The Seattle Mariners are not necessarily a team that is generating a vast amount of fan buzz heading into 2013.
Attendance was down in 2012, and the Mariners continued to struggle at the plate as the team finished with a league-worst .234 average. Longtime superstar Ichiro Suzuki moved on, leaving Seattle with one recognizable star in Felix Hernandez.
Seattle made an eight-win improvement compared to 2011, but they finished 19 games out of first place and fans have to wonder when this team will return to being a true threat in the American League West.
Despite ongoing challenges, there is a reason that hope will always spring eternal. Baseball is a funny sport because teams can come out hot and seemingly maintain momentum deep into the summer even when they weren’t picked to be a contender.
Is this the year when all the youngsters grow up? Will Seattle finally get to see some of the heralded talent in minor leagues make it to the bigs?
Here are ten encouraging signs for the Seattle Mariners heading into the 2013 season.
Nothing is guaranteed in baseball, but the arrival of Kendrys Morales is an encouraging sign for the offense.
The former Angel hit .273 with 22 home runs and 73 RBIs in 2012. If he can continue this production, Morales will help boost an offense that has struggled for the last few seasons to score runs.
If Morales can return to his 2009 output (.306, 34 home runs, 106 RBIs), he could be the first legitimate power threat in the Seattle lineup in quite some time.
Hopefully the Mariners will have more players step up besides Morales, but his presence could have a key impact on the young lineup.
One never knows what to make of “top prospects,” but there was optimism when Jesus Montero arrived in the big trade for Michael Pineda. After all, the Yankees must have good prospects, right?
Montero has not exactly competed for a batting title just yet, but there is encouraging signs of progress. Jesus led the Mariners in 2012 with a .260 batting average and he also produced 15 home runs and 62 RBIs.
Granted, a .260 average should not be the best on any Major League team, but for the Mariners it is a sign that Montero could develop into a key producer.
If Montero were to add 20-30 points to his average and increase his home run total by 10-15, he could become the star that Seattle hoped for when they sent away a promising young arm.
Taijuan Walker. Danny Hultzen. James Paxton.
These are names that continue to be touted as some of the best reasons to be optimistic about the future of Mariners baseball.
Whether these players become big stars is yet to be determined, but there is plenty of talent in the arms of these three pitchers.
It is an encouraging sign when a club can draft and develop young hurlers. Seattle and the fan base hope that these three could become regular fixtures in the big-league rotation of the future.
If not, they may be valuable commodities that can be traded for other pieces of the lineup.
When it comes to the 2012 season, Kyle Seager is arguably a sign of encouragement going forward.
In his first full season, the 25-year-old third baseman hit .259 with 20 home runs 86 RBIs. Not overwhelming numbers, but certainly a sign that the Seager could continue developing as a productive hitter.
It is obviously difficult to know whether Seager will become a guy that consistently hits 30 home runs, but the potential is there, particularly when the fences move in at Safeco Field.
If Seager’s college teammate Dustin Ackley can rebound in 2013, they could be a dynamic duo in the infield as the Mariners work towards contending.
Another encouraging sign for the Mariners is the development of 2009 draft pick, Nick Franklin.
Franklin was promoted to Triple-A in 2012, and while he only hit .243 in 64 games, the Mariners have high hopes that Franklin can become the shortstop or perhaps the second baseman of the future.
Nick is still only 21 years old, which means that he has some time to grow, but depending on how he hits in the spring, he could join the 25-man roster as early as 2013.
Franklin is currently ranked 29th on Major League Baseball’s list of top prospects.
Why is Felix Hernandez on this list? Simple.
The fact that King Felix continues to be successful in Seattle is a sign of encouragement.
The King did not have a ton of wins (13) in 2012, but given the lack of run support over the last few seasons, it is not surprising that Hernandez is not able to get more W’s.
Even without the wins, Felix had an impressive 3.06 ERA to go along with 223 strikeouts. Hernandez is still the ace, and that he continues to be a fixture at the top of the rotation.
As long as King Felix is happy in Seattle, there is reason for fans to be optimistic.
The Seattle Mariners have high hopes for their 2012 first-round draft pick, Mike Zunino.
Zunino split time between Single-A and Double-A in 2012, and he hit very well while playing catcher and designated hitter.
At Single-A Everett, Zunino hit .373 with 10 home runs in 29 games.
After being promoted to Double-A Jacksonville, Mike continued to hit well with a .333 average and three home runs in 15 games.
Obviously Zunino may spend some time in the minors before joining the big club, but so far he looks like he may be a key piece of a future lineup.
An encouraging sign.
The Mariners have a number of young hitters that have been given time to develop. Not all of them have produced, and for some the growth has been painfully slow.
Michael Saunders is one of those hitters that has looked great at times, and floundered terribly in other stretches of the season.
For Saunders, 2012 was not exactly a breakout season, but it was certainly an improvement over 2011. In 2012, Saunder improved his batting average by almost 100 points over the previous year.
Obviously that is not as impressive given that Michael hit .149 in 2011. Still, an encouraging sign.
As noted by David Schoenfield of ESPN, Saunders could turn out to be an “underrated asset” for the Mariners.
Shorter fences could turn help Michael’s 19 home runs of 2012 turn into 25-30 in 2013.
For those of you that came in late, the Houston Astros will join the American League West in 2013.
Geography teachers may wonder how Houston is part of the “west,” but that is how sports leagues handle their business.
The good news is that on paper the Mariners are no longer the worst team in their own division. Granted, that may not feel like much of an encouraging sign, but Houston should provide at least one team that Seattle can beat up on throughout the year.
Of course, the rest of the division can also feast on a squad that went 55-107 in 2012.
The fences of Safeco Field will be a bit closer in 2013, and the Mariners may find themselves enjoying a few more leisurely moments of jogging around the base paths.
Obviously there will be a trade-off, as opposing teams will also take advantage of the friendlier dimensions, and the Seattle pitching may suffer a bit when former fly ball outs turn into surrendered home runs.
Still, this is an encouraging opportunity for a team that could benefit from a home field advantage that actually feels like an advantage for once.
Will shorter fences automatically lead to a higher team average and more runs? Perhaps.
Ultimately, it may be much more entertaining for the fans and more of them may start to come back to Safeco.