AL West Projected Division Finish
1. Seattle Mariners
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
3. Texas Rangers
4. Oakland Athletics
5. Houston Astros
2014 Finish: 87-75 (Third Place)
Projected Batting Order
CF Austin Jackson
3B Kyle Seager
2B Robinson Cano
DH Nelson Cruz
1B Logan Morrison
LF Dustin Ackley
RF Seth Smith
C Mike Zunino
SS Brad Miller
Projected Starting Rotation/Closer
RHP Felix Hernandez
RHP Hishashi Iwakuma
RHP Taijuan Walker
LHP James Paxton
LHP J.A. Happ
CLOSER Fernando Rodney
Last year’s Mariners team came a long way in terms of improvement gaining 16 games in the win column from 2013 and finishing with their first winning record since 2009. A strong pitching staff with a weak offense for years, the current Mariner’s front office got to work on improving the bats last offseason with the signing of Robinson Cano. His addition turned them into an 87-win team and had them finish 1 game outside of the playoffs. However there was some frustration by fans the fans in the Pacific Northwest that the Mariners didn’t do more. Nelson Cruz was sitting there for the taking at a cheap price coming off his PED suspension, but the Mariners refused to spend the money to get him. He then went to Baltimore and led the majors in homers. This year, they swallowed their pride and signed Cruz, who all of a sudden cost much more after his career year with Baltimore. Added to Cano, budding star Kyle Seager and a strong pitching staff, the Mariners hope they can make up that one game and then some to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
They could still stand to see some improvement on the offensive side of the ball. The team batted 244, which was tied for second worst in the league. They finished last in OBP, second to last in hits and in the bottom half of the league in HR, RBI and R.
Robinson Cano was their offensive leader hitting a team best 314 with 14 HR and 82 RBI. He is the premier second baseman in the game, but had no protection last year. He saw his HR totals drop precipitously, but that can be tied to moving from a stadium with little league dimensions (the New Yankee stadium) to one of the toughest hitter’s parks in the league. He still was great, but needed some protection and that was priority number one in the offseason.
That protection comes in the form of Nelson Cruz, who led the majors with 40 HR and was third with 108 RBI. He added 87 R and a strong 271 AVG to that line to be a very good all-around offensive player. His defense has fallen off a cliff and after going 4 for 9 on the bases he is done trying to steal. But he was signed to protect Cano and launch homers deep into the Seattle night, as only deep HR have a chance to leave the ballpark. I think he will succeed in his new digs, though 40 HR would be a stretch. Think 30-35 with a 260+ AVG. His bigger mark will be on Robinson Cano, who should now see better pitches to hit and perhaps pull that average up to 320 with 20+ HR and 90-100 RBI.
The third leg of Seattle’s offense is newly extended third baseman Kyle Seager. Seager led the team with 25 HR and 96 RBI. But while his HR totals make him seem like a one-dimensional hitter, his AVG has climbed three straight seasons to a career high 268 last year. He will likely hit second, hoping to see fastballs with the leadoff guy on base in front of him. If that doesn’t work, they can drop him to fifth, but they hope he can succeed hitting second, as he will get more at bats and create a murder’s row for opposing pitchers in the second through fourth part of the order (Seager, Cano, Cruz). I like his power and think he will continue to grow as a hitter. Think another 25+ HR year with a drop in RBI but bump in R paired with a 250-270 AVG.
The last potential problem area with this team is the leadoff spot. The Mariners added Austin Jackson at the deadline for a little push to get into the playoffs, but he was terrible upon arriving in Seattle. He only hit 229 with 0 HR in 54 games. He did swipe 11 bags, 2 more than he took in over twice as many games in Detroit. Overall he hit 256 last year, which is pretty far off from his normal 275-300 range. He’s not a prototypical leadoff hitter and actually batted fifth in Detroit last year after hitting 28 HRs across 2012 and 2013. But his power diminished greatly in 2014, which is why Seattle wants him to leadoff. He has to learn to take a few walks and is likely a 270 hitter, not the 300 man we saw early on in his career. If he stops swinging for the fences, we may see him start to hit line drives, get on base and score some runs. They are hoping to see him hit around 280 with 25-30 SB and 80+ R. I think that’s a little high of an estimate, but could see 265, 20 SB and 70 R. With the Mariners’ pitching staff that should be enough.
The rest of the offense is nothing special. Logan Morrision will play first and likely bat fifth (268, 11 HR). He showed some pop in 2011 with 23 HR in 123 games, but not as much since then. He may not stay fifth in the lineup if Dustin Ackley (14 HR) and Seth Smith (12 HR) continue to hit for power. Mike Zunino is a limited hitter (199) but hit 22 HR in 131 games. Brad Miller and Chris Taylor are both defensive players fighting for the starting spot at short. Justin Ruggiano may log some playing time in the outfield after hitting 281 in 81 games last year and Rickie Weeks hopes to prove himself after the Mariners took a flier on him after another injury shortened season in Milwaukee. When healthy, he is a force, but he will be in an extreme pitcher’s park learning a new defensive position in left. He’s still got some power and a little speed, but I think playing part time will hurt him as much as the position change and Safeco dimensions. Jesus Montero is still around, but a PED suspension, subpar performances and clubhouse issues have derailed his career, there is little expected from this once highly touted prospect. If this offense is going to play, it will need to get a lot out of the top 4 spots in the lineup.
On the diamond, the Mariners are hit and miss. The infield looks to be in good shape with Cano and Seager playing Gold Glove caliber defense at second and third and both shortstop options being average or better with the glove. Chris Taylor is the better defender at short, but Brad Miller’s bat will get him more playing time and his defense is fine. Morrison isn’t great at first, but won’t kill you either. The problem comes in the outfield. Austin Jackson was a shockingly bad defender last year and Dustin Ackley is a natural second baseman that is trying to learn to play left field. Seth Smith is fine in right, but when two thirds of your outfield is a question mark, you don’t like what you see. The bench doesn’t provide any defensive relief either with Neleson Cruz strictly a DH at this point and Rickie Weeks, another natural second baseman, trying to learn left. Justin Ruggiano is fine in either corner, but that leaves you with more bad options (4) than good (2). The pitchers’ goals will be to keep the ball on the ground in Seattle for more than the traditional reasons.
For years, the only thing that kept this team viable was their electric pitching. The Mariners led the league with a 3.17 team ERA last year. They also finished tops in the league in hits allowed, second in WHIP and in the top half of the league in Ks and walks allowed.
Felix Hernandez is the ace and arguably the best right-handed starter in the game. He’s on the short list for best pitchers in the game. He was great again last season, winning his team’s triple crown by leading them with 15 Wins, a 2.14 ERA and 248 Ks in 236 IP. His 0.92 WHIP and 200 BAA only underscore his brilliance. Pitching in Safeco helps, but he’s great anywhere he goes. Expect another season of 15 wins, sub 3 ERA and 200+ IP and Ks.
Hisashi Iwakuma is their number 2 man. He continued his success in 2014 with a 15-9 record and a 3.52 ERA. He’s not as dominating with a 244 BAA and only 154 Ks in 179 IP. But in Safeco, he is great and competitive outside of Seattle.
Taijuan Walker was very strong in 5 starts and 3 relief appearances in 2014. He struck out 34 in 38 innings, limiting hitters to a 223 BAA and turning in a 2.61 ERA. He needs to cut down on the walks, but his stuff is electric. He will be in the starting rotation from opening day this year and may end up being one of their better pitchers.
James Paxton and J.A. Happ will make up the rest of the starting rotation. Paxton was solid in 13 starts going 6-4 with a 3.04 ERA. The ERA is great and partly a result of pitching in Safeco. But he’s got good stuff and a good idea of how to pitch. His 1.20 WHIP and 223 BAA were both better than average. If he stays in command of his pitches (not a guarantee) he will use that sinker to get outs. Happ is more of a mystery. He is a flyball pitcher who likes to work up in the zone. It’s hurt him in Philly and Toronto. Last year he improved some going 11-11 with a 4.22 ERA. A lot of that had to do with his fastball velocity returning to the 92-95 MPH range. His flyball tendencies will play better in Seattle.
Closer Fernando Rodney, who has had a career renaissance over the last few years, anchors the bullpen. The key to his resurgence has been his ability to throw his changeup and not rely strictly on his sinking fastball. He has continued to excel over the last three years going 133 for 146 in Save opportunities. He has to learn to avoid giving up free bases via the walk, but the next pitching coach that can help him in that area of his game will be the first. There is no reason not to believe he won’t turn in another great season in Seattle in 2015.
The support group leading to him is equally impressive. Tom Wilhemsen has closing experience, but has been far better as a set up man. His 2.27 ERA and 171 BAA show that he is a shutdown reliever who gets the job done. Danny Farquhar is another great setup option that had more Ks than IP last year and provides some insurance for Rodney as someone who can Save a few games in the season if necessary. Beyond those three, Dominic Leone and Yoervis Medina are good K guys with live arms and Charlie Furbush is a converted starter, who has fared much better in the bullpen with 51 Ks in 42 IP last year. It may not be the best bullpen in baseball, but it’s a very good one supported by a ballpark that really helps the men on the mound.
I went back and forth on this one for a while. I like the Mariners this year. But I think the Angels are probably a better team. Additionally, when September rolled around last year and Mariners had a chance to make the playoffs, they went 4-11 and knocked themselves out of contention. There is a lot of youth on this team and the offense is limited.
The pitching staff is still great. Their 8.5 WAR was the best in baseball last year. The bullpen turned in a MLB best 3.5 WAR as well. This team will go as far as their pitching staff will take them.
The offense I love less, but they came close to the playoffs last year and got better this offseason. This team doesn’t need a great deal of runs to win games they just need some. I have no doubt Cano will be great, and have more of an impact with Cruz hitting behind him. Kyle Seager will likely have another strong year. I think the key for Seattle’s offense is Austin Jackson. If he can get on base for the big boppers behind him, then they will have a chance. But he has to embrace being a leadoff guy and stop trying to hit homers. It worked in Detroit. It won’t work in Seattle.
I’ll put the Mariners down for 92 wins and first place in the AL West, just edging out the Angels.