10 Early Season Seattle Mariners Storylines to Follow Most Closely

J.J. Matthews@@thajagepageContributor IIIApril 6, 2013

10 Early Season Seattle Mariners Storylines to Follow Most Closely

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    As the 2013 season begins, the Seattle Mariners, like many teams, have several story lines to monitor moving forward. Whether they are at the major league level now, or on the verge of being there, Mariners fans will have plenty to think about other than the win-loss record.

    It is far too soon for fans to start worrying about anything since it's only one series into the season, but there are still plenty of things that could be taken away after just four games in Oakland.

    With that in mind, here are the 10 story lines Mariners fans should be keeping an eye on early in the 2013 season.

1. Joe Saunders' Early Struggles

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    After a slow spring training, Joe Saunders continued his struggles in his first outing against the Athletics.

    Not only did Saunders get saddled with the loss, but he struggled to find any type of control, walking four batters before barely making it through four innings. His command wasn't the only issue, as he also gave up seven hits in those four innings as well. Needless to say, 11 base runners in four innings does not give the team the best opportunity to win.

    Now Saunders did say he had issues gripping the ball in his start, which may have also explained why Charlie Furbush let loose some pretty wild pitches as well. Mariners fans would much rather believe that than hear both of them were having any other type of issues, so for now they will gladly take that excuse.

    Saunders next start comes on opening night at Safeco Field against the Houston Astros, so he will have the opportunity to prove himself in front of what will most likely be a pretty packed house. The success of the Mariners 2013 season rides heavily on the results of the rotation behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, so Saunders' early struggles will be something that Mariners fans will keep a close eye on.

2. The Progress of Brandon Maurer

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    For as much excitement as there was for Brandon Maurer's success in spring training, he was given a cold dose of reality in his first career start against the defending AL West Champion Oakland Athletics.

    Maurer made it through six innings, but not before being tagged for six earned runs on eight hits, two of which were home runs.

    Now, one start does not make a season, and many people forget that Maurer before this season had never even pitched above the Double-A level. With that in mind, it will not be shocking to anyone to see Maurer take some bumps and bruises along the way. What is important is how Maurer responds and adjusts to his bumps and bruises.

    Maurer's development over the next month or so will be more important than anything. As long as Maurer is pitching well enough to give the Mariners a chance to win, then he will be doing his job. It's not fair to expect him to be a shut-down rotation guy this early, and the more experience he gets in the big leagues the better. 

3. Justin Smoak's Performance

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    Remember when Justin Smoak was ripping the cover off the ball last September?

    Remember when he crushed everything in sight in spring training?

    Well, unfortunately for Smoak, he may have accidentally left his scorching hot bat in Arizona, because he was all but a no-show in Oakland. Smoak finished the series in Oakland with a .143 (2-14) batting average with one RBI and no extra base hits. Smoak did, however, work three walks in the four game series, so it wasn't a complete disaster.

    That being said, Smoak is under a microscope to begin this season and will be expected to produce like he did last September, especially with the offensive additions of Mike Morse (on fire) and Kendrys Morales (ice cold) this offseason.

    Again, it has only been one series, but the Mariners are not short on options at first base. Both Morse and Morales are more than capable of playing the field as well, so Smoak will have to prove he belongs with his bat if he wants to continue to see playing time. At this point, Smoak doesn't really have any chances left with the Mariners, so his early success will be the key for him moving forward.

4. Kyle Seager vs. Left-Handed Pitching

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    Kyle Seager was one of the lone bright spots in the Mariners offense in 2012, but he did not come without his fair share of struggles as well.

    Last season, Seager struggled mightily against left-handed pitching, batting .237 (51-215) with only 15 extra base hits, as opposed to batting .272 (103-379) with 41 extra base hits against right-handers. After the first series in Oakland, it doesn't appear as if Seager's splits are getting better.

    Seager went 3-6 against righties with a pair of doubles but was only 1-9 against lefties with three strikeouts. If Seager continues to struggle against lefties, manager Eric Wedge could start facing some lineup issues.

    To make matters worse, the Mariners really don't have another option other than Seager because utility infielder Robert Andino only hit .216 against lefties last season and is less of a threat at the plate than Seager.

    Seager's ability to adjust to left-handed pitching will be crucial through the season and is certainly something for Mariners fans to keep an eye on.

5. Dustin Ackley's Bat

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    Dustin Ackley could be the key to the Mariners offense this season, especially if he can be the catalyst to get on base in front of the power bats in the middle of the lineup.

    Ackley started strong in his debut in 2011, posting a line of .273/.348/.417, but struggled mightily in 2012 as his line dipped to .226/.294/.328. Many thought the dip in production was a result of a sore left ankle which he had cleaned up with offseason surgery, but after his opening series in Oakland, one has to wonder if the ankle was the only problem.

    Ackley went 1-12 against Oakland with several soft ground outs to second base. The lack of production can no longer be attributed to the expectations of carrying a lineup either; Ackley spent most of the series batting lower in the lineup.

    Ackley has hit everywhere he has been, so one has to believe he will put it together eventually. But if prospects Nick Franklin, Brad Miller or Stefen Romero continue to hit well in the minors, Ackley will have no choice but to prove he is the second baseman of the future before the organization decides to give others a chance.

6. Jesus Montero Behind the Plate

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    Let me be the first to say that Jesus Montero should be given an award for the shot he took behind the plate to begin the season. With that in mind, Montero's performance behind the plate will be a big factor on whether or not phenom Mike Zunino makes his Mariner debut sooner rather than later.

    Montero has never been seen as a good defensive catcher, or even average at that, but his potential at the plate is more important for the Mariners. The Mariners did seem to give Montero their vote of confidence when they traded away John Jaso this offseason, but that also very well could have been a move to clear room for the inevitable call-up of Zunino.

    Either way, until Zunino shows that he needs to be in the big leagues, the job is Montero's to keep. But his defensive performance and abilities to handle the pitching staff could be the difference between wins and losses for this team.

    The Mariners are not talented enough to afford mistakes like passed balls, so Montero's role could be in question if he doesn't show he is defensively ready to be the Mariners everyday catcher.

7. Franklin Gutierrez' Health

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    It has been illustrated several times that when Franklin Gutierrez is healthy, he is one of the best center fielders in the game. The problem with that is when Guti is healthy, which has been less often than not.

    Gutierrez seemed to show he was at full health this spring, that is until he had to sit out a few games in a row with leg stiffness. Guti has been very impressive early this season as he was one of the three Mariners to hit over .300 in Oakland, which included a leadoff home run in the third game of the series.

    Manager Eric Wedge is taking every precaution with Guti, as he has made it clear that he plans on easing Gutierrez back into the role of being the everyday center fielder for the Mariners. If the Mariners plan on challenging for the playoffs this season, a lot of it will be riding on the health of Gutierrez. His bat helps stabilize the top of the order, and allows the Mariners to slide Michael Saunders over to the corner outfield positions, improving the Mariners defense.

    Without Gutierrez, the Mariners could be looking at an outfield in which two of the starters are either Raul Ibanez, Mike Morse or Jason Bay.


8. Mike Morse's Production

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    Break up the Mariners!

    Well, not really, but how about that opening series from Mike Morse?

    Morse became the first Mariner since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997 to hit four home runs in his first four games of the season. Morse also showed his power to all parts of the park, including an opposite field home run in the second game of the series.

    More importantly, he isn't just hitting the long ball as he batted .375 (6-16) in the series against Oakland. Morse is quickly showing Mariners fans why they were willing to trade away John Jaso this offseason, and why he earned the nickname "The Beast" while he was playing for the Nationals.

    It isn't realistic to expect Morse to continue this pace all season, but his production is a sight for sore eyes as Mariners fans haven't had a middle of the order presence like this since the days of Bret Boone.

    If Morse can continue to be a threat like this for the Mariners, the rest of the lineup will most certainly start to benefit as well.

9. Danny Hultzen Challenging for Rotation Spot

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    There is a reason Danny Hultzen has a big smile on his face in this picture.

    Although Hultzen didn't make the 25-man roster out of spring training, a strong early season performance could see him challenging for a spot in the major league rotation, especially if Blake Beavan or Brandon Maurer struggle.

    Hultzen struggled last year at the Triple-A level, but a lot of that can be attributed to his first full season at the pro level. Hultzen appeared tired at the end of last season and struggled with his control, something that is very uncharacteristic for him.

    Hultzen was impressive in his first start in the 2013 season, throwing six innings with eight strikeouts and only two walks. If Hultzen can continue to show that last season was a fluke, Mariner fans can expect him to be in the rotation sooner rather than later. 

10. The Arrival of Mike Zunino

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    Ah yes, Mike Zunino. It almost seems that no matter what story about the Mariners is written, Mike Zunino's name pops up rather quickly, and there is good reason for that.

    Zunino was a monster last season, and after an impressive showing in spring training, earned the starting nod at catcher in Triple-A Tacoma. He was quick to take advantage of that, going 3-4 with a double, triple and a home run with three RBI and three runs scored.

    As previously mentioned, the current big league catcher, Jesus Montero, isn't the best behind the plate. Mike Zunino on the other hand has been regarded as strong defensively, and has been applauded for his ability to handle a staff as well.

    It is only a matter of time before Zunino makes his appearance at the big league level; the only question is when. If Zunino tears the cover off the ball in Tacoma, do not be the least bit surprised to see him behind the plate for the M's as soon as the all star break.