The Mariners have the pieces to make a postseason run

SEATTLE — Throughout this offseason, Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon has downplayed the lofty expectations placed on his team as frequently as he is asked about them.

But McClendon’s players aren’t dummies, nor are they robots. These 2015 Mariners are a talented bunch, and are aware that big things are not just possible, but expected this season.

“We’ve got a team to go all the way,” Mariners ace Felix Hernandez told reporters in Arizona Friday. “We look good on paper, so we’ve just got to go out there and execute and do our thing. That’s all.”

Or as All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano put it at the start of spring training, “Well, on paper we look like world champions.”

Ah yes, “on paper” — the phrase that has doomed so many promising teams, Seattle baseball and otherwise.

“It’s not how we look on paper,” Cano continued. “We’ve just got to go out there and prove it every single day. Hopefully we stay healthy and we’ll be able to play the whole year.”

So yes, the Mariners, like every team, still have to prove it over the course of 162 games, beginning with Monday’s opener against the Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field. But the reason Cano and Hernandez don’t sound nuts when talking about this being a championship-caliber team, the reason so many people are picking the Mariners to win the American League and even the World Series, is that this is the best collection of talent to wear a Mariners uniform in more than a decade.

This is a playoff team. Go ahead, let your repeatedly-broken-by-the-Mariners heart be vulnerable again. You will be watching the Seattle Mariners play postseason baseball this fall.

Fittingly, the Mariners’ quest for their first playoff berth since 2001 will begin with Hernandez on the mound, because for Seattle to be the 90-plus win team they appear to be, they’ll need the Hernandez-led rotation to shine.

There are plenty of “ifs” involved in the Mariners’ rotation, but if youngsters James Paxton and Taijuan Walker build off of the promise they showed last season and this spring, and more importantly, stay healthy, and if J.A. Happ can be a solid back-of-the rotation option (or alternatively, if Roenis Elias is ready to fill in should Happ struggle or should an injury occur) then this rotation has the potential to be something very special.

That bodes well not just for the regular season, but even more so in the postseason, where a couple of hot starters can be enough to carry a team to a title.

Last season the Mariners had plenty of talented arms, but they also had a ton of early-season injuries that limited the availability of Paxton, Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma, leaving McClendon to have to scramble at times to patch together a rotation. This year, he opens the season with six legitimate MLB starters and only five spots for them on his roster.

“I’m sleeping good,” McClendon told reporters in Arizona Friday. “A little better than last year, so I feel good about my rotation. Really for me, that’s the best indicator. You lay your head down at night knowing you can have the best possible five going out there toeing the rubber each night.”

While the Mariners’ rotation, as well as what should again be a very strong bullpen (even if there’s some regression from a ridiculously good 2014, the bullpen should be fine), should help the Mariners again be near the league lead in runs allowed, what makes this team potentially so much better is that, for the first time in a long time, the pitching staff doesn’t have to carry the weight for a bad offense.

With the addition of Nelson Cruz, the Mariners have a legitimately dangerous middle of the lineup in Cano, Cruz and Kyle Seager.

“It means a lot,” Cano said of the Cruz signing. “Now we’ve got a guy who’s going to help us win games, a guy who knows to drive in runs, a guy who can hit the ball out of the ballpark. A guy who’s been in the game a long time, been to the postseason, been to the World Series. We got a guy with experience.”

The addition of Cruz and fellow right-handers Rickie Weeks and Justin Ruggiano means that, for the first time in a long time, the Mariners shouldn’t be hopeless against good lefties.

And yes, for the Mariners to be more than a good middle of the order, Dustin Ackley will need to show he can hit for a full season, or close to it, and Austin Jackson has to bounce back from a poor second half in 2014, and Mike Zunino needs to cut down on his strikeouts and get on base a bit more often, and Logan Morrison needs to stay healthy, and…well you get the point.

So no, this lineup isn’t perfect, but it’s significantly better than it has been in years, and more than potent enough to support what should be a very good pitching staff.

On top of the improved talent on this year’s team, the 2015 Mariners figure to benefit from the fact that the 2014 Mariners came so close to the postseason. Other than Cano, last year’s roster was comprised almost entirely of players who had never been in late-season contention, let alone actually played in the postseason.

As easy as it is to tell someone that every one of those 162 games matter, that message really doesn’t hit home until you miss the playoffs by a single game; when that one lead you blew in April, or that one run you didn’t get across the plate in June, could have made the difference.

“We’re going to need these games at the end of the season,” Cano said. “… Now they’ve got that experience. They almost made it to the postseason.

“That’s one thing I will never forget. One game makes a huge difference. Hopefully we take our experience and go from the beginning, not give anything away, not let anybody take anything from us.”

And if none of those baseball reasons are enough for you, let’s just say the Mariners are due. Seattle hasn’t been to the postseason since 2001, the second-longest drought in baseball behind Toronto (21 seasons), and the Mariners are also one of just two teams, along with the Nationals/Expos franchise, to never play in a World Series.

Before last season, the longest playoff drought belonged to the Kansas City Royals, who went to the World Series, and over the past two seasons, exactly half of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams have played postseason baseball.

So the Mariners are due, but more importantly, they’re talented enough, not just on paper, but on the field for 162 games, to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

“We’ve got great chemistry,” Hernandez said. “… I’ve known all these guys for a long time. We’re having fun, and we’re hungry to win; that’s what we’re here for.”

Herald Columnist John Boyle:

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