The Seattle Mariners have been fairly busy in the offseason. Now, it is time to see if the moves will result in actual progress as the team heads to Arizona for spring training.
Fans have been patient over the last few seasons, as GM Jack Zduriencik has slowly rebuilt the team with young talent that is intended to mature in the next season or two. At the same time, there have been times of frustration as the fans wonder when this maturing will actually occur.
Signing Felix Hernandez to a long-term deal is a good sign that Seattle is willing to spend some money. Still, there will come a time when the city expects there to be more than one star on the team. Maybe those stars will emerge from the farm system, but perhaps management will need to scratch out some bigger checks in the next few offseasons.
Can Seattle contend for a wild-card spot in 2013? Or will this be another slow year of plodding progress as the team moves toward relevancy in 2014 and beyond? ESPN's Eric Karabell, for one, believes that Seattle could be a surprise team this year.
Here are three keys to earning a wild-card spot this year.
More Than Just Felix
To suggest that Seattle needs to win with pitching is an obvious statement. However, the way that the Mariners win will be crucial. Beyond Felix Hernandez, the current starting rotation is good, but not particularly compelling.
For Seattle to make the playoffs in 2013, it would be nice for Felix Hernandez to finally get some run support and win 20 games. But, that won’t be enough.
Hisashi Iwakuma needs to expand on his 9-5 performance in 2012 and win 15 or more games in 2013. In addition, the Mariners are hoping that the $6.5 million paid to Joe Saunders (via NBC Sports) will buy an additional 12-14 wins.
It would also be nice to have another pitcher step up and provide some excitement. Perhaps a Taijuan Walker could do what Michael Pineda did in 2012. Granted, it would be nice if Walker could do it for an entire season rather than experiencing a decline in the second half.
Last year, the six pitchers with the most starts (Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Blake Beavan, Kevin Millwood, Hisashi Iwakuma, Hector Noesi) totaled 55 wins. Compare that the World Series-winning starting rotation of the San Francisco Giants. Their total wins? 71.
That 16 wins may not seem like a huge number, but 16 more wins would have given the Mariners 91 in 2012. Not enough for a wild-card berth in 2012, but pretty close.
Ready for the next obvious statement? Hitting would be good. Something better than the .234 team average that was worst in Major League Baseball in 2012.
Fans get excited about home runs, but finding the seats may not be the key to victory. If you use the Giants again as an example, San Francisco hit .269 as a team, which was good for fifth in the league. The Detroit Tigers, who lost the World Series, were sixth at .268 for the year.
Where did San Francisco rank in team home runs? Dead last in the league.
You have to consistently put the ball in play.
One cannot assume that Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse will automatically hit .280-.300, but that would certain help. It would also help if Jesus Montero, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders had breakout years.
The real key may be with two players, namely Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak.
Ackley may bat leadoff, which means that Seattle will go as far as Dustin’s ability to set the table. He will need to bounce back from his injury-impacted .226 average in 2012. Smoak hit better down the stretch in 2012, and he may be the key to Seattle's success.
Rather than swinging for the fences, it may benefit the team for Smoak to shorten his swing and just get on base.
The Safeco Field Effect
Finally, Seattle needs a genuine home-field advantage. The fences are coming in, but that cannot be the only factor. Those fences will not move back out when the opposition comes to the plate.
Perhaps the shorter fences will have a psychological impact on the team. They aren’t coming in that far, but the mind can be very persuasive with the right factors.
In 2012 Seattle was 40-41 at home, which means that they were barely better at Safeco than they were everywhere else (35-46 road record). The beautiful ballpark in Seattle needs to be a safe haven, and a castle to be defended.
There has to be a Safeco Field effect so that the fans come back and support their Mariners. Who knows? If they come back in 2013, they might actually see their team make the playoffs.