In 2008 the Seattle Mariners lost 101 games, second only to the lowly Washington Nationals.
Last season, the Mariners finished with a record of 85-77, signaling a 24 game turnaround, the best in the league.
This year the Mariners have their eye on 95 wins and an AL West title, and neither is out of the question.
The Mariners have some names that every baseball fan is familiar with. Ichiro Suzuki, who holds the all-time record for hits in a season, is easily one of the game’s most recognizable stars.
Felix Hernandez and new Mariner Cliff Lee, two of the games' best starting pitchers, provide the M’s with a one-two punch at the top of the rotation that no team in baseball can match.
However, there is more to the Mariners than these three stars, who are coincidentally featured together on the cover of the latest issue of ESPN Magazine.
Let’s take a look at five players who will play a key role in the M’s 2010 success.
After spending several seasons as Cliff Lee’s teammate in Cleveland, Gutierrez broke out last season in his first in Seattle. He finished the year with a .283 average, 85 runs, 18 home runs, 70 RBI, and 16 stolen bases.
His speed/power potential is a rare commodity, and as he is entering his age 27 season, another step up in performance is a strong bet.
Gutierrez is penciled into the three hole in the M’s order, right behind Ichiro and Chone Figgins. That’s a pretty nice place to be.
What to expect in 2010: Gutierrez has 20/20 written all over him, and I think it happens in 2010. I expect somewhere in the range of .285, 85 runs, 22 home runs, 85 RBI, and 20 stolen bases.
After spending the past several seasons patrolling second base, the Mariners will move Lopez to third, a position that fits his limited range better.
Lopez, 26, has improved tremendously at the plate over the past two seasons, and very likely will be entering his prime over the next couple seasons.
In 2009, he hit .272, with 69 runs, 25 home runs, 96 RBI, and 3 stolen bases. In 2010, he’ll likely hit in the cleanup spot behind Ichiro, Figgins, and the aforementioned Gutierrez, so RBI opportunities should be aplenty. He’ll need to show more plate discipline to take the next step, but he should at least match his 2009 totals this season.
What to expect in 2010: Look for Lopez to have a great season batting in the cleanup spot for Seattle. He won’t peak in 2010, but he will finally get the notice he deserves. Look for a .275 average, 75 runs, 28 home runs, 100 RBI, and 3 stolen bases.
After spending a few years building the reputation as an elite relief prospect in the Giants organization, Aardsma struggled in limited big league action with the Cubs, White Sox, and Red Sox in 2006-2008.
Then, everything turned around in 2009.
When handed the opportunity to close games for the M’s last season, the 28-year old collected 38 saves, with a 2.53 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 80 strikeouts in just 71.1 innings pitched.
While Aardsma’s fantastic 2009 seems to have come out of left field, his status as a former prospect and unquestionably nasty stuff suggest that he is someone to Mariners will be able to hand the ball over to in the ninth in 2010 and beyond.
What to expect in 2010: Seattle is not elite offensive club, but their outstanding pitching staff should lead them to a multitude of close victories. As a result, Aardsma should be in line for a ton of save opportunities in 2010. Look for 40 saves, a 2.95 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 75 strikeouts in 70 innings pitched.
Following their 101 loss 2008 season, the Mariners decided to build around pitching, speed, and defense, a strategy that the Rays used to perfection in their run to the World Series.
New Mariner Chone Figgins, who they signed away from division rival Anaheim, fits the bill perfectly.
Well known for his base stealing ability, Figgins is also a tremendous defensive infielder who will team up with Jack Wilson to make a terrific double play combo. In addition to his speed and defense, Figgins is nearly a lock to post an average around .300. Furthermore, he saw a big jump in walks last season, resulting in a tremendous on base percentage of .395.
What to expect in 2010: Figgins will improve an already strong M’s defense, and get on base a ton batting behind Ichiro and in front of the Mariners’ big bats. I’m calling for a .300 average, with 105 runs, 5 homeruns, 50 RBI, 40 stolen bases, and close to 100 walks.
The 27-year old Aussie is an up and coming starter who the Mariners will rely on to provide quality starts behind their two big guns.
The crafty lefty has had ups and downs since entering the Mariners organization in 2001, but has been effective in 27 starts over the past two seasons. In 15 starts last season he won five games, posted a 3.75 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP, and collected 52 strikeouts in 92.1 innings pitched.
He relies on his fastball and change-up, and isn’t overpowering, but has great control and pitches intelligently. Rowland-Smith lacks upside, but he certainly can fill the role that the Mariners have him in--effective and reliable middle of the rotation starter.
What to expect in 2010: Rowland-Smith will never wow you with his strikeout totals, but over the past two seasons he has proved that he is someone the Mariners can confidently run out to the mound every fifth day. Look for 12 wins, a 4.00 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and a 115 strikeouts in 180 innings pitched.