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2015 team preview: The Seattle Mariners might be the best team in the American League

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The Mariners broke out with an 87-win season in 2014, but that was only the beginning for this young, talented ball club.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Some people will look at the Seattle Mariners' 16-win jump from 2013 to 2014 and blindly conclude that the M's were a one-year wonder. While Mariners fans may agree with this assessment -- they seem rather uncomfortable with all the hype their team is getting this preseason -- there is reason for more than cautious optimism.

The Mariners missed the playoffs by one game last season, and likely would have caught the Oakland Athletics were the season a few games longer. The M's had a 91-71 pythagorean win-loss record, four games better than their actual performance. They lost Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, and top prospect Taijuan Walker to time on the disabled list last season. Midseason acquisitions Kendrys Morales, Austin Jackson, and Chris Denorfia -- three solid veteran talents -- were almost two wins below replacement level after putting on an M's uniform.

In short, a lot of things went wrong for the Mariners and they still nearly made the playoffs. Sure, a lot of things also went right -- the bullpen, in particular -- but not in that-will-not-be-happening-again fashion. They are one of the younger teams in the game, with most of their core still in their 20s. Unlike the Tigers, another year of experience should be a good thing, and is one reason why the Mariners are among the favorites in the AL West in 2015.

Manager: Lloyd McClendon (2nd season)
2014 record: 87-75
SB Nation blog: Lookout Landing
First series vs. Tigers: July 6-8 @ Safeco Field

Lineup

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has earned a reputation for being enamored with right-handed power bats, and he finally got his man this offseason. The M's signed Nelson Cruz to a four year, $57 million contract in December, instantly upgrading a designated hitter position that was 14th in the American League with a .274 wOBA and 14 home runs. Cruz helped the Baltimore Orioles rank among the league's best in both categories, hitting .271/.333/.525 with 40 home runs and 108 RBI. Safeco Field may steal a few of his home runs, but he should be a lock for 25-30 with 80+ RBI in 2015. First baseman Logan Morrison hit .284/.341/.448 with six home runs after the All-Star break last year and should get the majority of playing time there now that Justin Smoak is gone.

Cruz probably won't see much time in the outfield unless the injury bug bites, but all three positions have a chance to be much better than they were in 2014. Left fielder Dustin Ackley is back after a 2.0 WAR season. He hit .259/.310/.442 against right-handed pitching last year, but was bad enough against lefties that the Mariners brought in former Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks as a platoon partner. Weeks has never played in the outfield in a professional baseball game and even balked at the idea of learning the position while in Milwaukee last season. His defense might be an adventure, but he had an .865 OPS against left-handed pitching in 2014. Center fielder Austin Jackson had an abysmal finish to 2014 after being traded, but manager Lloyd McClendon has already promised more rest for Jackson in hopes of boosting his offensive numbers. Playing time in right field will be split between Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano, both of whom were acquired in offseason trades. Neither is a particularly gifted defender, but if they live up to their respective career platoon splits, they could combine for three wins.

Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton were the two most talked about names in the 2012 draft, but third overall pick Mike Zunino has already played in a full season's worth of games before either reached the majors. Zunino was drafted out of college while the prospects were prep draftees, but the Mariners' impatience may pay off in 2015. Zunino hit just .199 with a .254 on-base percentage in 476 plate appearances last year, but he had 22 home runs and a .404 slugging average. More importantly, Zunino is already a gifted defensive catcher. He ranked fourth among MLB catchers in framing runs added last year, and was worth 1.7 WAR. Expect all of those numbers to improve in 2015, especially if he starts to draw more walks than hit-by-pitches. Backup Jesus Sucre did not walk once in 64 plate appearances last season, but is also a solid defender.

Third baseman Kyle Seager has been one of the more under-appreciated players in baseball outside of the Pacific Northwest over the past few seasons, but the Mariners showed that they were paying attention when they re-signed him to a seven-year, $100 million contract in December. Seager has been worth 13.0 WAR over the past three seasons, hitting .262/.329/.434 with a combined 67 home runs. He was rewarded with his first All-Star appearance in 2014, and will be counted on to help shoulder the offensive load in 2015. Second baseman Robinson Cano will be another focal point of the offense after hitting .314/.382/.454 last year. His home run total dipped in his first season at Safeco Field, but seven of his 14 bombs came in the second half. He finished fifth in the AL MVP voting last year, his fifth consecutive season in the top six. Brad Miller will be the team's starting shortstop after Chris Taylor's broken wrist ended any talk of a position battle. The 25-year-old Miller had a .653 OPS in 411 plate appearances last season, but hit .265/.326/.447 -- Kyle Seager numbers, essentially -- after June 1st.

Pitchers

While the Mariners' offense will be better than their 2014 unit, the rotation will be what carries this team into the playoffs. Top prospect Taijuan Walker will be the team's fifth starter this season after battling a shoulder injury throughout most of 2014. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and a biting slider that can reach the low 90s, Walker has ace-level upside. Like most young pitchers with incredible raw stuff, he will need to harness his command in order to be effective. Expect the Mariners to limit his starts after throwing just 120 total innings last season. Walker is the most heralded Mariners pitching prospect since Felix Hernandez, who will anchor the M's staff again in 2015. Hernandez nearly won the second Cy Young award of his career after allowing a league-leading 2.14 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in 2014, but he finished a close second to Cleveland's Corey Kluber. It was the third time since 2009 that Hernandez has finished the year with a sub-2.50 ERA, and he is currently riding a streak of seven years with at least 200 innings pitched. A fifth consecutive All-Star appearance is assumed, but will Hernandez finally crack the 20-win plateau?

If we're going by rotation order, lefthander James Paxton is the team's No. 2 starter. Slotted between Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma because of handedness, Paxton tossed seven shutout innings in his season debut in 2014. Seven days later, he was placed on the disabled list due to a lat strain. When he returned in August, he allowed a 3.19 ERA and 3.21 FIP in 11 starts. He walked 27 batters in 62 innings, but had a pair of eight-strikeout performances and generally showed why the M's are so high on him heading into 2015. Iwakuma's overall numbers took a dive in 2014 compared to his Cy Young caliber performance the year prior, but like everyone else in this rotation not named Hernandez, Iwakuma battled through injury concerns for most of the year. A February finger injury robbed him of his entire spring training, but he did allow a 2.57 ERA and 2.98 FIP through his first 21 starts of the year before a September swoon. He only walked 21 batters all season long, resulting in a career-best 7.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

The Mariners have as much talent as any team in the American League, and fewer holes than anyone else.

Mariners fans weren't particularly excited with the acquisition of lefthander J.A. Happ from the Toronto Blue Jays this offseason, but then Michael Saunders tore his meniscus in February. Health is a skill, and while Happ hasn't been Mr. Invincible, he has thrown 140 innings or more in three of the past four seasons. We could see a boost in his numbers now that he's pitching in a ballpark tailored to forgive his fly ball tendencies. Lefthander Roenis Elias threw 163 2/3 innings for the Mariners last season, and is a much better sixth option than the likes of Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer, both of whom got a month's worth of starts in 2014.

The Kansas City Royals' bullpen drew headline after headline in 2014, but the Mariners' bullpen was actually the best unit in baseball. They had the best ERA and xFIP in the majors, and their 3.24 FIP led the American League. They had six pitchers work 45 innings or more, and the highest ERA of the group belonged to closer Fernando Rodney at 2.85. Rodney is back in 2015, along with setup man Danny Farquhar, hard-throwers Yoervis Medina and Dominic Leone, and 2014 bullpen gofer Tom Wilhelmsen. All of those names, save Wilhelmsen, struck out over a batter per inning in 2014. Lefthander Charlie Furbush struck out 5.67 batters for every walk last year, and held lefty batters to a .594 OPS.

Down on the farm

The Mariners have graduated a fair amount of talent to the big leagues in recent years, leaving their minor league system relatively bare in the upper levels. Taijuan Walker just teetered over the innings barrier in 2014, or this would otherwise be a middle-of-the-pack farm system. There are still reinforcements on the way, though. Infielder D.J. Peterson has done nothing but hit since he was drafted in 2013, and could see big league action as soon as this fall. Outfielder Alex Jackson is much further away from the majors, but offers similar offensive upside. Ditto Gabriel Guerrero, the nephew of former MLB outfielder Vladimir Guerrero. There isn't much in the way of pitching in their system, but with Walker, Paxton, and a few young bullpen arms already at the MLB level, they won't need any new blood for a little while.

Player to watch: Austin Jackson

While other players are bound to provide more WAR in 2015, no role player may be more crucial to the Mariners' success than Jackson. The former Tiger hit .229/.267/.260 in 236 plate appearances after being traded to the Mariners, but manager Lloyd McClendon will still rely upon Jackson to get on base in the leadoff spot. Setting the table for Cano and Cruz will be the key to this lineup scoring runs, as the bottom of the order has some major question marks. Jackson's glove will be just as important for the M's, who don't have any depth behind him. The only other player on the Mariners' 40-man roster with any chance of covering Safeco Field's massive center field is James Jones, who was worth -0.7 WAR in 108 games last year. Since Jones was sent to minor league camp this week, the only fire sale option currently on the roster is Justin Ruggiano.

Outlook

The Mariners won't be sneaking up on anyone in 2015. ESPN's Buster Olney picked them to win the AL Pennant. CBS has them ranked fourth (and first in the AL) in their first set of MLB Power Rankings for 2015. Grantland's Jonah Keri thinks they "might be the best team in the American League." Sports Illustrated thinks they will win 95 games. Fangraphs gives them the highest odds of making the playoffs of any AL team. In short, they're a trendy pick.

This is for good reason, though. They have as much talent as any team in the American League, and fewer holes than anyone else. They have the best pitching staff in the AL, and their only real concerns in the lineup are depth-related. A breakout here, a fortuitous bounce there, and the Mariners could coast to an AL West title just as easily as the Los Angeles Angels did last season. I think it's a safe bet that October baseball returns to Seattle in 2015.