The Mariners are the chic pick to win the American League West and end their 14-year playoff drought. As Opening Day beckons Monday, here’s why this won’t be another disheartening year for Seattle fans.
The most evocative baseball saying of them all is “Wait ’Til Next Year!”
Opening Day 2015Mariners vs. Angels, Monday 1:10 p.m., Safeco Field; TV: ROOT, Radio: 710 ESPN
It is the perfect combination of yearning and wistful resignation, the dueling emotions necessary to survive the ebb and flow of sport’s longest season.
For the Mariners, “next year” is finally here.
I’m not just talking about the symbolic launching of the 2015 season Monday at 1:10 p.m., when the Mariners host the Angels at Safeco Field on Opening Day.
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I mean this is finally the year for the Mariners to thrive on the field and reach heights that have been off-limits to them for more than a decade. They have the talent, the experience, the leadership and the motivation to not just contend, but to reach the American League playoffs for the first time since 2001.
This is not just an isolated voice in the wilderness. National pundits have been jumping on the Mariners’ bandwagon all spring. Sports Illustrated put them on a regional cover of its baseball issue with the headline “Time To Believe.” Buster Olney of ESPN picks them to make the World Series (an achievement that has eluded the Mariners in all their 38 years; the Nationals are the only other MLB team never to appear in the Fall Classic). Bob Nightengale of USA Today picked the Mariners to win the World Series.
In a column headlined, “It’s World Series or Bust for the Mariners,” Yahoo’s Jeff Passan wrote, “The optimism extends beyond cautious. Seattle believes it has one of the best teams in the AL.” The Washington Post chimed in, “There hasn’t been this much optimism in Seattle since the 2001 Mariners won 116 games. … October in Seattle? It’ll probably rain, but who will notice?”
Certainly, all of that Mariners love is partly infused by an innate desire to jump on the “chic” pick. But there are also sound baseball reasons for Seattle fans to ramp up their optimism, even those jaded by the club’s misfortunes.
This is a team, after all, that won 87 games last year, the first under manager Lloyd McClendon, and fell one game short of the playoffs. It was also the debut Seattle season of superstar Robinson Cano, who signed a 10-year, $240 million contract before the 2014 season.
The Mariners, of course, also feature pitcher Felix Hernandez, their most beloved player after he shunned free agency twice to re-sign with Seattle. Hernandez had perhaps his best season last year, though the Cy Young Award for the AL’s best pitcher somehow eluded him. Cleveland’s Corey Kluber narrowly beat out Hernandez, who established a major-league record with 16 consecutive starts in which he pitched seven or more innings and allowed two or fewer runs.
Hernandez, who turns 29 Wednesday, is still in his prime and anchors what should be a top-flight pitching staff. The Mariners had the lowest earned-run average in the AL last season at 3.17, and their five starting pitchers should be improved if touted young arms James Paxton and Taijuan Walker live up to billing. Their bullpen, the best in the major leagues last year, returns virtually intact.
As always, the question with the Mariners, and the one that will determine if they rise to playoff status, will be their offense. Even with Cano’s addition and the emergence of third baseman Kyle Seager as an All-Star, the Mariners still had the lowest batting average in the league in 2014.
That’s the sixth straight season they’ve held that dubious distinction, also finishing at or near the bottom in runs scored during that time. McClendon has set a goal of scoring 700 runs in 2015, a feat that only eight teams accomplished last year. The Mariners would have to score 76 more runs over the 162-game regular season to reach that mark.
Scoring 700 may be too ambitious, but the Mariners’ offense should be better. They added the major league’s home-run leader, Nelson Cruz, who hit 40 last year for the Orioles before signing a four-year, $58 million deal to be the Mariners’ designated hitter.
“When I saw they signed Cruz, with all the talent we have now, I was saying, ‘We’re going to get there (to the playoffs),’’ Hernandez said during spring training.
The Mariners also traded for veterans Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano to platoon in right field, and signed Rickie Weeks to platoon with Dustin Ackley in left.
Much of their offensive success will depend on the progress of younger players like Ackley, catcher Mike Zunino and shortstop Brad Miller, who have had various degrees of struggles at the plate in their career. They also need center fielder and leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, a major disappointment after his acquisition from Detroit last July, to revert to form.
The last two times the Mariners came off winning seasons, in 2007 and 2009, they followed by losing 101 games. Those letdowns, coupled with eight losing seasons in the last 11 years for the Mariners, explain the hesitance by many fans to buy in fully to the hype.
Yet the Mariners once owned this town the way the Seahawks do today. The M’s led the majors in attendance in 2001, when they tied a major-league record with 116 wins, and in 2002. They exceeded 3 million fans for four straight years from 2000 to 2003.
Those memories have grown dimmer with each passing season. Attendance in 2014 was a million below those glory days.
But if this team’s performance matches its expectations, Seattle’s pent-up baseball fervor will be released. And I see no reason why the “next year” that Mariners fans have long been craving shouldn’t, finally, be this year.
|Year-by-year records since 2001, the team’s last postseason appearance:|
|Note: Winning seasons are shaded|