With spring training now underway for the Seattle Mariners, the team will be looking to bounce back from two consecutive disappointing seasons.
While their division rivals, the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, were busy raiding the free-agent market, the Mariners had a relatively quiet offseason. Despite returning a roster similar to last season's 67-95 team, the Mariners should be an improved ball club in 2012.
Here is a look at six players that Mariners fans should be excited about this year.
Could Felix win his second Cy Young in 2012?
Although he was hindered by poor run support from his offense in the 2011 season, Felix Hernadez had another outstanding season.
Hernandez, the 2010 Cy Young winner, was sixth in the American League in innings pitched in 2011, fourth in the AL in strikeouts and second in the AL in complete games.
With the impressive list of accolades that he has already attained entering the 2012 season, it is tough to remember that Hernandez will only be 26 years old at the start of the season.
Already one of the premier pitchers in the MLB, Hernandez hasn’t even reached the typical peak years of production for starting pitchers.
Perhaps the only bright spot in the Mariners offense in 2011 was the performance of Dustin Ackley after he was called up from the minors. In 90 games, the 2009 second overall pick hit .273 with six HRs and 36 RBI.
Entering the 2012 season, Ackley will be the everyday second baseman and will likely be in the second spot in the batting order. Already flashing great plate discipline—40 walks in less than 350 plate appearances—the only thing missing from Ackley’s hitting repertoire is power.
With his rookie campaign behind him, Mariners fans should be excited to see what Ackley can provide in his sophomore season in 2012.
In dealing last year's rookie revelation Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees for Jesus Montero, the Mariners acknowledged that their offense was in desperate need of firepower.
Heralded as one of the top minor league hitters in recent years, Montero did nothing to dispel the notion in his brief cameo with the Yankees last season, hitting .328 with four HRs and 12 RBI.
Coming off of two of the worst offensive seasons in MLB history, the Mariners will likely plug Montero into the top half of the lineup despite Montero being only 22 years old. Montero will likely split time between catcher and designated hitter; due to his size, there are questions as to whether he can remain a catcher in the future.
For a Mariner offense that will likely struggle once again in 2012, the development of Montero will be a key storyline to watch.
After a strong start to the 2011 season—.284 average, four HRs—Justin Smoak appeared to finally be turning his considerable potential into on-field production.
However, after the strong opening month, the bottom dropped out on Smoak, as he hit lower than .200 in the following four months.
For the Mariners offense, Smoaks’ struggles were devastating, as he was essentially the Mariners' only power threat in the lineup. With Smoak struggling and then sidelined with injury in August, the Mariners tallied an MLB-worst 556 runs in the 2011 season.
If the Mariners want to take a step forward in 2012, they need Smoak to start living up to his former top-hitting-prospect status.
Mariners fans are excited to see what Iwakuma can do in the MLB
In a move that drew considerably less attention than the Rangers' signing of Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish, the Mariners signed their own Japanese pitcher this offseason in Hisashi Iwakuma.
After a decorated career in Japan, Iwakuma won the Japanese equivalent to MLB’s Cy Young in 2009. Iwakuma attempted to join the MLB in 2010 but couldn’t reach terms with the Oakland Athletics.
After failing to come to terms with the A’s, Iwakuma had another solid season in the Japanese professional baseball league in 2011.
With the Mariners rotation largely unproven behind Felix Hernandez, Iwakuma looks like the probable third or fourth starting pitcher entering the season.
Despite not being blessed with overpowering stuff, Iwakuma should be a solid addition for the Mariners in 2012.
Acquired in the Erik Bedard trade, outfielder Trayvon Robinson made an instant impression on Mariners fans by robbing Torii Hunter of a home run in his first start.
Given consistent playing time at the major league level for the first time, Robinson struggled in the last two months of the season, ending with a final season average of .210.
Despite his struggles in the 2011 season, Robinson has a strong track record in the minors that indicates Robinson’s potential to become a solid starting left fielder for the Mariners. During his time as a Dodger farmhand, Robinson consistently hit for an average around .300 and showed growth as a power hitter by hitting 26 HRs last season before being traded to the Mariners.
A gifted athlete, Robinson is also a terror on the basepaths, registering seasons with 38 and 43 steals in the minor leagues. Robinson will compete with Mike Carp among others for the starting spot in left field.