If anybody dethrones the LA Angels in the AL West this season, it’ll most likely be the Seattle Mariners.
Their surprising 88-win season last year was nothing to sneeze at, especially when one considers the anemic starting pitching rotation that they were working with—one good starter (young and sometimes inconsistent Felix Hernandez), two fair-to-middling guys (Jarrod Washburn and Miguel Batista), and two over-7 ERA guys (Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez). In fact, with a staff that bad, 88 wins is almost miraculous.
But that was last year. This year’s rotation is a whole new animal.
The trade for ace Erik Bedard from the Orioles was a huge acquisition, and signalled to Ichiro and the rest that the front office is serious about winning.
In addition, they spent quite a big chunk of change to sign former Minnesota Twin Carlos Silva.
These two additions, effectively replacing Weaver and Ramirez in the rotation, represent a huge improvement.
With Felix entering what could be his breakout year, Washburn and Batista primed for serviceable work, Bedard ready to dominate, and Silva ready to eat innings, the Mariners will not only be in a lot more games, but the bullpen will get to rest a lot more than last season when the starters’ ineptness led to bullpen burn-out by August.
At the plate, the M’s haven’t changed much, but are hoping that a couple of guys have big comeback years.
If formerly-slugging first baseman Richie Sexson, who's coming off a terrible '07 season, can have a productive (or even just somewhat productive) season at the plate, and second baseman Jose Lopez can bounce back from a weak year to fulfill his potential of two years ago, then Seattle will be in business.
They lost slugging right fielder Jose Guillen to free agency but have signed former Texas Ranger Brad Wilkerson to take his place, with young AAA prospect Vladimir Balentien nipping at his heels for a shot to play every day.
Add the consistent offensive bats of Ichiro, Adrian Beltre, Jose Vidro, Raul Ibanez, Kenji Johjima, and Yuniesky Betancourt, and sprinkle in the fact that manager John McLaren wants the team to be more aggressive on the base-paths, and the M’s could have an explosive offense.
Of course, all of those guys having solid years plus Sexson and Lopez coming back involve a lot of ifs, but there’s no doubt that they are within the realm of possibility, especially since the improved pitching should take a lot of the pressure off the bats (you hear that Richie? You don’t have to hit a home run every at-bat!).
As far as the bullpen and the bench goes, the M’s are solid.
They’ve added versatile utility man Miguel Cairo to go alongside super-versatile utility man Willie Bloomquist, so they should never be at a loss for pinch runners, hitters, or fielders.
In the pen, closer JJ Putz is the man, a Mr. Automatic if there ever was one. He’ll have future star Brandon Morrow setting him up, along with the likes of elbow-rehabilitated lefties Arthur Rhodes, Chris Reitsma, and Mark Lowe.
Brandon O’Flaherty, Horacio Ramirez, and Sean Green should hold their own in the other relief spots and make sure that fans don’t miss dependable lefty George Sherrill too much (Sherrill was sent to Baltimore in the Bedard trade).
So, can the Mariners beat the Angels this year and finally get back to the postseason?
The answer is yes, they can, but it will most likely boil down to whether or not Richie Sexson, and to a lesser extent Jose Lopez, can re-ignite their offensive engines. But please, whatever you do, please don’t tell them that!