After a rough 2011 season in which the Mariners finished last in the AL West with a record of 67-95, management decided it was time to shake things up when they traded promising starter Michael Pineda to the Yankees for young slugger Jesus Montero and starter Hector Noesi.
Pineda looked very promising as the second starter, but the Mariners need to produce some runs—the team finished last in the division in runs scored last year.
The road to the top of the AL West will be a tough one for the Mariners, who will have to go through perennial favorites Texas and Los Angeles. These five players have mostly flown under the radar, but they are each in a good position to have breakout seasons, and could fuel an unlikely run at the playoffs for the Mariners in 2012.
The 22-year-old catcher may be the most important player on the M’s roster this year.
While coming up in the Yankees farm system, Montero hit .308 with power to all fields. Then in 18 games in the majors last season, Montero hit .328 with four doubles and four homers.
Miguel Olivo should continue to catch for most of the season, so the M’s will likely use Montero as a designated hitter for most of the year. He is slotted to hit fifth in the lineup, and if Figgins, Dustin Ackley and Ichiro can get on base consistently, Montero will be in a position to drive in a lot of runs.
Montero had success at every level of the minors, and produced well against major league pitching last year. He has a high level of confidence and looks very comfortable at the plate. There is no reason that he should not have a big season in the 5-hole for the Mariners in 2012.
Smoak will enter the season as the cleanup hitter and first baseman in Seattle.
In 2011, his first full season as a Mariner, Smoak hit .234 with 15 homers and 55 RBI. He also drew 55 walks, earning an OBP of .323 and an OPS of .719. For the Mariners to put more runs on the board, Smoak will need to increase his production in 2012.
He should be helped a lot by the changes to the lineup. With Ichiro batting third and Montero right behind him batting fifth, Smoak could see some favorable pitches with runners on base. This is a power hitter’s dream.
At 25 years old, Smoak should be coming into his own as a hitter. This season will be huge for Smoak, who will either earn his spot in the heart of the lineup or relinquish it to Montero, Matt Carp or someone who can produce more runs.
Ackley is projected to bat second for the M’s this year, right behind Figgins and in front of Ichiro.
The 24-year-old second baseman has only been playing his position full-time for a year or two, but shows great promise defensively. He has quick feet and good hands, and committed only six errors in 86 games at second base in 2011, giving him a .984 fielding percentage—right at the league average, and only in his first full year at the position.
Ackley has a good bat too, hitting .273 with 16 doubles, seven triples and six homers in 2011.
His spot in the lineup is crucial, and he needs to get on base at a high rate so that Ichiro, Smoak and Montero can drive him in. If he can get his OBP up from his 2011 figure of .348 and move it closer to .400, Ackley and the top half of the Mariner’s lineup could have a lot of success.
Vargas is one player that I am not necessarily expecting to make great statistical improvements, but he needs to be better if the Mariners want to move up in the division.
The second pitcher in the rotation behind King Felix, the 29-year-old Vargas will be in his fourth season with the Mariners.
Last year he posted a 10-13 record in 201 innings of work over 32 starts. These numbers are fairly consistent with his 2010 numbers, but he did allow more hits per nine innings in 2011 (9.0, compared to 8.7 in 2010) and gave up more runs as a consequence (4.25 ERA, compared to 3.78 in 2010).
If Vargas can keep his ERA under 4.00 and allow less than a hit per inning as he did in 2010, his record could go north of .500 for the first time in his career thanks to some more run support. This would be huge for the Mariners.
This is the gutsiest of all these predictions, but I expect outfielder Michael Saunders to make great strides in 2012 and earn his spot as the fourth outfielder for the M’s. With gold-glover Franklin Gutierrez on the DL, Saunders will likely join Casper Wells and Ichiro in the outfield to start the season.
There are no statistics that suggest that the 25-year-old will have a breakout 2012, but the way he’s been swinging the bat this spring is impressive.
Last year, Saunders hit an abysmal .149 in 58 games as a Mariner. The M’s do not have many other options in the outfield, however, and Saunders has impressed coaches this spring with a re-tooled swing and much stronger legs.
If Gutierrez has any more injury issues, Saunders could find himself in the starting lineup. Hopefully, he hits better than .149, or he will not stay there for long.