The beauty of sport is its unpredictable nature, right?
It’s funny because even though we can all agree that sport is the best in unscripted reality television, our natural tendency is to predict. We think we know who may compete this baseball season simply because we can look at rosters and compare them.
The irony is that our uncontrollable need to forecast a season ultimately plays into that original premise—that our predictions are often wrong. That’s exactly why sports rate so well on television. We are unable to perfectly predict the outcome.
So every season there are teams that shock the baseball world by contending for the postseason. Consider the Seattle Mariners to be one of those out-of-nowhere teams in 2016.
Before you go apoplectic about such a claim, remember this: To pick the big surprises of the 2016 season, there first has to be a litany of reasons not to.
The organization has a new general manager, Jerry Dipoto, who likely told the franchise he would need time to turn the team into a competitor. Since he took the job in September 2015, the hourglass isn’t even close to empty.
He needs to infuse talent into Seattle’s minor league system which ranked 28th in Baseball America’s latest rankings. The team, though it underwent a large overhaul of its roster this offseason, didn’t make a major splash in free agency.
Now that we’ve gotten all that’s working against the Mariners this season on the record, there were a couple of under-the-radar moves that give reason to think they’ll improve on last year’s 76-86 record and justify FanGraphs’ prediction of an 84-win 2016 season.
In 2015, the Mariners ranked fifth in Major League Baseball with 198 home runs. So how the heck did they rank only 21st with 656 runs scored?
They couldn’t get on base.
Seattle hit .249 as a team last season, only .06 points higher than baseball’s worst team. Their .311 on-base percentage ranked 22nd in baseball. What did they do this offseason?
They got guys who could get on base (you probably guessed it, I know).
Outfielder Nori Aoki (.353), Adam Lind (.360) are both solid on-base players who figure into the team’s everyday lineup. And the Mariners didn’t lose much power in the offseason.
The team returns Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz who combined to hit 70 of Seattle’s home runs last season.
In 2015, second baseman Robinson Cano also saw his average dip below .300 for the first time since 2008 and should return to being the high-average player the Mariners thought they were getting when they signed him as a free agent prior to the 2014 season. An uptick in Cano’s average should help the middle of Seattle’s order produce more runs.
There’s a whole other side of the game, of course.
The team’s ace, Felix Hernandez, posted his worst ERA (3.53) since the 2011 season (3.47). He is likely to vastly improve from a subpar 2015 campaign and remain one of baseball’s more coveted pitchers. Joaquin Benoit, a 14-year veteran, was added this offseason to bolster the bullpen.
Luck factors in, too. The Mariners could use some of that. This roster isn’t baseball’s most talented. But it isn’t a roster bereft of talent, either.
The most talented team doesn’t always win. If it did, baseball’s paper champion would also be its World Series Champion. And who would want to watch a game that predictable?
The Mariners have contending-type pieces. Hernandez has been among baseball’s best pitchers, Cano was one of its most sought-after free agents, Cruz has been an All-Star the past three seasons and Seager has one All-Star appearance to his name.
It’s easy to overlook what the Mariners have on their roster because of so much they lack. The 2015 season exposed many deficiencies on this roster—including its weak minor league system—that a turnaround in 2016 seems unfathomable.
Should the Mariners contend in 2016? Probably not. That doesn’t mean they can’t, though.
That is precisely why you’ll be watching all season.
Seth Gruen covers baseball for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.