Seattle Mariners: Five Keys to Competing in the Wide Open AL West
At times during the early part of the season, the Seattle Mariners have appeared headed to the all-too-common spot in the cellar of the AL West. However, in the division's wide-open 2011 race, anything can happen.
Sending the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner out there every fifth day helps, but Felix Hernandez can't do it all by himself. Similarly, Ichiro can set the table, but he needs help coming home.
For the Mariners to compete they'll need help from the current supporting cast and possibly an addition at the trading deadline.
Here's a look at what the Mariners must do to stay in the AL West race.
1. Michael Pineda
Michael Pineda has provided yet another power arm for the Mariners' rotation in the early going. With a fastball in the upper 90's and a big frame to withstand the wear of a full season, Pineda has the potential to take some pressure off Felix and eat some innings to allowing the bullpen to stay fresh.
However, the season is young and power pitchers tend to fair well the first time facing a team. The real test for Pineda will come when he's forced to make adjustments as teams begin to figure him out.
If he's able to make those adjustments, the Mariners could have a formidable top of the rotation for the rest of the season and beyond.
2. Improved Defense
An improvement in the porous defense played so far this season should pay dividends to Seattle's pitching staff.
Part of the lackluster defensive effort can be attributed to the absence of Franklin Gutierrez, but placing the blame solely on one missing player would be shortsighted. As a team, the Mariners need to step up the defensive focus and intensity, especially if the offense continues to struggle.
For the Mariners to compete in the AL West race, they'll need pitching and defense to carry them. As usual.
3. Consistency in the Bullpen
An improvement in defense would not only help the starting pitchers, but also an inconsistent bullpen. Due to the absence of David Aardsma, the Mariners have been operating without clearly defined roles.
Aardsma's return will help, but the rest of the bullpen must provide more consistent innings.
Several times already this year the bullpen has put a game out of reach with their performance. For the Mariners to have a chance in the race, they will need to keep games close.
A consistent bullpen will give them the best opportunity to make that happen.
4. Hitting with Runners in Scoring Position
Since the Mariners lack offensive firepower, they need to do a better job of taking care of scoring opportunities when they arise.
With improved defensive play and a consistent bullpen, the Mariners should have more opportunities to win games. Their only chance to take advantage of those opportunities is with timely hitting.
With Felix, and lately Pineda, on the mound, the Mariners only need to scratch out a few runs to win. No one player can be blamed for the lack of offensive efficiency; each player from top to bottom in the lineup will need to hit better with runners in scoring position for the Mariners to make a run.
5. Power Surge
The Mariners knew that hitting for power would be an issue coming into the season. However, players like Jack Cust and Justin Smoak, whom the Mariners believed could solve some of those issues, have not performed to their potential.
Cust may be on his way out sooner rather than later due to his performance thus far, but Smoak seems to be finding his power stroke after returning from bereavement leave.
For the Mariners to make a legitimate push in the race, they need someone in the lineup to step up or must find offensive help at the trading deadline.
Without a surge in power, the Mariners will have the lights turned out on their season before August.
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