Heading into the 2013 season, the Seattle Mariners face the tough task of keeping pace in one of the toughest divisions in all of baseball, the American League West.
In order for the Mariners to keep up with the likes of the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics, Seattle will need a few players to break out to elevate the team to contender status.
The Mariners will have a lot of familiar faces returning in 2013, but the additions of Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse to the middle of the lineup should help take some of the pressure off of the youngsters that litter the lineup. With that in mind, here are the players who will be taking the next step forward in 2013.
Justin Smoak is on the top of this list almost because he has no choice. The Mariners acquired Smoak in the Cliff Lee deal in the middle of 2010 and viewed him as the first baseman of the future. But after two-and-a-half seasons, Smoak has struggled to the tune of a .223/.306/.377 stat line.
Recently, manager Eric Wedge indicated that he still saw Smoak as the starting first baseman for the team, even after the acquisitions of Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales this offseason.
Smoak will have to show that his performance after being recalled last September was no fluke if he plans on keeping his job moving forward. In September and October of last season, Smoak batted .340 with five home runs and 11 RBI and seemed to be seeing the ball much better than he has before.
Expecting Smoak to maintain that batting average is asking a lot, but his performance last September will be a precursor to him finally breaking out this season. With the pressure to carry the offense no longer on his shoulders, Smoak will flourish in a lower spot in the lineup and will benefit in batting behind Morales and Morse.
Expect Smoak to post a career high in RBI this season and finally show Mariners fans why he was the main chip in the Cliff Lee trade.
Franklin Gutierrez isn't necessarily a prime candidate for a "breakout" season due to the fact that he had that season in 2009. However, since signing a four-year $20.5 million extension in the 2010 offseason, Gutierrez has failed to stay healthy and has been a shell of the player who posted a 6.2 WAR in 2009.
Reports this offseason have been very positive for Guti, especially with his performance in the Venezuelan Winter League. Similar to Smoak, Guti probably won't maintain the stat line he posted in the Venezuela, but there is no reason why he can't post the .283/.339/.425 line he did in 2009 as long as he stays healthy.
With this being the walking year for Guti in his contract, he finds himself in a very interesting situation. Once viewed as one of the best center fielders in the game, Guti could find himself out of Seattle if he can't put it together in 2013, much like Smoak.
Look for Guti to approach the 100 runs scored mark this season with the added thump of Morales and Morse behind him. There is nobody who wants to succeed as much as Franklin does for this team, and Mariners fans should expect to see him do so in 2013.
Brandon Maurer may not be on the 25-man roster quite yet, but Mariners fans should expect to see the young right-hander at the tail end of the rotation come Opening Day. Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton often get most of the hype when it comes to the M's farm system, but it was Maurer who walked away this season as the Mariners' Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Maurer was also honored by the Southern League, as he was named the Most Outstanding Pitcher as a member of the Mariners' Double-A affiliate Jackson Generals.
Last season, the 22-year old Maurer finished 9-2 with a 3.20 ERA in 24 starts for Jackson and wound up having the best overall season out of himself, Hultzen, Walker and Paxton.
With a plus fastball and a big frame, Maurer could easily find himself in the rotation in 2013, especially if the Mariners can't find another starter in free agency. With Hector Noesi slated to be the fifth starter as of right now, a solid spring training may be all Maurer needs to vault himself into the rotation.
Stephen Pryor burst onto the scene last season after an absolutely dominating performance at Double-A Jackson. In 11 appearances, Pryor posted a 1.13 ERA over 16.0 innings pitched with 24 strikeouts.
Following a promotion to Triple-A Tacoma, he made it impossible for the organization not to call him up after not allowing a run over 20.0 innings.
Pryor has one of the best fastballs in the organization. He will prove to be a very valuable part of the bullpen for the Mariners this season after having a successful debut in 2012. Tom Wilhelmsen is the closer for the Mariners now, but he may just be keeping the seat warm for Pryor later on this year.
The Mariners aren't the only team that values Pryor, either, as he was one of the pieces that would have gone to Arizona if Justin Upton had not vetoed the deal. Expect Stephen Pryor to elevate his game this season and make Mariners fans very thankful for Upton's decision.