Felix Hernandez and the Mariners are poised to contend for a playoff spot
This shapes up as a season of hope — and expectation — in Seattle after last year’s 16-game turnaround and the addition of the major leagues’ home run champion. The Mariners fell one game short a year ago of ending a postseason drought that extends to 2001 despite leading the American League in ERA and conjuring up the majors’ best bullpen from a collection of leftover parts that fell into place once free-agent closer Fernando Rodney arrived. The Achilles heel was an attack that finished 14th, 15th and 12th, respectively, among AL clubs in the offensive slash categories. Further, the Mariners sported a lefty-heavy lineup that left them vulnerable to matchup problems in the late innings. Their solution: Sign free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz, who hit 40 homers last season while playing in Baltimore. They also swung trades for outfielders Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano, who add a veteran left-right presence in right field.
Felix Hernandez was the best pitcher in the American League in balloting by his peers (the Players’ Choice Awards) and league executives (The Sporting News) even if the BBWAA chose Cleveland’s Corey Kluber as the Cy Young Award recipient. Hernandez, who turns 29 in April, is at the height of his powers and heads what might be the league’s best and deepest rotation. Hisashi Iwakuma is a legitimate No. 2 starter who won 15 games last season despite missing a month because of a finger injury. Now add three (possibly four) talented young arms in James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Roenis Elias and (possibly) Danny Hultzen. The Mariners also acquired veteran lefty J.A. Happ from Toronto to replace departed free agent Chris Young, who resurrected his career a year ago. Manager Lloyd McClendon says Happ will be the No. 3 or No. 4 starter, which means (barring injuries) that two of those young arms will open the season at Triple-A. Hultzen, the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, will almost certainly start in the minors after missing all of last season while recovering from shoulder surgery. Paxton is a near-certainty to make the big-league staff, possibly as the No. 2 guy, to position a lefty between Hernandez and Iwakuma. That sets up Walker and Elias for a spring battle.
Kansas City’s bullpen grabbed the headlines last season, but the Mariners had the majors’ best overall unit by a wide margin in terms of ERA (2.59). Rodney led the majors with a franchise-record 48 saves (in 51 opportunities), and his presence allowed the rest of the pen to fall into place. Yoervis Medina and former closer Danny Farquhar generally shared the eighth inning; Charlie Furbush and Joe Beimel handled lefties; rookie Dominic Leone won eight games by pitching well in middle relief. Former closer Tom Wilhelmsen was invaluable, compiling a 2.27 ERA as a long reliever. The offseason saw Brandon Maurer dispatched to San Diego in the trade for Smith, and Beimel depart as a free agent. No problem. The Mariners have Carson Smith, who sparkled in September, ready to step in for Maurer, while Beimel’s replacement should come from a pool of three candidates: Lucas Luetge, Edgar Olmos and Rule 5-selection David Rollins. There’s no reason this shouldn’t again be a dominant unit.
Robinson Cano remains one of the game’s premier players, but the general sense is that his numbers slipped a bit from what he produced over the previous nine years with the Yankees. You judge: He had a .314/.382/.454 slash last season after averaging .309/.355/.504 in New York. His power took an expected dip in the move to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, but the bigger factor was likely a lack of lineup protection. Opposing pitchers simply had no reason to challenge him, particularly with the game on the line. It will be interesting to see if that changes this season with Cruz hitting behind him. Shortstop shapes up as a spring battle between Brad Miller and Chris Taylor, who offer a contrast. Miller is generally viewed as a hitter with legit power whose defense is somewhat suspect. He got off to dreadful start last year, but his slash numbers after the break closely mirrored Kyle Seager’s year-long production. Miller’s early slump prompted a July 24 promotion for Taylor, who is seen as a steadier defensive player but lacks Miller’s pop. The Mariners signed free agent Rickie Weeks before the start of spring training. If he makes the team, Weeks can back up Cano as well as fill in at several other spots, including the outfield.
Seager blossomed last season into an All-Star third baseman and a Gold Glove winner, which led to a seven-year deal in the offseason for $100 million. McClendon contends that Seager’s bat still has at least another 20 points in it (after batting .268) along with a corresponding jump in production (he had 27 doubles, 25 homers and 96 RBIs). First base appears to belong to Logan Morrison, who batted .321 over his final 51 games after missing two months earlier in the season because of a severe hamstring injury. That injury is part of a troublesome history, however. Morrison has played fewer than 100 games in each of the last three seasons, and as the new year began, the Mariners didn’t have an obvious backup.
The Mariners want Cruz to serve primarily as a designated hitter, which meant the trade that sent Michael Saunders to Toronto for Happ created a hole in right field. Enter Smith and Ruggiano who, if nothing else, provide a veteran platoon tandem. Either or both could win full-time jobs, particularly if left fielder Dustin Ackley plays to his pre-break struggles (.225/.282/.335) more than his post-break surge (.269/.307/.467). Much depends on center fielder Austin Jackson, who was a huge disappointment after arriving in a July 31 trade from Detroit. That Jackson is in his walk year to free agency should only goose his motivation for a bounce-back season.
Mike Zunino displayed skill in handling a diversified staff in his first full season and showed pop in collecting 44 extra-base hits. But he also batted .199 with a .254 on-base percentage while striking out 158 times in 438 at-bats. Even a marginal improvement in strike-zone recognition would pay dividends in overall production. Backup Jesus Sucre is a solid catch-and-throw receiver, which is how scouts view John Hicks, who figures to open the season at Tacoma.
Cruz, fresh off 40 home runs with Baltimore, will be expected to get most of his at-bats as the DH. Veteran Willie Bloomquist, assuming he is fully recovered from knee surgery, is the ideal utilityman who permits the Mariners, if they choose, to get by with a three-man bench. The others project as Sucre and the non-playing portion of the right field platoon, along with Weeks if the team decides to go with four reserves. Former top prospect Jesus Montero will get a long look.
General manager Jack Zduriencik’s top offseason priority was to acquire an impact right-handed bat (preferably two) for the middle of the lineup. He signed Cruz to a four-year deal for $57 million before acquiring Ruggiano. Both should help balance a lefty-heavy lineup. Priority No. 2 was to find a veteran starting pitcher to replace Young, and Zduriencik came up with Happ from Toronto for Saunders. Zduriencik then replaced Saunders’ lefty bat by getting Smith from San Diego. All boxes checked.
The big-picture hope a year ago was that signing Cano to a 10-year deal for $240 million would serve to reset the franchise. One year later, it’s possible to view the Mariners as a viable division favorite and a strong postseason contender. That’s a pretty effective reset.
2015 Prediction: 2nd in AL West (Wild Card)
CF Austin Jackson (R) Looking to rebound in free-agent walk year from his 2014 struggles.
SS Brad Miller (L) Will battle Chris Taylor during spring training for the starting job.
2B Robinson Cano (L) Just stay healthy; that’s all Mariners want for last season’s big addition.
DH Nelson Cruz (R) He’s unlikely to hit 40 homers again, but 25-plus will be fine with the Mariners.
3B Kyle Seager (L) Can the new $100 million man keep improving at the plate?
RF Seth Smith (L) Disciplined hitter acquired from the Padres; likely will platoon with Justin Ruggiano.
1B Logan Morrison (L) He was productive last season once he got healthy, but can he stay healthy?
C Mike Zunino (R) Lots to like with this young catcher, but the Mariners can’t live with a .199 average again.
LF Dustin Ackley (L) Can he finally put a full year together after a solid second half of 2014?
C Jesus Sucre (R) Doesn’t hit much, but the club is content with him as Zunino’s backup.
UT Willie Bloomquist (R) Veteran is invaluable for his ability to play everywhere on the diamond.
OF Justin Ruggiano (R) Should draw duty against left-handed pitchers; hit .305 vs. lefties in 2014.
2B Rickie Weeks (R) Went from averaging 23 home runs from 2010-12 for the Brewers to just 18 in the last two seasons combined.
RH Felix Hernandez Had a career-high 248 strikeouts and career-lows in ERA (2.14) and WHIP (0.915) but didn’t win Cy Young.
LH James Paxton Former Kentucky Wildcat could slot second in the Mariners rotation to provide right-left mix.
RH Hisashi Iwakuma Check out his numbers (1.086 career WHIP) and then tell us who is more underrated.
LH J.A. Happ Veteran acquisition from Toronto should be a good fit in spacious Safeco Field.
RH Taijuan Walker Possesses high-end stuff but must beat out Roenis Elias for spot in the rotation.
RH Fernando Rodney (Closer) Often a thrill ride but was 48-for-51 in saves in his first season with the Mariners.
RH Carson Smith Funky delivery makes him especially tough on right-handed hitters (.133 average).
RH Yoervis Medina Big Venezuelan righty was a dominant setup man for much of last season.
RH Danny Farquhar Fearless reliever struck out 81 and only allowed 58 hits in 71.0 innings.
LH Charlie Furbush Gets the call in late-inning clutch situations vs. lefthanders.
RH Tom Wilhelmsen Ability to go multiple innings makes him a key piece in Mariners’ pen.
LH Lucas Luetge Pitched 77.2 innings for Mariners in 2012-13 but spent most of ’14 in Class AAA.
Beyond the Box Score
King’s streak Felix Hernandez set an MLB record by making 16 consecutive starts (May 18 to Aug. 11) in which he pitched at least seven innings while allowing two or fewer earned runs. The previous record of 13 such starts belonged to Tom Seaver of the 1971 New York Mets. The previous American League record of 12 belonged to Chief Bender of the 1907 Philadelphia Athletics.
Nine and counting Hernandez has recorded at least 150 strikeouts in each of his first nine full big-league seasons. The only other pitchers to achieve that feat are in the Hall of Fame: Walter Johnson, who had an 11-year streak; and Bert Blyleven, who did it in his first 10 full seasons.
For openers The Mariners carry an eight-game winning streak on Opening Day into their 2015 opener on April 6 against the Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field. The Angels were the last team to beat the Mariners in a season opener. That was back on April 3, 2006, when Orlando Cabrera’s two-run single in the ninth inning against J.J. Putz produced a 5–4 victory at Safeco.
Double trouble Robinson Cano finished with a club-leading 37 doubles and became only the second player in big-league history to hit at least 30 doubles in each of his first 10 seasons. The other player is Albert Pujols, whose streak ended at 10 years when he finished with 29 in 2011. Cano has 412 doubles in his first 10 seasons. Only three players in history had more: Pujols (426), Joe Medwick (416) and Todd Helton (413).
Beating the best The Mariners posted a winning record against postseason teams (34–27) and against teams that finished with a winning record (45–35). They also had a winning record against each of the American League’s three divisions — 41–35 vs. the West; 19–14 vs. the Central; and 18–15 vs. the East.
Elite company All-Star closer Fernando Rodney became only the sixth player in history to record at least 48 saves in two different seasons. No pitcher has ever done it three times. The 48-times-two club: Dennis Eckersley (1990, 1992), Rod Beck (1993, 1998), Mariano Rivera (2001, 2004), Eric Gagne (2002, 2003), Jim Johnson (2012, 2013) and Rodney (2012, 2014).
2014 Top Draft Pick
Alex Jackson, OF
Generally viewed as the best prep player in last year’s draft, Jackson, 19, landed a $4.2 million signing bonus as the No. 6 overall pick and immediately shifted positions — from catcher to right fielder — in order to accelerate his rise through the farm system. The Southern California native missed a month after he was hit in the face after losing a fly ball in the lights but showed no lingering effects when he returned for a few late games in the Arizona Rookie League. When he played, Jackson (6'2", 215) didn’t disappoint. Baseball America tagged him as the best prospect in the AZL and also at No. 1 in the Mariners’ system. Club officials hesitate to identify a probable launching point this season for Jackson. He figures to open the season at Low-A Clinton in the Midwest League.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Alex Jackson, OF (19) Team’s No. 1 pick in 2014 is already considered the best prospect in the organization.
2. D.J. Peterson, 3B/1B (23) A right-handed power hitter who should get a look in spring training before opening in the minors. Figures to shift this season to first base.
3. Danny Hultzen, LHP (25) The second overall pick in the 2011 draft appears fully healthy after missing last season while recovering from major shoulder surgery.
4. Carson Smith, RHP (25) Wowed club officials in nine scoreless September appearances and seems likely to win a spot in the big-league bullpen.
5. Ketel Marte, SS (21) Currently slotted behind Brad Miller and Chris Taylor in the organization’s shortstop depth chart. But it wouldn’t be a shock if he were starting in the big leagues in 2016.
6. Patrick Kivlehan, INF (25) A versatile player with an unconventional batting style that somehow works. Scouts love the way he peppers line drives.
7. Austin Wilson, OF (23) Still longer on potential than proven performance in part because of injuries. He missed time last year because of Achilles and elbow problems.
8. Gabby Guerrero, OF (21) His always-attack approach at the plate is, no surprise, reminiscent of his uncle, former MVP Vladimir Guerrero.
9. Edwin Diaz, RHP (21) Oozes potential because of an ability to command three pitches. If he adds some weight, he could easily pitch in the mid-90s.
10. Jordy Lara, OF/1B (23) Scouts are mixed on Lara, who put up big numbers last season (primarily) at the High-A High Desert launching pad.