Felix Hernandez, Mariners Offense Tease Breakthrough 2014 Season in Opener

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Felix Hernandez, Mariners Offense Tease Breakthrough 2014 Season in Opener
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New Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon might have had the following game plan in mind for his club's opener against the Los Angeles Angels on Monday night.

  1. A dominant performance by Felix Hernandez.
  2. A whole bunch of runs.
  3. Whatever else you got.

According to the Rolling Stones, you can't always get what you want. But sometimes you do, and sometimes that makes it OK to wonder if there might be more where that came from.

And that's Seattle's opener in a nutshell.

In beating the Angels by a final of 10-3, the Mariners notched their eighth straight Opening Day victory. And just as McClendon was presumably hoping, the victory was crafted by a dominant performance by Hernandez and, obviously, a whole bunch of runs.

The next 161 games aren't all going to be like the first, of course. But looking on the bright side is always the way to go with Opening Day matters, and to one extent the Mariners can already rest easy.

They don't need a larger sample size to know that they should get more of one of the things they enjoyed in their opener: Hernandez's dominance. 

Jae C. Hong

King Felix lasted six innings in the opener, allowing three runs (two earned) on four hits and a walk. He also struck out 11, just missing out on his Opening Day high of 12 from 2007.

It actually looked like it was going to be a rocky one for Hernandez early on, as all three of the runs he gave up came in the first three innings. Two came on a blast by Mike Trout, a personal nemesis of Hernandez, in the first inning.

What made that homer seem like a particularly bad omen was how it came on a slider that Hernandez put at the bottom of the strike zone. Take a look at Brooks Baseball, and you'll see that Hernandez hadn't allowed any extra-base hits on sliders at the bottom of the zone against righty hitters between 2007 and 2013.

Basically: King Felix got burned by Trout doing a decidedly Trout-ish thing.

Once Hernandez was past the third inning, though, he was home free. Seven of his 11 strikeouts came in his final three innings, when he looked every bit like the pitcher with a 2.85 ERA since 2009.

Even King Felix's nemesis had to tip his cap. Via Pedro Moura of the Orange County Register:

But where Hernandez looked a whole lot like himself, Seattle's offense had a much different look than we're used to.

It was slow going at first, but Mariners hitters were able to break through against Jered Weaver in the seventh inning and eventually hung a six-spot in the top of the ninth to blow the game wide open.

In scoring 10 runs, Ryan Divish of The Seattle Times noted that the Mariners don't have far to go to match last year's total of 10-run games:

Justin Smoak's three-run homer off Kevin Jepsen in the ninth inning broke the game open, but the offensive story of the night for Seattle was more about everyone chipping in.

Along with new $240 million man Robinson Cano, Smoak, Abraham Almonte and Brad Miller combined to go 7-for-18 with four RBI at the top of the lineup, with Almonte, Cano and Smoak each notching multiple hits. At the bottom of the lineup, Dustin Ackley and Mike Zunino chipped in four RBI.

As a team, the Mariners also went 4-for-9 with runners in scoring position. That's a welcome sight considering...well, considering this, via FanGraphs:

Mariners with RISP, 2009-2013
Year AVG w/ RISP MLB Rank
2009 .235 Last
2010 .226 Last
2011 .222 29
2012 .239 25
2013 .228 28
Total .230 Last

FanGraphs

Whereas Hernandez can be trusted to keep coming through for the Mariners, there's certainly a lot more room for skepticism with their offense. Scoring runs has been a recurring problem in Seattle, and it's going to take more than one good game to convince everyone that Cano isn't the only hitter in the Mariners' lineup worth fearing.

But since we're looking on the bright side here, we can point out how the offense around Cano is all about upside. All the Mariners need is for some guys to come into their own.

Take Almonte, for example. He put himself in line for a shot at a role in the majors by hitting .300 with an .876 OPS across Double-A and Triple-A in 2013. Miller was also a star at those levels in 2013, hitting .319 with a .920 OPS before getting the call to the majors and performing admirably (.737 OPS) in 76 games. 

Zunino is yet another guy with legit minor league numbers in his past, as he responded to being drafted No. 3 overall in 2012 by rising to Double-A by season's end and finishing with a 1.137 OPS. Though the Mariners probably rushed him to the majors in 2013, that's not an excuse to overlook the fact that he was an elite prospect very recently.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Smoak and Ackley were considered elite prospects once upon a time too. And while they haven't put it all together yet, they have shown flashes. Smoak had an .803 OPS in the first half of 2013. Ackley ended the year by hitting .313 with an .847 OPS in his last 43 games. Logan Morrison, another former top prospect, is only a couple of years removed from a .797 OPS and 23 homers in 2011.

The Mariners are taking a big gamble on the upside their offense has panning out, to be sure. But hey, at least it's there.

While we're on the topic of upside, there's some in the bullpen too. Following a season in which their relievers ranked second in MLB in K/9, the Mariners once again have some nasty arms this year and a couple of them were on display on Monday night.

Yoervis Medina, Charlie Furbush, Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar combined for four scoreless innings, allowing only two hits with no walks and two strikeouts. Not making an appearance was new closer Fernando Rodney, who is yet another reliever with nasty stuff for McClendon to turn to.

Before Monday's opener, the Mariners weren't expected to do much in 2014. Even after the signing of Cano and various other notable moves over the winter, Baseball Prospectus only projected them to win 82 games. And if we're being honest, one win doesn't mean it's time to recalculate that projection.

But if nothing else, now's a time to ask "What if?" What if King Felix does dominate like his usual self all year long? What if the upside in Seattle's lineup continues to pan out? What if the nasty arms in the bullpen continue to lock up leads?

The Mariners' dispatching of the Angels on Monday night suggests it could all happen for them in 2014. And if it does, they're going to be able to put a few too many years of bad memories behind them.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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