Seattle Mariners: 7 Reasons the Team Will Contend for a Playoff Spot in 2012

Jordan BallCorrespondent IDecember 21, 2011

Seattle Mariners: 7 Reasons the Team Will Contend for a Playoff Spot in 2012

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    Due to the Mariners' records the past couple of years and the fact that they've only made the playoffs four times in 34 tries, you might laugh when first reading this title. It probably doesn't help their case that they have the reigning two-time American League Champion Texas Rangers in their division.

    To top it all off, they also have the Angels in their division, who brought not just the most sought-after bat but also the most sought-after free agent pitcher in Pujols and C.J. Wilson this off-season. With the odds stacked against them, most Mariners fans are all but ready to put the M's to bed next season. Not so fast.

    Seattle may have finished with a 67-95 record last year, but people tend to forget that this is the same team that was only a half game back of first place in July of last season. If it wasn't for the 17-game losing streak that ensued that, there would be a buzz about this team as well as their division rivals.

    There's a lot of talent on this young team, and with a couple of key free agent moves, the Mariners might put themselves back in the conversation. They're definitely flying the under the radar right now though, but the question is, just how long will they stay there?

Youth Movement

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    When people think of Seattle, besides Ken Griffey Jr., only one name comes to mind. That, of course, would be Ichiro. Over the past 10 years, Ichiro has rewritten the history books and has all but punched his name into two Halls of Fame.

    Besides him, though, the average fan doesn't know much more than maybe Felix Hernandez. All that's really known about Hernandez is that he won a Cy Young a few years ago and is rumored to be traded to the Yankees about 10 times a year. He's been around for six years, however, and is the superstar of the M's "Youth Movement."

    Yes, he's been in the league longer then most players' baseball careers last, but he is only 25 years old! In the starting rotation, only Jason Vargas (at 28 years old) is older than him.

    That's just the beginning though. Out of the 14 starters (five pitchers and nine position players), the average age is just 26. If you remove Ichiro, who is by far the oldest at 38, and substitute Trayvon Robinson (only 24), then the average age drops down a year to 25. A team that young, with players who all now have a year in the big leagues under their belts, is a potential force to be reckoned with. 

     

    Let's take a closer look to see what the Mariners could be working with when Opening Day comes rolling around:

     

    Starting Rotation:

    • Felix Hernandez (R)  Age: 25
    • Jason Vargas (L)      Age: 28
    • Michael Pineda (R)   Age: 22
    • Danny Hultzen (L)    Age: 22
    • Blake Beavan (R)     Age: 22

    Catcher: Miguel Olivo (33)

    First Base: Justin Smoak (25)

    Second Base: Dustin Ackley (23)

    Third Base: Alex Liddi (23)

    Shortstop: Brendan Ryan (29)

    Left: Casper Wells (27)

    Center: Franklin Gutierrez (28)

    Right: Ichiro Suzuki (38)

    DH: Mike Carp (25)

     

    If the young guns on the staff can continue to improve from last season, and if the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft lives up to the expectations of the Mariners, the M's will arguably have one of the best staffs in baseball (see next slide). Along with that, if Ichiro, Guti and Ackley can stay consistent on reaching base, the team should have no problem driving in runs if Smoak and Carp find their stroke (as they have proved capable of in the past).

    The energy that Ryan brings and the veteran presence that Olivo possesses can be enough to overcome the many obstacles the team can, and probably will, face through the long season. With all of this talent and leadership mixed into one, this team can produce a chemistry that could take the league by storm. 

The Pitching Staff

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    It's no secret who the ace of this staff is. It's the King, the former Cy Young award winner, the only man who keeps Mariners fans sane at times: Felix Hernandez. In his six years in the show, he has done nothing but impress, and he continues to get better each year. The sky is the limit for him, and he hopes to bring his team and his fans along with him for the ride. 

    Besides that, you may not know a lot about this staff that ranked in the top half of almost every statistical category last season. For instance, did you know that this staff produced three All-Stars? That's tied with the Yankees for the most in the AL and only trailed San Francisco's four (of which only two deserved to be there, but when your manager is in charge of the roster, anything can happen).

    Besides Hernandez, the other two All-Stars were rookie Michael Pineda, who fanned the three batters he faced, and closer Brandon League, who in his first full season as a closer racked up 37 saves in 42 opportunities. 

    That's not where the talent stopped, though. After Doug Fister and Erik Bedard were traded away at the deadline, the M's needed people to step up and fill in where they had left off. In came Blake Beavan, who made 15 starts, sporting a final record of 5-6 with a respectable ERA of 4.27.

    The fifth spot in the rotation was up for grabs, though, and last season no one stepped up and made their name a permanent staple for this year's rotation. However, rookie Danny Hultzen hopes to contend for that spot in Spring Training this year, and he is the easy favorite to earn it.

    If and when the offense shows up, these pitchers will be able to pitch to their full ability. Then we will really see just how dominant each can be.

    Along with the starters, the bullpen can hold its own as well. Though Aaron Laffey, Jamey Wright and Josh Lueke, the team's inning-eaters from last year, have since moved on, the pen is still good. The Mariners just signed George Sherrill, who posted a 3.00 ERA last season with the Braves. He will be a key piece to get the starters out of jams if needed.

    Along with Sherrill, Tom Wilhelmsen, Chance Ruffin, Shawn Kelley and Charley Furbush will do their best to keep their team in the game. 

    Rumor has it that GM Jack Zduriencik is still shopping around to see what he can get to help out the rotation along with the bullpen. Whoever he adds will continue to help this already-stellar staff, and I think I speak for all Mariners fans here when I say that if you have to trade Figgins to make room for whoever it might be, then please pull the trigger. 

Home Field Advantage

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    This may come as a surprise to the non-Mariner fans reading this, but Safeco Field is rocking more times than not. The average home attendance this past season was 23,411. Compared to Philadelphia, who was No. 1 in attendance with an average of 45,440, this doesn't seem like much. In fact, it's just under half of what Philly usually gets, but if you think about it, the Phils also had about twice as many wins as the M's. Wins equal butts in seats, plain and simple. 

    Besides the fact that Safeco is arguably the most beautiful stadium in the country, the place has many advantages for the home team. It's one of the best pitchers' parks, with a huge outfield that's not easy to navigate unless you are familiar with every aspect.

    A lot of balls that are hit hard and deep will carry out of most parks, but as a visiting team at Safeco you'll find those same exact balls falling just short and into the glove of a certain Franklin Gutierrez. By the time you figure out the dimensions and how to play the field, you're out of town and on to the next stadium.

    Another testament to home field advantage is witnessing the King's Court (shown above). Established this year due to the dominance of Felix Hernandez, the Court is a designated section down the third base line where fans can purchase their tickets to sit and cheer on the King.

    With the ticket purchase, fans receive a yellow shirt with the word "King" on it and a blue "K" sign to hold up and chant when there are two strikes on the batter. It started out with just one section in the park, but as the spectacle grew, they had to expand to three-plus sections. It's truly one of the best things to see in baseball, but unfortunately there's not much national attention in Seattle so it has gone, for the most part, unnoticed.

    If the M's capitalize on all these opportunities they have, then people will finally be able to enjoy the majesty of the King and his court. 

A Power Bat at First Base

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    The M's already have the King under contract, why not add a Prince too? There's no news on whether or not Prince Fielder is interested in coming to Seattle, but rumor has it that the Cubs and the Mariners are the two front runners at this point in time. They have the money necessary to sign the heavily sought-after free agent, but the question is whether or not he would be willing to come and play.

    It's no secret that Seattle isn't exactly the most desired spot for free agents, but Fielder could easily change that. There are many great reasons on why someone would want to play there, so you never know.

    The one advantage the Mariners have at this moment is the fact that Fielder and Jack Zduriencik have a history together. Zduriencik was the Brewers' Director of Scouting when they selected Fielder in the first round of 2002. Will that relationship be enough to reunite them once again? Only time will tell.

    Either way he chooses, the Mariners are guaranteed to have some pop at the position. Besides the possibility of adding Fielder, the M's have two young players that can both play. Those two are Justin Smoak and Mike Carp. Smoak has the upper hand because Carp is a more versatile player, but no matter who is playing first on game day, there will almost always be production. 

A Bounce Back Season for Ichiro

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    There was a lot of speculation last year on whether not Ichiro had lost his touch and whether or not his career was coming to an end because of it. Every time I'd hear anyone say anything of the sort, I couldn't help but laugh. Did the guy have a down year? Yes. Let's be honest though, anything average would be considered a down year for him.

    2011 was the first season in which he failed to reach 200 hits and bat .300 or above, but batting .272 and raking 184 hits is still impressive, no matter who you are. The only thing noticeably different this year was that his ability to beat out infield grounders wasn't nearly as successful as it had been in the past. Whether or not that means he has lost a step is hard to tell, though, because his stolen bases were above his career average and his caught stealing was below. 

    It's not strange to see players slow down as their career goes on, and Ichiro, at age 38, has had a very long career. However, I think last year was just a bump in the road and we'll see great things, as expected, out of Ichiro. 

    Rumor has it that Eric Wedge "isn't sure" where he will bat Ichiro this season, but anywhere else in the lineup would just be disrespectful to one of the greatest lead-off hitters the game has ever seen. Not to mention, the M's lineup actually has some pop behind him, so all he'll have to do is continue to get on base and the wins will start to pile up. 

Speed on the Base paths

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    We all know that Ichiro can swipe a bag at a moment's notice, but he's not the only one. There are nine people from last year that I'd feel comfortable sending in at a crucial point in the game, and with the acquisition of Darren "the Bullet" Ford from the Giants in the off season, I can add one more.

    The Mariners aren't the fastest team, but they have deceptive speed and a smart game plan, and that's what makes them so tough to catch. Ichiro is the only one guaranteed to swipe 20-plus bags a season because of his speed and the amount of games he'll play, but players such as Gutierrez (when healthy), Dustin Ackley, Brendan Ryan, Kyle Seager, Trayvon Robinson and Ford can be just as effective when their number is called. 

    It doesn't just end with stealing, though, as there are many advantages to having their talents. The main ones would be advancing on tag opportunities and pinch-running situations. A lot of times, in late-game situations, guys like Smoak or Carp will come up to bat and come through in the clutch, but neither are fleet on their feet. That's when this speed really kills.

    I expect to see it a lot this year with Ford, as we all did last year with the Giants. He will have to absorb some knowledge out there, because he did make a lot of bad decisions in his time with San Francisco. With veterans such as Ichiro, Ryan and Gutierrez to learn from, I'd say it's safe to say he'll learn quickly. 

Continued Success on Defense

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    The plan from the beginning of Jack Z's time here was to assemble the best defensive team to save some runs so his team could win low-scoring games. Well, he's done the first part of that.

    In right field, you have a 10-time Gold Glove award winner, and beside him in center there is arguably an even better fielder in Franklin Gutierrez. In the past two seasons, including his own Gold Glove campaign in 2010, Guti has not made a single error.

    To be honest, he is probably my favorite player to watch in all of baseball when he's healthy. Everything he does is so smooth, whether it's catching a lazy fly ball, gunning out a runner or defying gravity by robbing home runs. He's just goes into the "Guti Glide" as Mariners' announcer Dave Sims calls it, and the ball stands no chance of touching grass from there. 

    Besides those two, the best fielder on the team would have to be Brendan Ryan. In my opinion, he is one of, if not the most, underrated defensive shortstop in all of baseball. If you follow baseball, people will tell you that Alex Gonzalez has the best glove at the position and Derek Jeter's career is basically a blue print on how to play short.

    Well, here's a fun fact: Ryan's .978 career fielding percentage tops both of the aforementioned players. If you want to get really detailed, let's look at some sabermetrics. Ryan's defensive runs saved above average is 70 compared to Gonzalez's 41 and Jeter's -132. 

    Besides those three, the rest of the players on the team are average to above-average and are all capable of making outstanding plays (see Robinson's Mariner debut). I would also like to mention that the one thing that people said when Ackley was called up is that his defense was his weak point. If his weakness equals a .984 fielding percentage, then let's lock this kid up for as long as possible.

     

    Stats were acquired from baseball-reference.com and mlb.com