There are teams like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox that don't really need to prove themselves—in the eyes of the fans, they're elite teams that are perennially poised to take shots at the title.
Then there are teams like the Seattle Mariners. They have smaller payrolls and smaller markets, factors that prevent them from purchasing the top-tier free agents every offseason and that require them to play the game of baseball more strategically and frugally.
Another result of being a small-market franchise is that the Mariners are often brushed away as "just another team." As we, Mariners fans, know, the Mariners are not "just another team." Especially not this year.
This year, the team has potential for serious growth throughout the organization. And while player development is the most important part of that growth, it's also necessary to cultivate the team's public image.
The Mariners are on the rise, and in order to gain league-wide and nation-wide acclaim, they need to prove themselves this spring. Here are ten things they need to prove during spring training 2012.
Last year was a disappointing one for the Mariners: General Manager Jack Zduriencik made some promising upgrades prior to Opening Day 2011, and the team got off to a hot start, but things disintegrated in tremendous fashion as the season progressed.
Injuries, slumps, busts and a number of other hindrances foiled the Mariners' plans for a winning season, but from the ashes sprung new hope. We were formally introduced to Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Mike Carp; we acquired multiple promising hitting prospects.
If you combine the end of the 2011 season with the equally productive offseason that Jack Z put on, you can see why the 2012 Mariners probably won't be the same as their predecessors.
There is a lot of variability in the roster, though, so if the core players (Ackley, Montero, Smoak, Carp) can't produce at the level they're expected to, this season could meet a fate similar to last season's.
Let's try to steer clear of that.
Leave that title to the Oakland Athletics.
I mean, they can't seriously compete with the Rangers or Angels this year, but they also aren't stuck in the prospect loop that A's fans have to suffer through.
Optimistically, I think the Mariners can make it through the season with a .500 winning percentage. If the Rangers and Angels both have big winning seasons, the A's will have to be taking the majority of the division losses.
I think that's realistic, though; the Mariners are a more developed team (or will be once April comes along) across the board than the A's are.
So let's try to maintain any relevance we have and work from there.
Jack Zduriencik's acquisition of Chone Figgins earned him more scorn than did any other move, perhaps rightfully so. But this season, we're hoping for a big turnaround from Figgins, as he purportedly moves into the team's leadoff spot.
Fans have reacted both positively and negatively to the decision to have Figgins lead off and hit Ichiro third. I think it was a great move. Figgins was extremely successful as a leadoff hitter with the LA Angels for a bunch of years, so a return to the position could revamp his hitting.
Ichiro's time to drop out of the No. 1 spot came just in time, as Figgins had probably begun to feel unwelcome and unwanted in Seattle. Now, Ichiro will have a chance to express himself in other, hopefully more articulate ways from the three spot, and Figgins will have a fresh start.
Losing Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees in January came as a shock to many, but after sufficient analysis and brooding, it seems to have actually been a great move.
It was awesome to see Pineda torch it up for the first half of 2011, but there were a number of drawbacks associated with Pineda like his injury history, his forceful delivery and his second-half decline. It's still quite possible that he turns out really well for the Yankees, but Jesus Montero, the principal player we received in return, seems much more promising.
Even without Pineda, the Mariners have some brilliant, young pitching prospects who will constitute the rotation for years to come.
Included in that category are James Paxton (pictured), Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, Erasmo Ramirez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Hector Noesi, Charlie Furbush and Blake Beavan. Those guys, along with Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas, will be in the spotlight this spring as the pitching staff gets geared up for game one.
Another starter we might see in the rotation at the beginning of the season is veteran righty Kevin Millwood.
Manager Eric Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis will ultimately pick the three (assuming Felix and Vargas get the one and two spots) pitchers out of those listed above who are the most ready. The rotation will be subject to change, but at this point I'd be happy with pretty much any three of those guys.
It's obvious by now, but I'm so excited that the team finally had photo day. It's so cool to see the players who've come from around the league and up from the farm system in Mariners uniforms.
This one: Casper Wells.
Of all of the trades involving the Mariners that have transpired since last July, this one leaves me the most apprehensive.
David Pauley was the extent of successful relief pitching for the Mariners at the beginning of last year. They have George Sherrill and a number of other replacements now, but it would've been nice to still have Pauley around.
Fister, the other pitcher we lost in the deal with the Detroit Tigers, went on a killer tear once he left Seattle. It may have been because he left Seattle, but it reveals that there is a great pitcher in him. However, like Pineda, he won't be necessary now that we have all of those other guys.
In return, we got Casper Wells, Chance Ruffin, Francisco Martinez and Charlie Furbush.
After a disappointing first look last September for Furbush, I was a little discouraged, but he's worth a second look this spring, and he even has a shot at making the rotation.
Martinez is still probably a bit young and inexperienced to make the final roster, but third base is currently occupied anyway.
Ruffin, however, I want to see make an impact on the major league team. Brandon League will remain with the team at least for the first couple months of the season, so the closer spot is filled, but Ruffin would be a great setup man. There's certainly room for him in the bullpen right now.
I predict that Wells will also make a great case for a starting spot in the outfield, especially now that Franklin Gutierrez is sidelined for at least four weeks. He suffered an unfortunate accident that cut his season short last year, but he has a great glove and presence at the plate—a fitting replacement for Gutierrez.
Finishing 2011 with the worst offense in the MLB necessitated change.
The majority of that change actually came from within the team in the form of healing from injuries and rookie development. In other words, it was the starting lineup in 2011 that doomed the team's offense—the midseason reinforcements amped up the offense noticeably for the second half.
However, Jack Zduriencik also searched beyond the organization for help. He came back with the sixth-ranked hitting prospect in the league: Jesus Montero.
Montero was killing the ball in Double-A last year. He was killing it after he got called up to the Yankees in September. And he has already resumed killing it down in Peoria. I have no doubt that he'll add some pop to the offense this year.
Carp, who finally broke into the majors for good last year, hit well pretty consistently in 2011, and I think we can expect him to pick up where he left off—he seems to have finally settled into a groove.
Smoak's 2011 season was marred by long periods of inactivity due to family matters and freak accidents, but he'll be going into 2012 with a clean slate, ready to live up to the expectations that were set for him when he came up from Texas in the Cliff Lee trade.
Ackley is the real deal. He is the franchise second baseman and an inevitable team leader.
These four skilled hitters have the means to rescue the Mariners from the bottom of the runs scored stat category, and they really need to before the win-/run-deprived Mariners fans go insane.
New England Patriots, New York Yankees, new Seattle Mariners.
I guess when you think of the Mariners, the Yankees and Patriots aren't the first two teams that come to mind as comparable, but you haven't gotten to see the revamped roster in action yet.
From piecing together stats and clips of the new players on the Mariners, I can envision a cohesive, talented team that will soon become and then remain dominant for a refreshingly lengthy period of time.
Since 2008, we've been under the sagacious management of Jack Z (and the supreme rule of King Felix), and the effects of his build-from-the-ground-up plan are finally reaching the major league level where they'll be visible not just to analysts, scouts and intense followers, but also to the whole league.
Jack Z's meticulously hand-picked set of players has theoretically been set up to succeed. Now all that needs to happen is for them to live up to their expectations.
We'll find out if that's the way things shake out as soon as the season gets going, which for the Mariners will be March 28th, just 23 days away!
If you're as thrilled as me about the beginning of the season and equally excited that the M's get to kick it off, you can follow a live blog that I'll be running from the pregame, through the game and into the postgame.
Unfortunately for most, that sequence of events will be from about 5:30AM to 10AM EST on a Wednesday morning...but I think Opening Day 2012 is a worthy excuse to skip work, classes or sleep. So tune in for some fun real-time analysis to start off the season.