Mariners will be better, but not by much

February 26, 2014 

Spring is in the air. Well, not really. The gray, rainy days show no signs of slowing down, and it’s hard to believe spring sports are just a few weeks away.

Every spring, I read reports and see pictures from Peoria, Ariz., the site of the Seattle Mariners’ spring training complex. I’m not sure why, but I tend to get optimistic every year. The new guys are coming along, we added a few free agents — maybe this will be the year we finally turn it around.

I’m probably one of the few people in the state who watches the majority of the M’s games every year, despite their predictable futility.

Like many of you, I’m desperate for a Mariners turnaround. I’m not expecting a World Series berth, but relevance would be nice. Playoff contention would be a nice change of pace.

I want to see Felix Hernandez on the mound with a playoff berth on the line. I want to see Robinson Cano hit a walkoff home run to send the Mariners to their first postseason series since 2001.

I want to see Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders finally piece it together and contribute. I want to see Taijuan Walker become the next Felix Hernandez.

I want to go to a game at Safeco Field in August or September and see 40,000 fans going nuts for our team.

Unfortunately, I don’t see it happening this year.

This time of year, I’m usually cautiously optimistic, ready for the Mariners to finally get it going. Not this season.

Besides the blockbuster acquisition of former New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, there isn’t much to get excited about.

This team has question marks all over the field, primarily in the outfield. If you’re excited about Ackley and Saunders starting in left and center field, respectively, you haven’t been paying attention. While I think Ackley has the potential to figure it out, he’s still an average baseball player, and I think we’ve seen about all we’re ever going to see from Saunders.

The shortstop battle is intriguing. With the Cano signing, second base is locked up, so Brad Miller and Nick Franklin will presumably duke it out for the starting shortstop job.

I anticipate Miller will get the nod, due to his superior athleticism, speed and batting average. Miller is an OK player, but still, he’s nothing to get too excited about.

Kyle Seager is a lock at third base, and he’s one of the more underrated players in Major League Baseball.

Smoak will likely get the starting spot at first base. Yawn.

The pitching rotation also is up in the air right now, with the exception of the first two spots. Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma provide perhaps the best one-two punch in all of baseball.

Iwakuma will be sidelined for the first month or so with a finger injury, but as long as that doesn’t linger, it shouldn’t matter too much. I expect Walker will lock up a spot in spring training. Beyond that, I’m not sure who fills out the rotation.

Erasmo Ramirez, maybe? I’ve watched Ramirez often in Tacoma, and he certainly has the stuff. He always looks shaky on the big stage, though. Perhaps he’ll be able to get rid of the jitters this year.

Rookie James Paxton is the next logical candidate. Scott Baker and Brandon Maurer also will compete for spots.

The rotation is intriguing. If Walker and Paxton pan out, this could be a dangerous pitching staff. I expect some bumps along the way, though.

The bullpen is another question mark. I’m excited about the addition of closer Fernando Rodney, who should bring some stability to the role after Tom Wilhelmsen fell apart last season. The rest of the bullpen isn’t bad, but it’s not phenomenal.

Prediction: I think the Mariners will go 80-82, better than they were last season. That isn’t saying much, though, seeing as the M’s finished well below .500 at 71-91.

Cano likely adds about eight wins for this team, and the rotation has a lot of potential. But the lack of big bats fails to excite me, and I think this team will remain mediocre and miss the playoffs in a tough division.

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