The Year The Mariners Make It Back To The Playoffs

The 2014 Mariners finished the final two months of the season with a 31-22 record.  The team fell into a nice little routine, once all the kinks were worked out.  Logan Morrison officially supplanted Justin Smoak at first base.  Dustin Ackley looked more comfortable at the plate.  Felix Hernandez had a Cy Young-ish season.  The bullpen was the best in the American League.  You could point to any number of reasons why those Mariners ultimately failed, but never forget that as it stood, those Mariners were only one game away from a shot at the post-season.

Every year, at least since I’ve started this blog, I’ve gone into each Mariners season looking for reasons why the team might succeed.  If THIS and THIS and THIS and THIS happens, our best case scenario is:  the Mariners make the playoffs.  Usually, whatever THIS stood for was something huge.  Like, if the starting pitching holds up, and if the bullpen is lights out, and if all of our young players make big leaps forward in progress, and if the best players on the other teams in our division get injured, then MAYBE the Mariners would be good.  It was always a fantasy, where I ended every preview article with some variation of:  just keep me interested until football season, that’s all I ask.

Then, 2014 happened.  Robinson Cano provided us with a real middle-of-the-order presence.  Kyle Seager continued to progress into the All Star we all knew he could be.  Felix had another Felix-like year and the bullpen WAS lights out!  We still couldn’t fill in that DH spot to save our lives, and the offense in general was just inconsistent enough to keep us out of post-season action.  But, we were right there.  One or two moves away.

Those moves ended up being Nelson Cruz, a right field platoon, and a different veteran starter to hopefully lock down the back of our rotation.  Considering right field and DH were easily our worst two positions on the team last year, and in the early going, the fifth starter was a circus, you couldn’t have asked for a more efficient offseason from a front office perspective.  Everything else pretty much stays the same, which in this case isn’t the worst thing in the world.

The fact of the matter is, going into 2015, instead of searching far and wide for reasons why the Mariners might be good, I’ve found myself searching far and wide for reasons why the Mariners might fall short.  Will the bullpen regress back to 2013 levels of frustration?  Will key players get injured and miss the majority of the season?  Will our younger players fall apart as so many have before them?  These are the questions I’ve got floating around my head, but if I take a step back, forget I’ve been a Mariners fan for these last 10+ years of futility, and look at the whole situation with a fresh perspective, then I have to admit that what I’m looking at right now is a very good baseball team.  A playoff baseball team!  And these are the reasons why:

  • Felix Hernandez is the best right handed pitcher in baseball.  He has more than paid his dues with this organization, and now the organization looks like it’s FINALLY paying him back.  There have been years where we looked forward to a potentially contending season out of the Mariners, but this is easily the best team we’ve ever put around the King.  We’re coming off of an authentic winning season, he just got snubbed a little bit for the Cy Young Award, and now we’re better than ever:  you’re telling me Felix won’t be jacked up for 2015?  I think it’s possible he’s even better than before!
  • The bullpen is back.  We’ve got so many good, young arms behind Fernando Rodney that we’ve got legit Major Leaguers starting off the season in AAA.  Last year, they were the best in the league; if we can keep them somewhere around the Top 5 bullpens in the A.L., I think that’s more than enough to push us into the 90-win range.
  • The 3-4-5 spots in our lineup rival anyone in baseball.  Cano-Cruz-Seager, should they stay healthy, will be filling out the stat sheets on a regular basis.  We should be looking at anywhere from 60-70 homers, 250-270 RBI, and lots of hero moments as they come through in the clutch.
  • There are still regulars on this team who can get even better.  Specifically, I’m looking at Mike Zunino.  He’s super young and just starting his second full season behind the plate.  Now that he’s more or less acclimated with the pitching staff, and what it takes to be a superb defensive catcher, he can work on his bat.  He may not yet be the perennial All Star we all think he’ll be, but I’m looking forward to a big step forward in his pitch recognition and overall production at the plate.
  • I also think Ackley has something to prove – as he’s staring down the barrel of a platoon in the early going.  I’m a little dubious on Rickie Weeks carrying over his hot spring into the chilly April air of Seattle.  Here’s to hoping Ackley carries over his second half of 2014.
  • Logan Morrison needs to prove he can stay healthy and play 140-150 games, so why not have it be this year?  If you think about it, 2015 is really his last chance at being an everyday player.  If he misses half the season, I’m sure he’ll be relegated to a bench role for the duration of his career.
  • Brad Miller is another guy who could be a wonderful surprise.  If he does what he did last September – and not so much what he did last April – we could be in for a real boost at the bottom of our lineup.
  • The rest of our rotation behind King Felix has a lot of promise.  Hisashi Iwakuma has, for the most part in his Major League career, been a VERY effective starter.  He hit the skids late last season, but his entire 2013 season was rock solid.  He’s also in the last year of his deal, so I’m sure there’ll be a little extra juice in his appearances.  Walker and Paxton won spots in the rotation and are looking to jumpstart their careers.  One day, they’ll be multi-millionaires many times over; to be able to get strong production out of them while they make peanuts is a big reason why this team will be successful.  J.A. Happ is our bottom-of-the-rotation innings eater who we’re banking on being successful in Safeco.  He’s essentially fighting for his career too.  If he can’t make it in Seattle, what hope does he have of making it anywhere else?
  • Lloyd McClendan & Jack Zduriencik are not fucking around.  Dominic Leone had a shitstorm of a Spring Training one year removed from dominating at the Major League level as a rookie.  So, what happens?  Any other year, he would’ve had his 25-man roster spot warmed for him; but not this year.  This year, he gets to work out some things in Tacoma, as the guy who had the better spring takes his place.  Roenis Elias also had a phenomenal rookie season last year.  This year?  He was automatically placed into a dogfight with Taijuan Walker, which he ultimately lost.  LMC did everything in his power to downplay Walker’s outstanding spring – as he didn’t give up an earned run until the final week – when in years past, he might have been puffing him up.  There’s definitely an air of seriousness to what’s going on.  We are IN a pennant race, and the fucking season hasn’t started yet!  But, that’s the mindset you have to have.  Most of the players on the team – especially those brought up through the organization – haven’t been in this situation yet.  Well, they’ve been getting a hard and fast lesson thus far:  it’s do or die.  If you don’t produce, the Mariners have no problem replacing you with someone who will.  This isn’t about getting guys experience and preparing them for future seasons.  This is about 2015.

It’s that last bullet point that gets me most excited.  We all figured someone like J.A. Happ would be slotted in as the #3 starter, just given his experience alone.  But, no; the Mariners have him in the 5-hole.  Happ has more or less had a rotten spring.  While I understand the rationale for giving him a spot in the rotation – injuries always happen, we needed the depth – I can see straight away that he’s not going to have the long leash we all expected.  If he flubs up the month of April, and we aren’t beset with injuries to other starters, it wouldn’t shock me in the least to see him DFA’d (or mysteriously placed on the DL) as the team brings back Elias.

The biggest positive I have about this team is that there aren’t the holes that there were in years past.  There are potential problem areas – as there are with all teams – but there aren’t outright holes, guys you KNOW are going to be terrible.  Here’s the lineup:

  1. Austin Jackson (CF)
  2. Seth Smith / Justin Ruggiano (RF)
  3. Robbie Cano (2B)
  4. Nelson Cruz (DH)
  5. Kyle Seager (3B)
  6. Logan Morrison / Willie Bloomquist (1B)
  7. Dustin Ackley / Rickie Weeks (LF)
  8. Mike Zunino / Jesus Sucre (C)
  9. Brad Miller (SS)

I could see A-Jax bounce back; it’s not impossible!  I could see the Smith/Ruggiano platoon being very effective.  I could see LoMo magically remain healthy.  I could see Ackley continue to improve as he gets more comfortable with his position.  And, I could see Miller reach that high ceiling we all dreamed he might.  If it all clicks and falls into place, this team could be a 100-win monster.  If certain players struggle, or if we run into a few DL stints here and there, I think we’re still looking at an 85-win minimum, with room to grow depending on luck and how well our pitching staff holds up.

I don’t think we’re in for a torrid start.  I’d be happy with an April that gets us to or a little above .500.  The thing with 2015 though, is if enough players are able to carry over their hot spring numbers, these Mariners have a better chance than any of the last 10+ Mariners teams of jumping out of the gate on fire.  It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see them win around 20 games in the first month, but I don’t think that’s mandatory for us to have a division-winning season.

I don’t really have a good handle on the other teams in the A.L. West.  The Rangers will probably be terrible.  I think the Astros and A’s will duke it out for the 3rd place spot.  And, I think Anaheim will be our primary foe.  I’d like to believe that the Mariners are a little more balanced.  I think the Angels might be a tad more top-heavy with some of their elite players, but if you look at us and them, 1-25, I think the Mariners are getting more bang for their buck.

Ultimately, I see a 95-67 record out of the Mariners in 2015.  To put it one way, that amounts to the Mariners winning approximately 16 games per month.  You’re telling me the 2015 Seattle Mariners can’t go 16-11 every single month?  That seems BEYOND reasonable!

I’ve got the Mariners just squeaking the division away from Anaheim, bumping them down to the Wild Card.  And, not for nothing, but I like this Mariners team to make a deep run in the post-season.  Oh yes, this is really, FINALLY happening.

The season starts in a few hours.  Who’s ready?

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