2014 Team Preview: The Seattle Mariners are better than last year, but can they contend?

The Mariners only won 71 games in 2013, and 20-win improvements are no picnic.

The Seattle Mariners have had a rough go at things since Lou Piniella rode off into the sunset after a trio of 90-win seasons in the early 2000s. Since Piniella retired after the 2002 season, the Mariners have had seven managers, including interim guys Jim Riggleman and Daren Brown. New skipper Lloyd McClendon makes eight, and he faces a tall order trying to do what none of his seven predecessors could: bring playoff baseball back to the Pacific Northwest. Management helped by bringing in superstar second baseman Robinson Cano, and having Felix Hernandez atop your rotation is never a bad thing. That kind of star power only goes so far, as the team directly above them in last year's standings can attest. If the Mariners are to jump to contention in 2014, the supporting cast will need to step up in a big way.

Manager: Lloyd McClendon (1st year)

2013 record: 71-91, 4th in AL West

SB Nation blog: Lookout Landing

Other Mariners coverage: The Seattle Times, The News-Tribune, U.S.S. Mariner

First series vs. Tigers: May 30 - June 1 @ Safeco Field

Lineup

The Mariners gave more money than you could ever fathom spending to free agent Robinson Cano during the offseason, and he will be the team's second baseman. This is the easy part of my preview. Cano was accused of "dogging it" during a season in which he put up an .899 OPS and 6.0 fWAR, but it seems that these people are confusing that term with "being so good it looks effortless." Sure, he didn't run out a routine ground ball or two, but the Mariners are not paying him $24 million per year to run out routine ground balls. Kyle Seager at third base is the only other 100% guaranteed position at this point. Seager has contributed 7.0 fWAR over the past two seasons and his middle name is Duerr. He deserves to stay.

Because Cano is entrenched at second base until he deems otherwise, the Mariners have had to find a new home for a pair of promising middle infielders. Nick Franklin started 90 games at second base last year, but now he appears to be the odd man out in a positional battle with shortstop Brad Miller. Miller was not as highly touted as Franklin in the minor leagues, but projects to have the better glove at short. Meanwhile, Franklin's profile as an above average hitter for the middle infield makes him a valuable trade commodity. That value has not revealed itself yet -- i.e. he's still there -- presumably because teams know the Mariners have no space for him. At first base, Justin Smoak has earned new skipper Lloyd McClendon's seal of approval as the primary starter. Smoak hit a career-best .238/.334/.412 last season, including an .839 OPS against right-handed pitchers.

The Mariners are loaded with young talent on paper, but a lot of that talent has yet to scratch the surface of its considerable potential.

Catcher Mike Zunino was put on the fast track to the big leagues after being drafted in the first round of the 2012 draft, but I don't know if anyone expected him to debut as soon as June 12, 2013. His numbers at Triple-A Tacoma before the call-up were not eye-popping -- a .775 OPS in the Pacific Coast League isn't noteworthy, even for a catcher -- and he looked downright overmatched at the plate in the majors. The Mariners are going with Zunino as their primary backstop in 2014 whether he is ready or not, but a .794 OPS in 13 Cactus League games is a positive sign. Backup catcher John Buck made waves in fantasy baseball circles by hitting 10 home runs in his team's first 27 games, but he posted a .572 OPS from May 4th until the end of the season.

The Mariners' outfield was a revolving door last season thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness. Fortunately, things appear to be more stable heading into 2014. Dustin Ackley impressed last year after a demotion to the minor leagues, hitting .285/.354/.404 with 14 doubles in 256 plate appearances. He also played adequate defense in center field, a position he was essentially learning on the job. This season, Ackley will be in left with a spring's worth of repetitions under his belt. The Mariners are hopeful that Corey Hart's surgically repaired right knee holds up to all the running he will do in spacious right field. Hart will also see time at first base and as the team's designated hitter, along with Logan Morrison. Morrison continues to speak before he thinks, so an uptick in offensive production would go a long way in alleviating any potential headaches his mouth or Twitter account cause.

Before any Mariners fans reading this post panic because I mentioned the possibility of Hart and/or Morrison playing right field -- they might be able to cover it if they did it together -- allow me to mention that Michael Saunders will also get a healthy share of starts out there. Saunders has been injury prone throughout his career, but is coming off consecutive seasons of 130+ games played. He contributed 1.2 fWAR last year, though I imagine advanced metrics will like his defense much more in right. Saunders has the ability to play center field, but it appears that Abraham Almonte has that position covered for the moment. Almonte put up a .715 OPS in 82 plate appearances last year, and showed the ability to get on base consistently in the minor leagues.

Rotation

So, that Felix Hernandez guy. He's pretty good. Despite losing almost two miles per hour off his average four-seam fastball velocity from 2011 to 2013, King Felix allowed a 3.04 ERA and 2.61 FIP in 204 1/3 innings in 2013. He put up a 4.70 strikeout-to-walk ratio, simultaneously posting the highest strikeout and lowest walk percentages of his career. Oh, and he is only going to be 28 years old this season. Hot damn. Hisashi Iwakuma was the 1b to Hernandez's 1a in 2013, but has been slowed by a finger issue this spring -- though he's back to throwing now. Iwakuma's 2.66 ERA was third in the American League last year, earning him his first All-Star berth and a third-place finish in the Cy Young voting. His success and repertoire -- he has one of those lethal splitters all Japanese pitchers seem to throw these days -- are part of the reason why the hype around Masahiro Tanaka is so high. Unfortunately, Iwakuma will be 33 this year and won't be earning that type of payday in his career.

With Iwakuma slated to miss a week or two (at minimum) to start the season, the posturing over the rest of the rotation has begun. Greg Johns of MLB.com pointed out that Erasmo Ramirez and James Paxton are on schedule to start after King Felix pitches on Opening Day. Ramirez has put up a strong spring after a "revelation" that pitching command is a good thing (incredibly "duh"-worthy headline and sub-headline in that piece). If the 24-year-old-to-be can provide solid mid-rotation production this season, this is a lethal outfit. The left-handed Paxton impressed in four September starts last season, allowing four earned runs in 24 innings. His Triple-A numbers leading up to those starts look a little rough, but pitching in the Pacific Coast League is no picnic. Like Ramirez, Paxton is also off to a good start this spring.

Blake Beavan and a trio of non-roster invitees -- Scott Baker, Randy Wolf, and Roenis Elias -- are all still in the running for the fifth spot in the rotation (along with Iwakuma's current vacant slot), but the position ultimately belongs to top prospect Taijuan Walker. Like Paxton, the 21 year old Californian impressed in a few September starts. Small sample caveats apply, but Walker showed none of the command issues that have troubled him at times throughout his minor league career. His big fastball and cutter-curveball combination should give hitters fits, but a still-developing changeup may be the difference between him being a good starter and "holy crap look at the gauntlet we have to face in this weekend series." As for the other candidates, I'm intrigued by Scott Baker. He was decent for the Minnesota Twins before he got hurt, and has the kind of strikeout rate that makes pitchers of his caliber effective, unlike the Twins' current roster options.

The Mariners sported the worst non-Astros bullpen in the American League last year despite having the second-highest strikeout rate in the league, behind the Kansas City Royals. Names like Danny Farquhar, Charlie Furbush, Tom Wilhelmsen and Oliver Perez sported high ERA-FIP ratios -- meaning their peripherals were much better than the actual results (a.k.a. the Rick Porcello clause) -- and Yoervis Medina was actually pretty good. Perez is gone, but the other four are still around. Joining them is former Tiger Fernando Rodney, who will provide the "push everyone else down a peg" upgrade as the team's closer. Rodney didn't replicate his gaudy 2012 numbers in 2013, but a monster strikeout rate made him a nice fit in the "shiny FIP" clique of the M's bullpen.

THE MARINERS HAVE COMMERCIALS THAT ARE WELL WORTH YOUR TIME

Here is the best one, though Brad Miller shows off some 80-grade acting skills in another and Charlie Furbush Is Not Impressed Dot JPG.

You can watch the others here and read Jeff Sullivan's words about them here.

Player to watch: James Paxton

As I mentioned above, Paxton's 4.45 ERA at Triple-A Tacoma in 2013 was far from impressive. He posted a modest 2.26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 145 2/3 innings. One impressive tidbit is that he only allowed 10 home runs, resulting in a .377 slugging average against. Once he got to the big leagues, he was effective in his first three starts, holding three playoff teams (including the Tigers) to a combined four earned runs in 17 innings. His fourth start is what has prospect evaluators drooling, however. Paxton held the Kansas City Royals to just four hits in seven scoreless innings, striking out 10 with no walks. It is the potential for games like this -- along with a fastball that touched 98 miles per hour -- that makes Paxton so intriguing. If he or Erasmo Ramirez can figure it out, the Mariners could have one of the best rotations in the American League.

Outlook

The Mariners invested a lot of money in Cano and Fernando Rodney this offseason, but seemed to stop short when other needs popped up. They are loaded with young talent on paper, but a lot of that talent has yet to scratch the surface of its considerable potential. Ackley is still inconsistent, Smoak looks like a bust, and the rest of the system is still in its "too early to tell" phase. As for 2014, a quantum leap from 71 wins to playoff contention seems like a tall order, especially in this division. However, it has been done before, and at least one "expert" will try to tell you why this is Seattle's year. I think they have more staying power than the Rangers or Angels -- being younger helps -- but not this season.

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