their rotation to the mound. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma made up one of the best 1-2 combos in the majors in 2013 and they will look to continue that success this season.

Everyone knows about Hernandez, who has consistently put up excellent seasons since coming to the majors in 2005. He is among the top-five pitchers in the majors and can be completely dominant at times. At age 27 with no major injury history, Hernandez isn’t slowing down any time soon.

Iwakuma came as more of a surprise to most around the league, finishing third in the Cy Young voting a year ago. Fans in Seattle were less shocked, after Iwakuma proved himself plenty capable as a starter after taking over a rotation spot in July 2012. Iwakuma has shown incredible control of a deep arsenal of pitches, walking only 4.9 percent of batters a year ago.  

Weaknesses

Outfield: On paper, this is the major weakness of the team. The Mariners could use as many as six outfielders in 2014, each of whom has concerns.

Dustin Ackely and Michael Saunders could each see time in left field or center field, but both should see the majority of everyday playing time. Saunders has tons of athletic ability but has yet to come close to putting an entire successful season together. Ackley is a former second-overall pick and electrified Seattle after being called up in 2011, and then fell off the table for 2012 and most of 2013 before showing small signs of life in August and September. Both of these guys will need to make big improvements at the plate to be above-average players.

In right field, new additions Corey Hart and Logan Morrison are expected to split time. Both are low-risk, high-reward pickups and should provide some nice pop in the lineup, but also come with major defensive questions. A year ago the Mariners assembled easily the worst defensive outfield in the majors by UZR, something that will clearly need to be better this season.

Other candidates for outfield playing time include Abraham Almonte, who has blazing speed and intriguing upside but is very raw, and the perpetually injured Franklin Gutierrez. Gutierrez is the x-factor of the outfield pile, and could make a major impact if he can stay healthy. Seattle might not be done adding players either, as it has been very closely linked with Nelson Cruz.        

Catchers: At just 22 years old, Mike Zunino will likely be the starting catcher for the Mariners in 2014. Zunino was called up far too early last season and struggled for a couple months, and suffered a hamate bone injury just as he was starting to turn it around. He has tons of offensive potential, but he might be a couple of years away.

John Buck will see significant playing time as Zunino’s backup. He’ll serve just fine as a backup catcher with some occasional power – Buck hit 10 home runs last April alone – but isn’t reliable offensively as a starter should Zunino be ineffective.   

Back of the rotation: The Mariners should get decent production from the third spot in the rotation, whether it is from Erasmo Ramirez or a healthy Scott Baker. If Baker has not recovered from his elbow injury, the back two spots in the rotation could be a weakness.

Those spots will be decided between three young pitchers: Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer. Walker is a phenom with the stuff to back it up, and it would not be surprising for him to break camp with a rotation spot, but you have to figure the Mariners have the 21-year old on an innings limit.  Paxton had some struggles in AAA but made three successful starts in the big leagues last September. The jump directly from AA to the majors was not kind to Maurer, who has potential but needs some more seasoning.

That rotation could potentially be outstanding as soon as next year, but look for some growing pains in 2014.

Unknowns

Bullpen:  Seattle upgraded its bullpen instantly last week by signing veteran closer Fernando Rodney. An inflated walk rate cause Rodney to have a down, yet still solid, 2013 season. If Rodney can get anywhere close to his dominant 2012 season, the Mariners will have an absolute steal.

The other critical piece of the Mariners bullpen is Danny Farquhar, who took over the closer’s role for the last two months of 2013. Farquhar struck out an insane 34.7 percent of batters and has the stuff to be potentially dominant.

The question is how everybody else, particularly Charlie Furbush, Tom Wilhelmsen and Yoervis Medina, will perform. There’s plenty of upside here, but the group also struggled at points in 2013.  

Designated Hitter: When Hart and Morrison aren’t playing the outfield, they should see starting time here. Hart hit at least 26 home runs in every season between 2010 and 2012 for the Milwaukee Brewers and could be one of the more underrated pickups of the offseason, but you can’t be completely sure about a player coming off of two major knee surgeries and a missed year. Morrison has plenty of potential as a power hitter but has struggled since a strong 2011 season.   

Projected Lineup

1. Ackley, LF

2. Seager, 3B

3. Cano, 2B

4. Hart, RF

5. Smoak, 1B

6. Morrison, DH

7. Saunders, CF

8. Zunino, C

9. Miller, SS

Projected Rotation

1. Hernandez

2. Iwakuma

3. Ramirez

4. Baker

5. Walker

Prediction

This team is much better than it was a year ago. For the first time in seemingly forever, every offseason move the Mariners have made (so far) makes at least some degree of sense. A young roster won’t quite be able to compete with the top of the tough AL West, but the Mariners will hover around .500 and generate at least a small amount of optimism moving forward, finishing with a record of 83-79.  

Photo Credit: Ted S. Warren / Associated Press

 

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Nathaniel Reeves

Nathaniel Reeves is a journalism student at the University of Washington, currently covering sports for The UW Daily in addition to Sports Out West. He has been closely following Seattle sports his entire life.