This spring, the Seattle Mariners have been, dare I say, entertaining.
As an organization, there are quite a few positive signs to point toward for the future, but what about this season?
With a mix of youth and experience, the team seems keen on taking a positive step forward toward competing in the American League West.
Or will they be fighting to stay out of the division cellar with the Houston Astros?
Although it's always hard to place much value on what happens in spring training, for fun I wanted to see what are some of the key takeaways we've seen from Mariners camp as we approach Opening Day.
Over the course of the offseason, many of the moves that general manager Jack Zduriencik made left me skeptical.
When the Mariners traded for the likes of Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse, I felt these moves were well intended given the circumstances, yet a bit short-sighted.
Both moves stressed the M's desperate need for power, but would both Morales and Morse help provide the much-needed pop in the middle of the order the team had been missing for ages?
Feel free to attribute what we've seen on the Arizona heat, but so far it looks like Morales and Morse are more than capable of doing the job as the duo have helped pace the team in homers.
What's encouraging is that the entire lineup joined in the fray early on, to the point it almost became laughable as the team streaked out of the gate.
Will this power surge translate to the regular season, especially at Safeco Field?
Provided Morales, Morse and other veterans like Franklin Gutierrez, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay stay healthy, I think the power will stay on for the most part.
Understand that no one will be hitting 30 to 40 home runs this year, yet by season's end we could have a handful of hitters with 20 or more to their credit.
Honestly, the bigger concern is whether the core nucleus of youngsters will come into the fold. So far beyond Justin Smoak, none of the other names you would hope to see have hit for much power.
While I wouldn't lose too much sleep on this observation given the decent batting numbers otherwise, it is something to keep an eye on once the regular season begins.
The key takeaway here is that the team should be far more entertaining to watch offensively than what we've seen in a very long time.
While the offense looks to help set the pace, can the Mariners starting pitching help shut down their opponents?
Beyond Felix Hernandez, the starting rotation is going to be a bit of a question mark early on.
A month ago when writing the M's season preview, I predicted the following:
I can picture the M's taking the best option from the Beavan, Ramirez, Noesi trio and either Bonderman or Garland based on which one can get the ball over the plate with the greatest degree of consistency hoping they can stay healthy long enough to promote the likes of Hultzen by mid-June.
In short, you will continue to love Felix, feel a sense of indifference towards Iwakuma and Saunders, and pray for rain until one of the top prospects comes up from Tacoma some time before the All-Star break.
A month later, I still think a good portion of that statement remains valid with the exception of Noesi quickly pitching himself out of a job, Brandon Maurer entering the conversation in the place of Danny Hultzen and now Jon Garland being let go.
Following his solid performance on Thursday night, it seemed Garland had secured a spot in the rotation, but according to Ryan Divish at The Tacoma News Tribune who spoke to GM Jack Zduriencik, the M's opted to send him packing on Friday:
“We weren’t prepared to – at this moment in time – commit a roster spot and one of the starting spots in the rotation to Jon,” Zduriencik said. “There’s still some games left to be played and we couldn’t put ourselves in that position. At this time, we still have a battle going on for a couple spots in the rotation.”
Garland then exercised the opt-out clause in his contract basically terminating his commitment to the Mariners. There’s a 24-hour grace period till it becomes official, but for all intents and purposes he is no longer with the team.
Is this the end of the world? No. Realistically, Brandon Maurer, Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan and Jeremy Bonderman have all pitched as well if not better than Garland.
While I agree that Garland's departure isn't the end of the world, at this rate let's hope Joe Saunders and Hisashi Iwakuma are ready to go once the games start to count, otherwise Felix is going to have his work cut out for him once again carrying the starting rotation.
If things get really bad, the Mariners may find themselves forced to lean heavily on their bullpen.
Speaking of the bullpen, I'm pleased to say this group looks to be fairly decent.
You probably won't hear too much about this group; however, Carter Capps, Stephen Pryor, Kameron Loe, Oliver Perez, Charlie Furbush and Tom Wilhelmsen all appear capable of contributing this season in follow-up to their solid performances this spring.
Once again, we're dealing with small sample sizes, but no one here has really embarrassed himself in their limited time on the mound.
If the starting rotation takes time to jell, as I believe it will, this group will be all the more important in keeping the Mariners afloat in tight games.
While it was certainly a lot of fun to see prospects like Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and Mike Zunino in camp the first few weeks, all but a select few remain with the big boys today.
In many ways, it's understandable that these players experience their ups and downs, some of whom are attending their first professional spring training, yet I'd be lying if I didn't go in hoping for a little more.
For years now we've been asked to exercise some form of patience when it comes to prospects, but with so many of them now achingly close to playing in Seattle, I perhaps foolishly wanted a least one or two to break camp with the M's.
Yet beyond pitcher Brandon Maurer, who has looked great, I'm not sure I see that happening.
Deep down it's probably for the best that these prospects spend some more time down on the farm rather than be rushed to the majors; still, with so many veterans in the mix with only one year left under contract, you have to hope these youngsters get in gear sooner rather than later.
This takeaway is hard to judge at the moment.
On the surface the veterans seem to be having a positive effect. The Mariners are winning games this spring, have been doing so with some solid hitting, and the mood in camp is genuinely positive.
Yet how much of an impact are the likes of Morales, Morse, Ibanez, etc. having?
We are going to have to wait and see here.
As I mentioned earlier, guys like Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales seem poised to have solid years, but will the players around them succeed?
Given the potential that both will only be in Seattle this season, will they help build enough confidence in the likes of Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders to help them take some critical steps as professionals?
That, to me, is arguably the biggest question about the Mariners coming out of this spring.
To paraphrase a tired old proverb, "Can the veterans teach the kids how to fish?"
If not, whatever positives come out of this spring may go for naught long term if the core nucleus of Montero, Ackley, Seager, Smoak and Saunders can't step up.
The Mariners should be entertaining. Which is a step up.
At the same time, the starting rotation scares me a bit, and that's with Felix firing on all cylinders.
In time, I think that talent will win out on that front, but April and May could be an eye opener.
Hopefully, though, the offense can tip the balance in the M's favor more often than not during that time while the bullpen tries to clean up any potential messes.
If that can happen, I believe fans in Seattle may be pleasantly surprised upon what they see when they go to the ballpark—a competitive and fun team.
Otherwise, it could be another season of King Felix and the Muppets.
Deep down, I still think this is a .500 ballclub, but I remain optimistic that the M's can capture the fans attention beyond the time the Seahawks start prepping for their season without having to call up half of Tacoma to fill out their roster...fingers crossed.