With football season over and organized workouts beginning in less than two weeks, attention is quickly turning to Seattle Mariners baseball in the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle’s sports landscape has been dominated by the Seahawks during their run of current success. Meanwhile, the Mariners have been mired in a playoff drought spanning 14 seasons and have been plagued by poor front offices and coaching staffs during that period.
The feeling is a little different entering spring training this time around. Seattle is projected to be a contender in the AL West and more than enough star power to interest fans throughout the summer.
There are plenty of reasons to be excited for the 2015 Mariners, not the least of which is the club has a good chance to finally end that playoff drought.
This is the best Mariners team in a long time
Last year’s team ultimately fell one game short of the postseason, but was the most entertaining Mariners squad in a number of years. The addition of Robinson Cano seemed to change the culture of the organization entirely, while a number of young players started making important contributions in the major leagues.
The Mariners improved their biggest weaknesses from that team with a successful offseason overall. Nelson Cruz is the big right-handed bat Seattle has been coveting for seemingly forever and has a chance to quickly become a fan favorite, but Jack Zduriencik also did a nice job of addressing right field and avoided trading away any critical parts of the team’s future.
There are certainly places where the Mariners could get better depth-wise, but the starting lineup doesn’t appear to have any holes. On paper, this team should be right at the top of the division with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and could even contend for a pennant if a few things break right.
This is the most-hyped the Mariners have been in the preseason since the ill-fated 2010 team. Even then, it has been over a decade since it felt like Seattle had as good a chance of contending as it does entering 2015.
The mighty 3-4-5
Seattle’s problem for years has been a lack of offense. While the pitching staff is still going to carry this team, the Mariners figure to score a healthy amount of runs this year.
In particular, the Mariners finally have a middle of the order that other teams fear. Cano, Cruz and Kyle Seager were all deserving All-Stars a year ago and should at least be very exciting to watch in 2015.
Cano’s power numbers look a little different in Seattle, but he still played at a superstar level in his first year with the Mariners. While Cruz may suffer a similar drop in home runs, he adds the power element that the Mariners have been missing forever and is all but guaranteed to be an upgrade at DH. Seager has quietly developed into one of the best third basemen in the majors and is a refreshing change of pace from all of Seattle’s failed position player prospects of the last decade.
With some high-upside players elsewhere in the order, the Mariners’ offense has the potential to be very good and will at least be more fun to watch than its predecessors.
Mike Zunino‘s development
Zunino has been rushed through the early stages of his career. The Mariners called him up less than a calender year after being drafted and gave him the everyday catcher job the following season.
As expected, Zunino has struggled at the plate, particularly with strikeouts. Still, he’s shown the tools to be a future star and should continue to improve with more experience at the professional level.
Zunino is already a valuable player due to his defense and pitch framing, which are among the best in the majors. He also has tremendous raw power, blasting 22 home runs a year ago.
The Mariners need Zunino to improve a .199 average and .254 OBP. If he can continue to develop with more experience, Zunino will be on the cusp of stardom and the Mariners could be a special team.
The pitching staff could be even better
The 2014 Mariners were carried by arguably the best pitching staff in the majors. While Chris Young is likely headed elsewhere and Seattle will be fortunate to get as good of a performance out of the bullpen, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for the pitching staff.
Any Felix Hernandez start is a must-watch and Hisashi Iwakuma is criminally underrated and would be the No. 1 option on a lot of teams. However, it’s the young trio of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Roenis Elias that could make this rotation dominant if they take the next step in their development.
This year is particularly important for Walker, Seattle’s former top prospect. Walker struggled with his control for much of 2014, but showed dominating ace upside in his final start of the year on Sep. 24 against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Throw in newly-acquired J.A. Happ, who appears as if he should fit well at Safeco Field, and there’s a lot to be excited about here. While health and lack of minor-league depth are concerns, this rotation should again be among the majors’ best.
More prospects are on the way
Most of Seattle’s big name prospects have already graduated to the majors, particularly on the pitching side. Still, there are a couple of players who could be promoted later in the summer and even fill important roles for the Mariners.
D.J. Peterson and Patrick Kivlehan will be Seattle’s two most interesting prospects to watch this season and aren’t that far away from the majors. The Mariners need a reliable backup at first base should injury-prone Logan Morrison go down, which will likely either be one of these two or Jesus Montero.
On the pitching side, Danny Hultzen is attempting to make a comeback after suffering a devastating shoulder injury over a year and a half ago. It’s unlikely that Hultzen will pitch at the same level he was before the injury, but if he somehow recovers he won’t be that far down the depth chart.
Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press
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