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Seattle Mariners Opening Day 2011: Top 10 Keys to the Team's Success

Alex CarsonCorrespondent IIIApril 1, 2011

Seattle Mariners Opening Day 2011: Top 10 Keys to the Team's Success

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Happy opening day!

    The long winter is over. All of the speculation and talk can come to an end and baseball can once again be played on grass and dirt instead of paper.

    Unlike the expectations of a season ago, these Mariners enter the 2011 campaign with low expectations. No one expects them to contend, and perhaps that will play in their favor. Not in that they'll actually contend, but that they can relax and work to get better without a microscope on their every move.

    I've had them penciled in for 70 wins as an official prediction, but that number will likely sway one way or the other depending on several factors that play out during the season. If they have several players have career years, maybe that number balloons closer to 80. If they have another season filled with under-performance, well, let's not speculate on that.

    One thing we can take from last season, if you're into that whole glass-half-full mentality, is that things can't get worse. With so many players having wretched seasons, you almost are forced to expect regression to the mean and improvement.

    The chances of this team shocking the world are incredibly low. If they're going to do it, though, these are the keys to achieving that success.

Chone Figgins Improvement

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    When Chone Figgins was moved back to third base, his value immediately went up.

    The second base experiment of 2010 was a flop. Most people point to the offensive numbers and perhaps the shift did have a bearing on them in some way that we can't quantify. However, the defense took a hit, too.

    Even though you usually want a minimum two year sample when looking at UZR, the -12.3 that Figgins put up at second base in 2010 can't be looked at as anything but putrid.

    The two seasons prior, playing third base for the Angels, Figgins' UZR was a combined 27.2. He's quite simply more suited for third base and the numbers validate that thought.

    Putting up a 0.6 WAR in 2010, Figgins stands to improve quote a bit. Expecting the 6.1 number he put up in 2009 might be out of the realm of probability, but even something closer to 3 WAR would be a big improvement.

    Figgins alone can add two more wins to the Mariners total this season just by playing closer to career norms. If the team is going to hang around in contention in a weak AL West, those two wins would mean a lot.

Franklin Gutierrez's Health

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    Franklin Gutierrez will open the season on the disabled list with a mysterious stomach ailment.

    Just when the team reported positive news that his issues had finally been diagnosed and could be controlled with diet and medicine, the issues persisted.

    Anytime doctors can't figure something out, you have to worry. Not just because we want the Mariners to be a better team now, but because Guti is an upstanding man.

    Franklin's defense and offensive upside is crucial to the team's success. I don't know if the stomach issues played a role in his struggles at the plate last season, but not being able to get reps in while on the DL certainly won't help resolve those woes.

Michael Pineda's Development

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    From all accounts, Michael Pineda has the ability to be a star.

    There doesn't seem to be a scout who doesn't think he could be King Felix's sidekick for a long time. Prince Pineda, if you will.

    However, there is still some developmental work that needs to be done before we'll see just how good Pineda can be. While he could still have a good year, the lack of a plus changeup is going to hurt him against the league's best left handers.

    Against right handers, his stuff should be solid. Toss in Safeco Field's park effects and you have the possibility for a fantastic rookie season.

    I do think the rookie of the year expectations should be tempered a bit.

    His work ethic appears to be solid, though. Working with a major league coaching staff could be a positive as well. So, while I'm more reserved in my expectations, everything could fall into place and come October we'll be talking about the fourth player in franchise history to earn top rookie honors.

Justin Smoak's Sophmore Campaign

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    While some thought the Rangers may have rushed Justin Smoak and that the trade may have added even further pressure, the Mariners are hoping to see him take big steps forward this season.

    For those of us who haven't gone through it, there's no way for us to know how tough last season was on the rookie. It's hard to imagine that he isn't privy to how the trade came about and that the Mariners chose him over the Jesus Montero lead package from the Yankees.

    That said, Smoak has got to take a positive step forward if the Mariners want to have a good season. The club was in desperate need of a power hitting first baseman after the likes of Casey Kotchman, Miguel Cairo, Jose Vidro and an oft injured Russell Branyan spent time there the last few seasons.

    It's obviously way too soon to give up on Smoak after one bad big league season, but there are enormous holes in his game that need patching up. The strikeouts were frustrating, even when I tried to be optimistic about his patient approach that lead to some of them.

    If the Mariners are going to shock even the most optimistic homers, let alone the world, Smoak's improvement is a big key. And not just this season, but moving forward into the future.

The Arrival of Dustin Ackley

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    It wasn't a surprise to anyone that Dustin Ackley was sent back to AAA Tacoma to start the season.

    While his bat is pretty close to being ready, his defense still needs some work as he learns second base.

    I'm really high on Ackley's offensive abilities, perhaps a little overboard. Maybe it's the excitement over having a player who can draw walks and hit with some consistency as a breath of fresh air over the black hole that was Jose Lopez.

    Regardless, most believe that he'll be at least good offensively with a lot of upside to become a star at the plate. What the Mariners really need from him, again, is the defensive development.

    He's going to get every opportunity to excel there, as the team has obviously set the stage for him to take that job as early as June of this season.

    If he hits the ground running, Ackley could be the offensive injection this lineup needs to get over the hump.

Milton Bradley's Resurgence

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    It's never a good idea to draw conclusions from spring training, but Milton Bradley has raised some eyebrows.

    His good spring could be instantly become moot should he have another eruption or take another trip to the disabled list.

    Last season, scouts mentioned slowed bat speed. Its hard to imagine that, if that was true, that the bat speed would come back with him being a year older. If he is swinging the bat better though, and can stay on the field, he provides some decent upside.

    Even though he is starting the season as the every day left fielder, the Mariners know he's better suited for a time split to keep his legs healthy. Even as a part timer he can offer more value than he did last season.

The Bullpen

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    As constructed to start the season, the Mariners bullpen is more of worry than a potential value vault.

    David Aardsma and Shawn Kelley will be back in a month or two respectively, and we should see Dan Cortes return at some point when his command improves.

    Add in high-upside rookies Josh Lueke and Tom Wilhelmsen already on the roster and the bullpen could shape up quite nicely as the season progresses.

    There's a lot of risk here but also a ton of reward.

Erik Bedard and the Rest of the Rotation

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    While we are pretty sure we know what we have in Jason Vargas and Doug Fister, Erik Bedard enters the season with a large question mark looming over him.

    He had a good spring and hasn't had any reports of discomfort in that nagging shoulder. His stuff has looked sharp considering the layoff, so he could be a pretty big surprise.

    Having entered with no expectations, Bedard's first pitch automatically adds more value than most thought we'd get from him this season.

    There could be a scenario where he's traded if he stays healthy, but if the Mariners hang around in contention he probably hangs around.

Felix and Ichiro Stay Felix and Ichiro

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    This one goes without saying really, but the team can't afford either of their stars to go down if they want to maintain any hope.

    Pitchers are always prone to inconsistency or sore arms. While Felix has looked bullet proof since his 2006 campaign, you never know when disaster could strike.

    For Ichiro, it would be a shock to anyone if he batted under .300, had less than 200 hits, didn't provide elite defense or got hurt.

    He's become the epitome of consistency and we all have him penciled in for another Ichiro-esque season. Should something happen, it would be nothing short of crippling to any chance this team has to contend.

Flipping the Luck

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    Last season, the Mariners were extremely unlucky.

    The roster had flaws but there was a lot of expectations set based on the upside. Had half of the things that went wrong gone right, we'd be talking about a disappointing season, not a massive failure.

    So why can't luck go the other way?

    There's quite a bit of upside with this year's team and the rookies that have and will join them at some point. While the probability of contention is low, just knowing there's a non-zero chance is enough to make any fanatic have hope.

    I'm reasonable and temper the expectations, but there's always the chance that something magical can happen. This isn't the 1995 or 2001 squad talent-wise, but those teams teams still were big surprises even though they had legit contention hopes.

    You just never know what might happen, and I suppose that's part of the beauty of this day.

    It's opening day.

    Baseball is back, and we can all cling on to hope if we want to.

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