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Complete Seattle Mariners 2014 Season Preview

Jasper SchererAnalyst IIMarch 26, 2014

Complete Seattle Mariners 2014 Season Preview

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    Seattle Mariners fans have waited for months to see their front office’s offseason splurge come to fruition, and as Opening Day draws ever closer, the time will soon finally come.

    The Mariners’ biggest offseason signing, which just so happened to be the biggest signing across the majors, was the acquisition of Robinson Cano. While the ex-New York Yankees second baseman didn’t come cheap, he’ll provide an established bat in the middle of the lineup that the Mariners have so often lacked in recent years.

    But while all eyes will be on Cano this season, the Mariners lineup has plenty more to offer. Third baseman and breakout candidate Kyle Seager, outfielder/designated hitter Corey Hart and perennial 20-homer candidate Justin Smoak will complement Cano nicely in a Mariners lineup that isn’t particularly flashy but is nevertheless solid all around.

    With a few unfortunate injuries, the Seattle rotation is a bit of a different story. Hisashi Iwakuma and prospect Taijuan Walker will miss some time to start the season, meaning the Mariners will be forced to test out their collection of young pitchers right off the bat. James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez and Roenis Elias will all figure to get some starts in the absence of Iwakuma and Walker.

    Finally, the addition of Fernando Rodney bolsters the Seattle bullpen a bit, despite what some may think. Indeed, after a tough season in the even tougher AL East, many have written Rodney off due to his somewhat disappointing performance last season.

    While he might not return to 2012 form—when he saved 48 games with a minuscule 0.60 ERA—the right-hander is still a valuable commodity after putting up 37 saves last year.

    But before we delve too deeply into the ins and outs of the Mariners roster, let’s take a look at how the team performed this spring. Read on to find out.

     

    All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

Spring Training Recap

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    At 17-10 this spring, the Mariners are second in the Cactus League, thanks in large part to several huge performances at the plate. Leading the way is Robinson Cano, whose .465 average (20 hits in 43 at-bats) to go along with a .511 OBP is one of the more promising signs heading into the season. (He’s also struck out once.)

    Brad Miller, Cano’s double-play partner at shortstop, and Dustin Ackley have also put up big numbers this spring, with averages of .436 and .410 in 55 and 61 at-bats, respectively. In fact, five of the nine hitters who figure to begin the season in the starting lineup are hitting .289 or better this spring.

    Ackley in particular is a good candidate to keep up his torrid hitting pace after breaking out in the second half of 2013.

    "I felt like what I did in the second half and getting back to things how it used to feel and getting that mindset what I needed to play at the level I needed to was really important," Ackley told the Associated Press (via USA Today).

    When teams are winning, the starting pitching is usually performing well, and that’s indeed been the case with the Mariners this spring. Erasmo Ramirez has been particularly impressive, going 3-0 with a 0.96 ERA in 18.2 dominant innings. Roenis Elias (3-0, 2.04) and James Paxton (3.18 ERA) have also impressed, which is a good sign for the Mariners because those three will likely begin the season in the rotation despite lacking a full season of big league experience between them.

    Manager Lloyd McClendon has been particularly impressed with Elias, who has been the surprise of camp.

    "He just keeps going out there and keeps doing good,” McLendon told MLB.com’s Greg Johns following Elias' start on Saturday. “He certainly has made a statement for himself."

    Meanwhile, the bullpen has yielded mixed results this spring. Setup man Tom Wilhelmsen, still adjusting to life out of the closer role, hasn’t looked comfortable on the mound, allowing 10 runs (eight earned) on 13 hits in 9.1 innings for a 7.71 ERA.

    Wilhelmsen’s setup counterpart, Danny Farquhar, is one of the more heralded non-closer relief pitchers heading into the season, and he’s been decidedly average this spring, allowing four runs in his nine innings of work while also struggling to keep runners off base (1.56 WHIP).

    But there have also been some successes out of the bullpen this spring. Yoervis Medina and Joe Beimel have posted 2.00 and 3.38 ERAs, respectively, helping to counteract the otherwise disappointing performances from the rest of the ‘pen. The Mariners can only hope the recent struggles won’t carry into the regular season.

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    Injuries have hit the rotation the hardest, with Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker set to begin the season on the disabled list.

    Iwakuma, who went 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA last season, was diagnosed with a strained tendon in the middle finger of his throwing hand, but he’s making steady progress in his recovery and shouldn’t miss an extensive amount of time to begin the season.

    After playing catch on Monday, the right-hander had only positive things to say.

    “I felt good,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki, via The Seattle Times' Ryan Divish. “The ball felt great going out off the finger. They wanted me to go lightly for six or seven minutes from 45 feet. That was the plan. I wanted to go out there and see where I was at and go from there, starting tomorrow.”

    Iwakuma plans to remove the protective tape on his finger and play catch at a more intense rate, as Divish reported.

    Meanwhile, Walker pitched an inning against the Padres' Triple-A team on Saturday for his first action of the spring. The result wasn’t important—Walker allowed a run on two hits in an inning of work. Rather, the young right-hander’s lack of discomfort in his shoulder was the takeaway that matters.

    “I just walk away happy because my arm feels good,” Walker said, via The Seattle Times’ Divish.

    Walker will likely begin the season on the disabled list because of his shoulder inflammation, but as his outing proved, that won’t last too long. Rest assured Mariners fans, your prized pitchers will only miss the very first part of the season.

    Rounding out the likely disabled list to start the season is relief pitcher Stephen Pryor. The right-hander had surgery to repair his torn lat muscle back in August, and he too pitched on Saturday, along with Walker.

    Pryor actually pitched right after Walker, and he set his opponents down in order, finishing off with a called strikeout to end the frame. Like Walker, the expectations were low for Pryor heading into the outing given his extended time off. Despite having a lower velocity than usual and lacking command of his breaking pitches, Pryor said he felt good about his appearance.

    “I’m not worried about it at this point. I’m feeling good,” the right-hander said, via Divish's article. “I feel like I can pound the zone at this point. It’s getting the adrenaline and everything working together is the next step to getting that velocity up.”

Lineup Preview

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    Projected Lineup

    1. Dustin Ackley

    2. Kyle Seager

    3. Robinson Cano

    4. Corey Hart

    5. Justin Smoak

    6. Logan Morrison

    7. Michael Saunders

    8. Mike Zunino

    9. Brad Miller

     

    Key Bench Players

    Nick Franklin, Abraham Almonte, Willie Bloomquist, John Buck

     

    A common misconception this offseason is that Robinson Cano’s numbers will drop in 2014 because of his move to a worse hitting environment with a supposedly worse lineup.

    While there’s some truth to the notion that Safeco Field’s unfavorable dimensions will be unkind to Cano, it’s worth noting that Seattle’s home field was decidedly neutral when it came to run-scoring in 2013. Indeed, the ballpark ranked 15th in ESPN’s run factor statistic after consistently ranking near the bottom in past years, an improvement that came thanks to a change in dimensions of the outfield fences.

    Meanwhile, the Yankees lineup Cano was in last season was actually the 16th best in baseball (in terms of runs scored), per ESPN, while the Mariners ranked 22nd—with just 26 fewer runs scored than the Yanks. Because Cano was responsible for so many of the Yankees’ runs, taking him out of the equation would make the offenses rather equal.

    The point being, it’s far from an offensive downgrade for Cano to move from New York to Seattle. While he might not match some of his better numbers with the Yankees, he likely won’t slip up too much, either.

    I’ll talk more about the middle of the lineup in the “Breakout Candidates” section later on, but the bottom of the lineup is where it gets a little murky for Seattle. Michael Saunders, the center fielder and presumed No. 7 batter, is the owner of a .224/.295/.374 career slash line. He will need to take a step forward to prove he can be a regular contributor to the starting lineup.

    The same can be said of catcher Mike Zunino, who struggled in his first taste of big league action last year. The Mariners took Zunino with the third overall pick of the 2012 draft, but after blowing through the minors, the young catcher looked a little overwhelmed at the plate last season. With an offseason of work under his belt, he’ll look to improve in 2014.

    Shortstop Brad Miller rounds out the lineup in the No. 9 spot, but he could prove to be one of the better nine hitters in the league. Aside from his outrageous stats this spring (.436/.492/.909 slash line), Miller put up solid numbers last season (.737 OPS) after achieving success across all levels of his minor league career (1.022 OPS at Triple-A).

Rotation Preview

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    Projected Rotation

    1. Felix Hernandez

    2. James Paxton

    3. Erasmo Ramirez

    4. Roenis Elias

    5. Blake Beavan

     

    One of the disappointments of the offseason for the Mariners was that the Cano signing didn’t exactly start the domino effect of signings that many Mariners fans hoped it would. With a definite need to add at least another capable starting pitcher, the Mariners didn’t make a move, passing up on the likes of Ervin Santana and David Price.

    Now, with both Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker out to begin the regular season, the Mariners front office has to be questioning its decision to pass up on a starting pitcher. The rotation that figures to begin the season lacks many established names, meaning the Mariners will trust a collection of young arms to shoulder the load until Iwakuma and Walker come back.

    “It’s just a matter of logistics,” Manager Lloyd McClendon said, via Ryan Divish of The Seattle Times. “We’ll get a couple of things ironed out. But for the most part, I think we’re dwindling down.”

    The translation of all this is that the above “Projected Rotation” is subject to plenty of change and will likely do a complete 180 within the first month or so of the season.

    Yet, while the Mariners might not have the best (or most stable) rotation this season, they have to like their chances going forward. Paxton and Elias are only 25, and Ramirez is just 23, meaning they’ll all continue to develop with more time in the majors under their belt. Add Walker, MLB.com’s No. 6-ranked prospect, and Seattle’s rotation looks set to finally complement King Felix in the coming years. 

Bullpen Preview

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    Projected Bullpen

    RP: Charlie Furbush

    RP: Yoervis Medina

    RP: Joe Beimel

    LR: Hector Noesi

    SU: Tom Wilhelmsen

    SU: Danny Farquhar

    CL: Fernando Rodney

     

    The acquisition of Rodney flew under the radar a bit more than it should have due to Cano’s signing, but that won’t make Rodney's impact any less significant. The right-hander certainly had a down year in 2013, likely influenced by the unrealistic expectations that followed his unbelievable 2012 (48 saves, 0.60 ERA).

    Nevertheless, a move away from the AL East can only help matters, and lowered expectations will put less pressure on Rodney as well.

    Another arm to watch is Danny Farquhar. After saving 16 games last season, the right-hander looked set to take over the closer role until Rodney came over. Nevertheless, Farquhar could find himself back in that position if Rodney struggles like he did last season.

    Even in the setup role, Farquhar will likely make life miserable for opposing hitters. He struck out 12.8 batters per nine innings in 2013, and he could become one of the AL’s better late-inning guys with some improved control.

Prospects to Watch

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    The most apparent name here is starting pitcher Taijuan Walker, who’s the No. 2 pitching prospect in baseball, according to MLB.com. The right-hander started three games last season, posting a solid 3.60 ERA in 15 innings of work. We’ve also talked about James Paxton, the Mariners’ No. 3 prospect on MLB.com.

    But Walker and Paxton aren’t the only Mariners prospects to keep an eye on this year. Carson Smith is another pitcher who should make an impact. At Double-A in 2013, Smith struck out a Brad Lidge-esque 12.8 batters per nine, and he has yet to allow a run in 8.1 innings of work this spring. With one of the nastiest breaking balls you’ll see, a sweeping slider that breaks very early, to go along with a fastball that sits in the low-to-mid 90s, Smith has the stuff to make an impact when he gets called up in 2014.

    Rounding out the prospect watch is right-hander Dominic Leone, who has yet to pitch above Double-A but is already developed enough to seriously help the Seattle bullpen later this season. He posted a 2.25 ERA across three levels last season, and he’s limited opponents to 6.4 hits per nine innings over his minor league career.

    Leone throws a heater that often sits in the upper 90s, and his cutter is a nice complementary pitch that often saws off hitters. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Leone could be the Mariners’ closer of the future.

Breakout Candidates

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    A name that fantasy baseball players are likely familiar with is Kyle Seager. The Mariners third baseman has plenty of talent, as he showcased last year with his 22 homers, 69 RBI and solid .764 OPS.

    But perhaps the best thing Seager has going for him right now is that he’ll hit in front of Robinson Cano and Corey Hart—protection he didn’t have last season. That will undoubtedly lead to better hitting opportunities, and if leadoff hitter Dustin Ackley can put it together at the plate, Seager should even have a few RBI as well.

    Hart, Seattle’s designated hitter (and cleanup hitter), is another good bet to surprise some folks. Hart missed all of 2013 because he was recovering from a knee surgery. But now that he’s fully healthy, there’s little reason to believe he can’t return to his previous level of production.

    The red flag is that Hart has been plagued by a few minor injuries this spring, with his back and forearm giving him a bit of trouble. That’s something that should be remedied by spending time at the DH spot, instead of patrolling the outfield on a daily basis as he’d been doing.

    “Every day is a little better,’’ Hart said, according to The Seattle Times. “I’m just trying to worry about my swing pattern and when I start seeing the ball, pick it up a little faster than I have been. That will come.’’

    It’s also hard to ignore the fact that Hart hit 87 home runs from 2010-12 while twice batting .283 or better. He also owns an .824 OPS for his career. The bottom line is that if Hart can overcome his injuries, his ability should take care of the rest. Unfortunately, that’s a big “if.”

Top Keys to Success

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    Gaining Stability in the Rotation

    While Seattle’s starting rotation isn’t necessarily in trouble, its reliance on so many unproven arms is a bit concerning. Roenis Elias has yet to throw a pitch in the majors, Erasmo Ramirez has just 21 career starts (4.25 ERA in 131.1 innings), and James Paxton, while impressive last year with a 1.50 ERA, has just 24 innings of big league experience.

    That’s by no means a death sentence for the rotation, but with the need to hold out before the returns of Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker, it’s also a lot to ask of a few young pitchers without even a full season of experience combined. Establishing a reliable slate of five starters is a must for Seattle as the season goes on.

     

    Getting Production Throughout the Lineup

    The middle of the lineup isn’t full of big names (other than Robinson Cano), but with Kyle Seager’s breakout potential and Corey Hart’s proven ability to consistently hit around 30 homers, it at least has a good chance of achieving offensive respectability.

    The bottom of the lineup is another story altogether. With Michael Saunders, Mike Zunino and Brad Miller’s questionable statistical pedigrees, the bottom third is at risk of becoming an offensive black hole unless one of those three breaks out.

    That’s not to say the potential isn’t there. Zunino has some serious talent, and it’s unfair to judge him based on part of a big league season. Miller also had a fine debut season (.265/.318/.418 slash line in 335 plate appearances).

    But like the starting rotation, Zunino and Miller are unproven talents—you just don’t know what you’re going to get. For Seattle to make a playoff push, it’ll have to be firing on all cylinders, and that certainly includes the bottom of the lineup.

Previewing Seattle's Opening Series

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    The Mariners will open the season with a three-game set against the Los Angeles Angels, beginning March 31. Both teams are projected to finish outside of playoff contention in the AL West, meaning they’ll each have something to prove this year.

    The Angels will present a pair of tough pitching matchups for the Mariners, with Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson likely to pitch the first two games; young starter Garrett Richards will pitch third.

    Los Angeles’ lineup is where the Mariners will likely run into the most trouble, however. The Angels have one of the better “top of the orders” in the league, with the underrated Kole Calhoun leading off to be followed by Mike Trout. A fully-healthy Albert Pujols and a bulked-up Josh Hamilton will follow, posing all kinds of problems for Felix Hernandez and Co.

    The Angels present quite an opening challenge for the Mariners, but in reality, it’s just a preview of what’s to come for the remainder of the season. The Rangers and A’s round out the tough division (along with the Astros—not as much of a threat), meaning the Mariners will be tested all season long, as per usual. Their first taste of that will come against the Angels.

2014 Seattle Mariners Season Outlook

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    The Mariners won’t open the season in anybody’s book of probable playoff contenders, but that could very well change by the end of the season. For one, the offensive improvement should be one of the more noticeable changes this season. Robinson Cano's presence is likely to have an effect across the lineup, and with a collection of breakout candidates, the Mariners could put up better offensive numbers than many will expect of them, especially while playing in a division that overall lacks good pitching.

    The rotation is also questionable on paper, but when Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker return, the Mariners could actually have some of the division's better starting pitching. While regularly facing the Angels and Rangers won't be fun, Seattle's host of young but promising arms could help make the difference for the rotation.

    The Mariners have a relatively young team that should look much scarier a few years from now, when the younger talent has had more time to develop at the big league level. While many criticized the signing of Cano this offseason, the addition gives Seattle a superstar name around which to build going forward.

    In short, the Mariners have the tools to surprise some teams this season, but realistically, competing in the AL West with the Rangers and A's is quite a bit to ask for. The worst-case scenario for the team is that their prospects fail to develop this season, Cano struggles in his new environment and the Mariners finish below .500 again.

    Conversely, a best-case scenario would be something along the lines of strong performances from the rotation's young arms, breakout seasons from players like Kyle Seager and the bottom of the lineup (Mike Zunino and Brad Miller) and an MVP-caliber performance from Cano. That could push the Mariners into the playoffs with a wild-card berth, a more realistic option given the recent expansion to two wild-card teams.

    The most realistic outcome for Seattle would be a finish right around .500, which should by no means be a disappointment for Mariners fans given the key injuries and lack of established talent to start the season. But if any team could prove me wrong, it just might be the Mariners.

     

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