The Seattle Mariners haven't had the start some fans were hoping for: just four wins through 13 games. But there's no reason for worry. They've had several inauspicious factors working against them early, and there are a couple of key elements that we'll see come out as the season develops.
They have had a few difficult series matchups: (1) the young, talented Oakland A's, (2) the 2010 AL champion Texas Rangers, and (3) the Cleveland Indians, which were coming off a sweep of the World Series favorite Red Sox. That definitely hindered their ability to break out of last year's slump.
Another possible contribution to the Mariners' sub-par opening is a lack of chemistry in the starting lineup. The nine guys who we usually see hitting for the Mariners don't have the necessary trust that we often see in a winning team.
Most fans and analysts have labeled 2011 as a rebuilding year for Seattle because they have a pretty new team, but I'm not throwing in the towel yet. Here are five reasons why we won't see the Mariners at the bottom of the AL West.
Justin Smoak is the missing part of the Mariners' batting order.
This is going to be his big year.
Last year, he played just 30 games with the Mariners, failing to make a big splash, but adjusting to a new stadium, a new team and a new coach isn't the easiest way to make a first impression, so we'll excuse his not-so-good numbers.
Smoak is hitting .273 with a homer and five doubles thus far, a big improvement from last year. He is striking out about one time every four at bats, which isn't bad considering all the pressure that's been put on him by an organization struggling to produce runs. His ability to keep up a .273 average while swinging for the fences most of the time is promising.
His five two-baggers lead the Mariners and put him at third in the AL. It's a little bit disappointing to see just one big fly out of our young five-hole hitter, but his home stadium isn't known for a lot of homers. Safeco Field is one of the top five pitcher's parks in the league. Some of the doubles he's hit would've gone over the fence in other ballparks.
Another important thing to watch for is the trust that Smoak and the rest of the order will begin to build as they play more games together.
Watch for Smoak to get 25 homers while maintaining a .280-plus average.
The Rangers showed early that they were eager for a second shot at the World Series. Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler made history together and no one has been able to find a way to cool the Rangers' red-hot bats.
But Texas's supercharged batting order took a hit when Josh Hamilton broke his arm earlier this week. He will be out an estimated six to eight weeks, leaving a gaping hole in the previously flawless lineup. It's possible that Cruz, Kinsler, and Beltre will be able to fill in for Hamilton, but his absence will probably create a vacuum that will suck up the Rangers' run production.
If Texas stops scoring an inordinate amount of runs and their pitching comes back down to Earth, they will lose their edge in the AL West.
The Athletics' sloppy defense has disabled them from having the breakout year that was expected, and the Angels haven't added anything special.
A weaker-than-expected division will give the Mariners more wins and more momentum.
Michael Pineda has been brilliant.
He has done everything we hoped, and more.
After two starts, Pineda has struck out 11 and walked just three. He has a 2.70 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. When coupled with his .500 record, we can't help but notice the similarities to Felix's Cy Young season in 2010.
Pineda has shown excellent control and an ability to work late into games, working up a solid pitch count. He is already performing like a veteran in his rookie season and there's plenty of room to grow. Pitching behind Felix Hernandez and longtime veteran Erik Bedard will help Pineda as much as any mechanics work.
If Justin Smoak and the Mariners' hitting can back Pindea up with some run support, we could see a Rookie of the Year award coming his way.
After moving from the beloved Kingdome in 1996, the Mariners have transitioned to a pitching-and-fielding focused team. The new home of the Seattle Mariners is the ideal place for a young rotation to develop.
Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Doug Fister and Michael Pineda will all benefit from the deep fences of SAFECO. They'll get a lot of a lucky breaks that should keep their ERAs down and keep the M's in close games.
Since SAFECO is their home field, the Mariners' batters are becoming more and more accustomed to the quirks of the ballpark. That will serve as an advantage that becomes increasingly apparent as more high-pressure games present themselves.
The vast expanse of the outfield is an ideal place for Ichiro to roam. He can track down fly balls and climb the wall as he chooses. Ryan Langerhans and Milton Bradley should be able to put up solid defense and minimize the balls that get through.
It would be both ignorant and rude to leave Ichiro Suzuki out of this set. He has been the heart and soul of the Mariners for the past decade.
Racking up an MLB-record 10 straight 200-plus hit seasons, Ichiro has proven himself as the best leadoff/contact hitter ever to play the game. And then there's his Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards. And then an All-Star appearance each year since he arrived in America. Ever since Ichiro joined the AL team in 2001, they've won (well, except for the 2002 draw and last year, but that was Phil Hughes' fault and he's a Yankee).
Most (players, fans, and experts) attribute the AL's success to Ichiro's pregame speech (http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/news?slug=jp-ichirospeech071508). How can you not be fired up?
We'll see at least three more 200-hit seasons out of Ichiro as he approaches 40 years and joins the 3000 club. This guy is epitomizes consistency and keeps the Mariners' hopes alive. Long live the Sultan of Slap!