Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Seattle Mariners haven't been to the postseason since 2001 and they've never been to a World Series. Both of those droughts are going end this season as the Mariners are poised to win their first championship.
The road back to the playoffs started last offseason, when Seattle made a bold move in free agency, signing second baseman Robinson Cano away from the New York Yankees to the tune of $240 million. Cano did his part, but had little help in a lineup that scored just 3.9 runs per game.
Seattle finished with 87 wins, and despite being third in the AL West, it was only a game back of the Oakland Athletics for the final wild card spot.
So the Mariners continued to open their wallets this winter and addressed their biggest need, agreeing a four-year, $57 million deal with slugger Nelson Cruz, who hit an AL-best 40 home runs last season for the Baltimore Orioles.
Maybe not as bold as Cruz, Seattle also added outfielder Seth Smith to provide some pop. With them, Cano, burgeoning superstar Kyle Seager, who himself inked a $100 million extension, Austin Jackson, Logan Morrison and Mike Zunino, the Mariners have a lineup that should finish better than the bottom three in runs scored, as it did a year ago.
However, you can't talk about the Mariners and not mention Felix Hernandez. Cano may have put the wheels in motion, but Hernandez has been the stabilizing force in Seattle since bursting on the scene in 2005.
King Felix had another spectacular year in 2014 and for my money is the best pitcher in the AL. Just imagine how good he will be this season with what should be a ton of run support.
Hernandez gets all the headlines, but he is backed by some solid arms in righty Hisashi Iwakuma and lefty James Paxton. This also could be the year that prized prospect Taijuan Walker starts to break through.
What will really make the Mariners go, though, will be their bullpen. Spearheaded by closer Fernando Rodney, the Mariners' bullpen ERA of 2.59 last season was the best in the AL and it should be more of the same, as they return essentially the same unit.
Seattle should have no problem navigating through the AL West. Outside of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, there are no real roadblocks. And honestly, the Angels don't have the pitching to hang with the Mariners this season.
Quite simply, the Mariners are the best team in baseball from top to bottom and will be the last one standing in October.
For an insight into the season, here's a brief synopsis and a look at some of the teams which will try to stop the Mariners from winning an AL pennant in power poll form:
2. LOS ANGELES ANGELS: The Angels will give the Mariners their biggest challenge. Mike Trout remains the best player in the game and is coming off not only his first playoff appearance, but his first AL MVP. The Angels outscored every team in the league a year ago, but the lineup took a hit this offseason when second baseman Howie Kendrick jumped to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Plus the status of Josh Hamilton is up in the air. The starting staff could be average, but the real strength of this team could be the bullpen, which has been the team's downfall the last few seasons.
3. DETROIT: The Tigers have been the class of the AL Central for the last four seasons, but they enter the 2015 campaign with a lot of question marks despite a roster chock full of big names. The Tigers still have David Price and Justin Verlander at the top of the rotation, but Price is a free agent at the end of the year and Verlander is already having arm issues. And Miguel Cabrera seems to have put on a little weight following a down year by his standards. The Tigers should again be in the mix, but the AL Central might be the best division in the game.
4. CLEVELAND: If you are looking for a trendy pick in Major League Baseball this season, look no further than the Indians. After winning 92 games and a wild card spot in 2013, the Indians dropped to 85 wins last season. And it's essentially the same team that is coming back with the exception of slugger Brandon Moss, who was the team's only big offseason pickup. So why all the optimism? Corey Kluber captured the AL Cy Young Award and Michael Brantley was an AL MVP finalist. And as good as Kluber was, he wasn't even their best pitcher down the stretch. It was Carlos Carrasco, and this year he'll be there from the start. With most of the team under control through 2017, the Indians are right in the middle of their best window to win a World Series since the late 1990s. And don't be shocked if they make a run at it this year.
5. BOSTON: From worst to first to worst back to first? It sounds crazy, but that could be where the Red Sox are heading in 2015. After a transitional season that saw them introduce some young talent like Mookie Betts, the Red Sox went out and signed both Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. They may have the best lineup in baseball, but the starting staff needs little to be desired and is without a true ace. Don't be shocked if the Red Sox make a move at some point for a legitimate No. 1 starter, like a Cole Hamels. Regardless, they may be the best team in a very average AL East.
6. BALTIMORE: Truth be told, I have done a complete 180 on the Orioles since writing the AL East preview. Do I think they are the best team in the division? No, but I will at least listen to an argument that they can win it. For one, they have the most underrated starting staff in the AL and, two, perhaps a healthy Manny Machado and Matt Wieters will offset the losses of both Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis. Chris Davis has been approved to use the medication that got him banned last season, so maybe he'll be able to get back some of that magic from 2013. Plus, Adam Jones is a top-five talent in the game. Still, I think it'll be tough for them to get back to the postseason.
7. CHICAGO: No team in the AL changed itself more than the White Sox, and we are not talking about the fact the roster won't include Paul Konerko for the first time since 1999. After a 73-89 finish in 2014, general manager Rick Hahn doled out $132 million to five free agents: outfielder Melky Cabrera, first baseman Adam LaRoche, utilityman Emilio Bonifacio, closer David Robertson and lefty reliever Zach Duke. And that doesn't even include the December trade for Jeff Samardzija. Jose Abreu could be even better than he was last year, when he won an AL Rookie of the Year. Lefty Chris Sale is as good as it gets, but if he has an extended stint on the DL like he did a year ago, this team is going nowhere.
8. KANSAS CITY: There was no better story in baseball last season than the Royals' return to the postseason and then their run to an AL pennant once they got there. Kansas City's season, of course, ended in bitter disappointment as it lost at home in Game 7 in the World Series. Still, once the dust settled, few were left complaining considering the team hadn't been to the playoffs since 1985. But the team lost James Shields this offseason and never really replaced him. That bullpen which was the backbone behind last year's run is still intact, but chances are it won't be on the level of 2014. Anything can happen, but the Royals just seem poised to take a step or two back this season.
9. NEW YORK YANKEES: How weird is it going to be to not see Derek Jeter at shortstop for the Yankees this season? Aside from Didi Gregorius stepping into the gigantic shoes left behind from Jeter, the Yankees are pretty much going to resemble the same team they were a year ago. And that is a lineup that was among the worst in the league at scoring runs. On paper, the pitching rotation is as solid as any in baseball. The key there is, can the pitchers stay healthy? Masahiro Tanaka is always one pitch away from elbow surgery, CC Sabathia is returning from knee surgery and Michael Pineda has yet to avoid the injury bug since joining the Yankees. Oh, and there's some guy named Alex Rodriguez who is back after a one-year suspension.
10. OAKLAND: For a team that sat atop first place in the AL West for a good part of last season, the Athletics certainly made a lot of moves this offseason. In fact, general manager Billy Beane was widely criticized for some of the moves, especially the deal that sent popular third baseman Josh Donaldson for infielder Brett Lawrie. He also shipped Brandon Moss to Cleveland, Derek Norris to San Diego and unloaded Jeff Samardzija to Chicago in an attempt to start the rebuild in the farm system. Beane always seems to find talent, especially in the starting pitching department. This overhaul may be too much, though. The starting staff should be fine, but that lineup is atrocious.
11. TORONTO: Stop me if you have heard this before: This season, the Blue Jays are going to take the next step. Yep, we have heard this same cry in each of the last few seasons, yet the Blue Jays are still searching for their first postseason appearance since 1993. The Jays, though, again had some high hopes following the offseason acquisitions of catcher Russell Martin, outfielder Michael Saunders and third baseman Josh Donaldson. However, they are already off to an inauspicious start as Saunders suffered a torn MCL and will start the season on the disabled list, while potential breakout ace Marcus Stroman is lost for the season after tearing an ACL during a routine fielding drill. Still, when everyone is healthy, Toronto should have one of the better lineups in the league with the new additions as well as Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion. Staying healthy, however, is the key term.
12. TAMPA BAY: After six straight winning seasons, the Rays fell back under .500 last season. And now they head into the 2015 campaign with a new manager in Kevin Cash and with former head of player personnel Andrew Friedman off to Los Angeles. Not long after Friedman left for the Dodgers, manager Joe Maddon opted out of his deal and took a job with the Chicago Cubs. So, essentially the Rays are starting over, as new general manager Matt Silverman restocked the farm system and unloaded the likes of Ben Zobrist, Wil Myers and Matt Joyce. If Tampa is going to win this season, it's going to be because of its rotation. It may not include a David Price or James Shields anymore, but few teams would turn away from a top three of Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi.
13. HOUSTON: The Astros have a lot of young talent about to burst out. Of course, that happens when you average 104 losses over the past four seasons. The Astros had a 19-game improvement last year from 2013 and will likely get even better this season. If you are watching, pay attention to righty Mark Appel and shortstop Carlos Correa, the two crown jewels of the Astros' organization who should show their faces at the big league level this season.
14. MINNESOTA: The Twins continue to be the doormat of the AL Central, but they head into this season with renewed optimism thanks to new manager Paul Molitor, the return of an old star and a batch of young talent ready to start making an impact. When the Twins do eventually turn it around, they may point to this season as the year it all started. Unfortunately for them, they may play in the best division in baseball. So another last-place finish is likely in the offing. They just hope that Byron Buxton can stay healthy and maybe at some point make an impact at the big league level. Be patient, Twins fans, your time is coming.
15. TEXAS: When ace Yu Darvish went down with a torn ligament in his elbow, so went the Rangers' chances. Maybe Prince Fielder bounces back, but it won't matter. This team is going to be in trouble.
SOME OTHER PREDICTIONS
BREAKOUT PLAYER: TAIJUAN WALKER, SEATTLE: You want to know why I am picking the Mariners to win the World Series? Right-hander Taijuan Walker. There is a reason the Mariners have turned down big deals that would have included him as the centerpiece. He is going to be the real deal and that could happen this season. His stuff is wicked good and he's proved it this spring, going 3-0 with a 0.36 ERA. He credits a new slider as the turning point, but the kid can flat out pitch. Between him and James Paxton, the Mariners have the two most exciting young arms in the game.
PLAYER MOST LIKELY TRADED AT DEADLINE: SHANE VICTORINO, BOSTON: The Red Sox overhauled their lineup from a year ago, and there might not be room anymore for Shane Victorino. Hanley Ramirez was given big money to play left field, Mookie Betts is the future and will be in center field, while the hope is that when Rusney Castillo is healthy, he'll be in right. So, where does that leave Victorino? Probably out of luck because he's less versatile than Allen Craig. Considering the Red Sox desperately need some pitching help, Victorino could be moved in a package to address that.
FIRST MANAGER FIRED: NED YOST, KANSAS CITY: This is always a tough thing to pick. Normally you look at teams who should be good but will have a down year. That could be the defending AL champion Royals. Let's face it, the Royals probably went as far as they did a year ago in spite of Ned Yost, not because of him. The Royals are going to take a step back this year and Yost always seems to be on the chopping block. He will be there long enough, though, to coach the AL in the All-Star Game.
HOW IT WILL EVENTUALLY BREAK DOWN
WILD CARD: L.A. ANGELS over DETROIT
ALDS: DETROIT over BOSTON and SEATTLE over CLEVELAND
ALCS: SEATTLE over DETROIT
WORLD SERIES: SEATTLE over ST. LOUIS
AL MVP - ROBINSON CANO (SEATTLE)
AL CY Young - FELIX HERNANDEZ (SEATTLE)
AL Rookie of Year - RUSNEY CASTILLO (BOSTON)
AL Manager of Year - TERRY FRANCONA (CLEVELAND)
AL Comeback Player - KENDRYS MORALES (KANSAS CITY)