By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — Maybe it’s too much sun exposure during this run of unseasonably warm March weather. Or maybe it’s just the usual spring optimism that creeps in at the start of every baseball season, even when logic and recent history tells us that optimism only leads to disappointment.
But with opening day rapidly approaching, I find myself thinking that Monday will be the beginning of a much more exciting season of Seattle Mariners baseball. (Please forget I said that if it comes to be that the Mariners are 10 games out of first place by Memorial Day).
After a spring full of winning and scoring copious amounts of runs, the Mariners look not just like a functional major league ballclub, which would count as progress, but they actually look like a pretty good one. Now, we all know spring training results don’t predict much of anything — Munenori Kawasaki won a Cactus League batting title last year, after all. But for a team that has been so offensively anemic in recent years, all of that offensive production has to be encouraging, right?
Besides, if this spring was just a mirage, we’ll have all summer to be cynical about the Same Old Mariners. So while the sun is still out, and while the Mariners are still tied for first, let’s imagine for just a second what it might be like to watch meaningful baseball games in the Northwest all the way into the summer, if not beyond.
While all this hope might be heat-stroke induced — hey, 68 degrees feels hot this time of year — here are five optimistic, though not entirely crazy, predictions for the 2013 Mariners.
1. The Mariners will have a slightly above-average offense.
Wait, slightly-above average counts as optimistic? Well yeah, it does for a team that has been at or near the bottom of baseball in runs scored for five straight seasons. The Mariners have been the lowest scoring team in the American League now for four years running. With the addition of a couple big bats in the middle of the lineup, with the growth of the young nucleus of the team and yes, with the fences coming in at Safeco Field, the Mariners should finally be able to score runs like an honest to goodness big league lineup.
Michael Morse showed this spring that he’s ready to get back to his 2011 form. Kendrys Morales will upgrade the lineup as well. Those two, who will hit in the No. 3 and No. 4 spots for the Mariners, have combined for 16 home runs this spring. And when you’ve got guys like Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley, who last year were expected to help carry the offense, now hitting seventh and eighth, the Mariners have what looks like a very solid lineup.
Heck, if we’re being optimistic, why can’t Justin Smoak finally have a good season after finishing last year strong and carrying that success over into spring training?
2. Fresh of a huge contract, Felix Hernandez will have a Cy Young-caliber season.
When some athletes sign huge contracts, you wonder if they’ll get complacent. That shouldn’t be an issue for Hernandez. Before the 2010 season, he signed his first big extension, then went on to win a Cy Young award that year while leading the league in earned run average and innings pitched. If anything, Hernandez’s new big contract, along with the hope that he is finally on a team good enough to contend, should motivate him to be better than ever.
3. The rest of the rotation won’t be great, but it will be better than expected.
For the first time in a while, the Mariners have more question marks in their rotation than their lineup. It’s true that nobody beyond Hernandez is a sure bet to succeed, but No. 2 starter Hisashi Iwakuma went 8-4 in the second half of last season with a 2.50 ERA and Joe Saunders should be able to put up numbers similar to the departed Jason Vargas.
Rookie Brandon Maurer was so good in spring training that he forced manager Eric Wedge into giving him a job. Even if he has the inevitable ups and downs that come with being a 22-year-old in his first season, Maurer wouldn’t be in the opening day rotation if he wasn’t a pretty special talent. While Blake Beaven has yet to prove he can get the job done consistently for a season, his tweaked mechanics and strong spring give hope that he might be figuring things out. Should Beaven or anyone else struggle, the Mariners have both veteran options and promising rookies waiting in the minors.
4. Improved chemistry will make a difference.
The Mariners added players like Morse, Morales, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay trying to improve their offense, but another bonus is what they can bring to a clubhouse. The Mariners had veterans in their locker room, but players like Ichiro Suzuki, Miguel Olivo and Chone Figgins were hardly known for their leadership skills.
That’s why, before spring training started, Wedge said: “If you look at the veterans we had in our clubhouse last year versus to the veterans we have in the clubhouse this year, it’s night and day. … You guys know who the veterans we had last year were, and you guys know who the veterans are coming in this year, so you can probably figure that out.”
Talent matters more than team chemistry, but in a sport where players are together almost every day from February to October, having the right clubhouse vibe can make a real difference in the standings.
And finally, all of that adds up to …
5. The Mariners will win 85-plus games and be in contention for a wild card berth well into August.
In their slow rebuilding process, the Mariners have gone from 61 wins to 67 to 75 in the past three seasons. This year they should be able to take a bigger leap. The AL West is a beast, to be sure, but the addition of a second wild card last season gives the Mariners a very real shot be in playoff contention late in the season. Playing the new-to-the-division Houston Astros 19 times shouldn’t hurt either.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.