It's probably unfair to say nobody expected the Seattle Mariners to contend this year. Surely there are diehards who believe in their team every season, regardless of the odds.
Yet few, if any, of the experts gave the M's much of a chance. Baseball Prospectus' 2014 preseason projection had them finishing fourth in the American League West, ahead of only the Houston Astros. Others disagreed and pegged them for dead last.
So much for the experts. Entering play Tuesday, the Mariners are 49-40. That puts them in third place in the AL West, looking up at the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics. If the season ended July 7, though, Seattle would be in the postseason.
How are the Mariners doing it? The pitching, led by Felix Hernandez, is solid as expected, and Robinson Cano is making good on his massive contract.
But a less-familiar name has emerged as arguably the most important piece in the Mariners' projection-busting puzzle: Kyle Seager.
Seager is no stranger to Mariners fans, who have watched the 26-year-old third baseman surpass 20 home runs in each of his first two big league seasons. Outside Seattle, though, he isn't a household name.
That's about to change. On Monday, Seager was named to the American League All-Star team, replacing injured Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Edwin Encarnacion.
What was Seager doing when he got the news? Shopping for Pampers, of course. Here he is, recounting the phone call from Seattle skipper Lloyd McClendon that sealed his trip to Minnesota, per Greg Johns of MLB.com:
I was actually leaving Babies R Us. I had 'Little Man' in my arms and a big box of diapers. I put the diapers down and answered the phone, so it worked out pretty well.
Things have been working out very well for Seager. After spending the first three weeks of April in a deep slump, he's gone on a sustained tear.
As of Monday, Seager led the Mariners in home runs (13) and RBI (59) and owned an .829 OPS, second only to Cano.
Kyle Seager is the only player since 1914 to take on the @Yankees as a visitor and emerge with a two-triple, four extra-base hit game.— MLB Stat of the Day (@MLBStatoftheDay) June 3, 2014
He's been particularly deadly at home. Safeco Field ranks as one of the top five pitchers' parks in baseball, per ESPN.com. Don't tell Seager, who has posted a gaudy .347 batting average in front of the Seattle faithful.
The power stroke is central to Seager's game, but his manager has noticed a better overall approach at the plate this year. "I want him to be that tough out, particularly with runners in scoring position...to hit the ball the opposite way for a base hit," McClendon told MLB.com. "And he's starting to do that. ... He's starting to become that complete player."
Who has contributed the most to the Mariners' surprising success?
With Seager protecting Cano, the Mariners have jumped from 22nd in baseball in runs scored in 2013 to 13th this season. They're finally giving their stable of plus arms some run support, and the wins are following.
A team that barely warranted mention in April is now squarely in the conversation.
"There is a really good feeling in the clubhouse," Seager said June 25 after he sparked an 8-2 win over the Boston Red Sox with a home run and four RBI, per Tim Booth of The Associated Press (via Yahoo Sports). "We know what we have in here. We feel good about it and we feel like we'll be able to sustain it."
Whether the Mariners can sustain their success is one question. Whether they'll lock up Seager for the long haul is another.
Seager will be arbitration eligible for the first time after this season, which means talk of a contract extension is heating up. As Jason A. Churchill of CBS Seattle argues:
One thing the Mariners cannot afford to do is allow Seager to reach free agency.
Regardless of the club's financial position, they have no choice but to get something done with Seager for the long haul or suffer insurmountable consequences. He's made the decision a no-brainer.
A no-brainer, maybe. Also best left for another day.
For now, the M's are content to enjoy the exploits of their newly minted All-Star—and to keep proving the experts wrong.