The 5 Most Important Seattle Mariners Storylines to Follow

J.J. Matthews@@thajagepageContributor IIIMarch 1, 2013

The 5 Most Important Seattle Mariners Storylines to Follow

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    With free agent speculation, contract negotiating and the offseason in the rear view mirror, the Seattle Mariners have officially turned their attention to Cactus League play.

    Finally, the Mariners can put the issues of the offseason in the past, as the roster appears to be all but set with the exception of determining where certain players will begin. Even though the Mariners are only a few games into the Cactus League schedule, plenty of storylines have begun to develop as Seattle moves closer to Opening Day.

    But what are the most important developments so far this spring training?

Who Fills out the Starting Rotation?

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    Anyone notice the San Diego Padre behind Hector Noesi in this picture? 

    You do? Well so did manager Eric Wedge and just about every Mariner fan who listened to the spring training opener last Friday. Needless to say, Mr. Noesi had quite the time trying to keep those Padres from circling the base paths like a merry-go-round last week, which resulted in Noesi being yanked before he got out of the first inning.

    Now it may be too early to assume that Noesi pitched himself right out of the conversation for a spot in the rotation, but he certainly did not do himself any favors. Sure, Noesi may not have been the favorite going into the spring, but a solid camp could have gone a long way.

    Instead, Seattle is now left deciding between a handful of pitchers to fill in the rotation behind Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Joe Saunders.

    The competition is pretty deep, as James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Brandon Maurer, Danny Hultzen, Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez, Jeremy Bonderman and Jon Garland all will be given the opportunity to prove they belong.

    It may still be early in spring training, but look for Beavan and Ramirez to have the early upper-hand due to their combination of experience with manager Eric Wedge and pitching at the big league level. But don't be surprised to see any of the other above mentioned make a strong case to be included in that conversation by the end of spring.

    Remember, nobody expected Kevin Millwood to make the rotation last year either.

Are the Home Runs Real?

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    Most Mariner fans could probably get used to this kind of offensive production pretty quickly, especially after the recent years of offensive futility. But as fun as all of the home runs have been, one has to wonder how real this actually is.

    As of Friday morning, the Mariners lead all of baseball this spring training with 14 homers in seven games. Sure, it may be a small sample, but it is impressive none-the-less, especially with offseason additions Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse yet to join the club.

    Now some of these home runs may be aided a little by the easy Arizona climate, but this has to be doing nothing but good for the mindsets of the young hitters on the Mariners. From Nick Franklin going deep on Matt Cain to Carlos Peguero going deep twice in a game, it seems as if everyone is getting in on the fun. But there is one player right now swinging a hot stick who is truly making a storyline for himself...

The Justin Smoak Show

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    In all honesty, there is nobody happier to see Justin Smoak playing like this more than Justin Smoak is.

    Well, him and every other Mariner fan on the planet.

    Smoak's struggles have been well-documented over the past few seasons. Once labeled as the prized-prospect in the Cliff Lee trade, Smoak found himself in Triple-A Tacoma last season after a rough July left him with a .189 batting average.

    Smoak did come back later in the season, and actually put together a solid September, where he batted .338 with five homers. But this wasn't the first time Smoak had struggled all season only to show glimpses of hope in September. In fact, over the last three seasons, Smoak's batting average in the month of September is .321, which is nearly a full 100 points more than the next closest month with at least 100 at-bats. 

    After the offseason additions of Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales, many people expected Justin Smoak to be the odd man out at the beginning of the season, with some rumors surfacing that the Boston Red Sox were interested in trading for the first baseman.

    However, with the possibility that it could be his last chance with the Mariners, Smoak has responded early this spring by smashing everything thrown at him. As of February 28, Smoak was batting .583 (7-for-12) with two home runs and five RBI in four games.

    Again, this may be a small sample as it is only 12 at-bats, but the confidence that he can be the middle-of-the-order force has to be growing with Smoak. He could be the key to a Mariners playoff run this season if he continues to hit like he is right now.

The Big... Four?

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    So this is something I documented before, but I personally believed that Brandon Maurer stood the best chance of making the starting rotation out of him, James Paxton, Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker.

    Now, a lot of hype has been made of The Big Three over the last season or so, but it was Maurer who walked away with the distinction as Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the organization last season. Maurer had an impressive season in 2012 finishing 9-2 with a 3.20 ERA in 24 starts for the Double-A Jackson Generals.

    With that in mind, Maurer is making a strong case for himself to be considered one of the best pitching prospects in the organization and has continued to show it this spring. Maurer could be behind Hultzen on the depth chart right now just because of Hultzen's experience in Triple-A Tacoma last season. But it is important to remember that Hultzen struggled with his command and wore down towards the end of the 2012 season.

    Whether Paxton, Walker, Hultzen or Maurer make the rotation out of spring training remains to be seen. But it will be fascinating to continue watching the development of Maurer as he continues to turn the cleverly nicknamed "Cerberus" into a four-pronged threat.

The Health of Felix Hernandez

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    Okay, okay nobody throw anything at me.

    But this will continue to be the dominant headline until Mariners fans see Felix on the mound this spring. After the near-apocalyptic news that almost derailed Felix's contract extension this offseason, analysts and fans alike have been curious to see just how Felix's elbow is really holding up.

    Now this could all be smoke and mirrors, and Felix could be just fine. But until Mariners fans see their $175MM man trot out there and mow down the opposition, there will continue to be some sort of nervousness.

    In fact, Matthew Berry is quick to point out (facts number four and five) that Felix's average speed on his fastball was down from 94 MPH in 2009 to 92.1 MPH in 2012. Berry is also quick to point out the possible correlation with the fact that nobody from 2009-2012 has thrown more regular-season innings than the King (fact number six).

    Needless to say, all the positives in the Mariner world would be crushed if Felix were to suffer any type of injury, but word out of the Mariner camp currently is that both Felix and the Mariners were pleased after Hernandez' first live batting practice.

    Expect Mariners fans to be praying that the positive feelings stay the same.