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Seattle Mariners 2012 Preview

Last season was one to forget for the Seattle Mariners.

It didn't look like that early on, though.

For two-and-a-half months, the Mariners stayed close in the American League West. They trailed Texas by just a half-game at 37-35 on June 19 after taking two-of-three at home from NL powerhouse Philadelphia . However, the wheels completely came off after that thanks to a franchise-record 17-game losing streak, the majors' worst stretch since the Kansas City Royals dropped 19 in a row in 2005.

The 17-game skid was tied for 14th longest in MLB history, and only one previous team -- the '44 Brooklyn Dodgers -- had ever lost 15 or more straight after being at .500 or above at least 50 games into a season.

Offensively, well the Mariners were offensive, as they scored the least amount of runs in the AL for the third straight season, crossing the plate a major league worst 556 times, while hitting just .233 as a team, also the worst mark in the majors.

As bad as things were though, there were some bright spots.

Second baseman Dustin Ackley was recalled from Triple-A Tacoma in mid-June and immediately became one of the Mariners' best hitters. He battled a sore leg down the stretch, but still ended the year hitting .273 with 16 doubles, seven triples and six home runs in 90 games.

"I'm real excited for this season," Ackley recently told the team's website. "I feel real confident this year, just how my body and my swing and defense feel. This is the best I've felt in a long time, so I'm hoping to continue that for the start of the season and just kind of carry it through the whole year."

He's expected to hit second in front of the great Ichiro Suzuki this season.

Rookie Michael Pineda was also a bright spot, as the 22-year-old right-hander was named an All-Star, but, like the rest of the team struggled mightily in the second half.

It looked as if manager Eric Wedge would be able to pair Pineda with the great Felix Hernandez for years to come, but the team dealt him this offseason to the New York Yankees for some much needed offense in the form of Jesus Montero.

Speaking of Hernandez, he turned in his usual stellar season and remains one of the few reasons to watch this team every fifth day.

Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Seattle Mariners, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2011 FINISH (67-95) - Fourth Place (AL WEST)

KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Jesus Montero (DH/C), Hector Noesi (RHP), Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP), George Sherrill (LHP), Kevin Millwood (RHP), John Jaso (C), Munenori Kawasaki (SS)

KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Michael Pineda (RHP), David Aardsma (RHP), Josh Lueke (RHP), Josh Bard (C), Jack Cust (DH), Adam Kennedy (2B), Jamey Wright (RHP), Wily Mo Pena (OF)

PROJECTED LINEUP: Chone Figgins (3B); Dustin Ackley (2B); Ichiro Suzuki (RF); Justin Smoak (1B); Jesus Montero (DH); Mike Carp (LF); Miguel Olivo (C); Michael Saunders (CF); Brendan Ryan (SS)

PROJECTED ROTATION: Felix Hernandez (RHP); Jason Vargas (LHP); Hector Noesi (RHP); Blake Beavan (RHP); Kevin Millwood (RHP)

PROJECTED CLOSER: Brandon League (RHP)

MANAGER: Eric Wedge

WHAT IS THERE AFTER KING FELIX

Felix Hernandez was his usual amazing self in 2011, going 14-14 with a 3.47 ERA and 222 strikeouts in 233 2/3 innings. The two-time All-Star and 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner is one of the best pitchers in baseball and the unquestioned leader of a young staff that is littered with unknowns.

So, who is going to follow the King?

The Mariners thought they had a dependable No. 2 starter in Pineda and they probably did, but had to surrender him in an effort to bolster one of the majors' most anemic offenses last season.

Well lefty Jason Vargas impressed at times and threw three shutouts, but ended the year at 10-13 with a 4.25 ERA. Still and all, he'll slot in as the No. 2.

One of the players acquired in the Jesus Montero deal, Hector Noesi will start the year with the Mariners. Noesi appeared in 30 games (two starts) for the Yankees last season and went 2-2 with a 4.47 ERA.

The big hope is that righty Blake Beavan can become the Mariners' Pineda this season. A 2007 first round pick, Beavan got his first major league action in 2011, posting a 5-6 mark to go along with a 4.27 ERA in 15 starts. He also set a rookie record last season by throwing six straight quality starts.

Japanese product Hisawashi Iwakuma was thought to have a spot, but pitched poorly this spring and will start the year in the bullpen. Instead, veteran Kevin Millwood nailed down the team's fifth starter role.

Should anyone stumble, Iwakuma will likely get the nod, despite having never pitched in the majors. The 30-year-old right-hander compiled a 107-69 record with a 3.25 ERA in 226 career games with Kintetsu and Rakuten of the Japan League. In 2008, he was the recipient of the Pacific League MVP and Eiji Sawamura Award (Cy Young equivalent) after having a 21-4 record with a 1.87 earned run average in 28 starts.

A big reason the Mariners felt comfortable enough in dealing Pineda was the wealth of young arms in their system. Beavan may be further along than most, but top prospects Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton are all coming. None of the three will start the season with the team, but two or maybe all three could see time with the big club before it's all said and done this year.

JUST HOW GOOD CAN JESUS MONTERO BE

How desperate was Seattle to add a bat?

Well, it had to deal a 23-year-old All-Star right-hander to land one. But, that's how much they believe in Montero.

Last year, the Mariners were last in the majors in runs (556) and team batting average (.233). Enter Montero, who hit .328 with four home runs and four doubles in 18 September games for the Yankees.

The team can say all they want that he will one day be their catcher, but Montero is in the majors because of his bat and will be the team's everyday designated hitter. Aside from a few interleague games here and there where he will be behind the plate.

And for the record his impact on the Mariners offense will far exceed that of Pineda's on the Yankees rotation. At least this year anyway.

HOW MUCH IS LEFT IN ICHIRO'S TANK

Ichiro Suzuki has been in the leadoff spot for almost his entire 11 years with the Mariners, but that will not be the case this season.

Mariners manager Eric Wedge announced early on in Spring Training that Chone Figgins will start the season as the team's leadoff hitter. The talented Ackley and Suzuki will bat second and third, respectively, followed likely by Montero.

So is this Wedge's way of telling us that the great Suzuki is wearing down?

Entering last season, Ichiro had batted at least .300 with 200 hits and 25 stolen bases for 10 consecutive years. Ten straight seasons with 200 hits is a major league record, and 10 straight years of a .300 batting average is tied with Albert Pujols for the longest streak among active players.

Suzuki has batted in the No. 1 spot for 1,720 of his 1,733 starts with the Mariners, but last year saw his batting average dip below .300 for the first time as a major leaguer, dropping him to a career-low .272.

The 38-year-old Suzuki once claimed that he could hit 40 home runs in a season if he were "allowed to hit .220." Well the .220 might be a stretch, but he is now in a spot to drive in more runs. However, he has already said that he will not change his approach.

Figgins, meanwhile, occupied the leadoff spot in Anaheim before signing with Seattle in December 2009. The third baseman batted just .188 with one homer and 15 RBI in 81 games last season.

X FACTOR: JUSTIN SMOAK: This is a make or break year for the Mariners slugging first baseman. Last year was supposed to be his breakout season, but Smoak dealt with a number of issues, including losing his father to cancer as well as an assortment of injuries, leading to an awful year at the plate. After hitting .287 as late as May 16, Smoak saw his average dip to a mere .218 by the end of July. A broken nose kept him out of the lineup for most of August, but he ended the year strong, hitting .301 in 22 September games. All told, he ended the year hitting .234 with 15 HR, 24 doubles, 38 runs scored and 55 RBI in 489 at bats. After toying with the idea of signing Prince Fielder this offseason the Mariners settled on giving Smoak another chance. A lot of people believe he can still be a 30 home run hitter. Time will tell. But this year would be a good starting point.

OUTLOOK

Let's not sugar coat this. The Mariners are not going to be good this season. Are they going to be 95-loss bad again? Probably not. The addition of Montero coupled with an emerging star in Ackley should make the offense better. But there are still a lot of holes in that lineup. Hernandez will likely give the Mariners another Cy Young Award caliber season. But their pitching staff is weak as a whole. He says he doesn't want to be traded, but how much longer can he last there? Simply put, beating out the Athletics for third place in the American League West would be a small victory unto itself.