Philadelphia, PA – It's hard to imagine the light at the end of the tunnel for a team that has finished last in seven out of the past nine years, including each of the last three seasons.
But, things are getting better for the Seattle Mariners.
For one, the Houston Astros now call the American League West their home, meaning it's probably a safe bet that the Mariners won't occupy the cellar.
Two, the great Felix Hernandez signed a 7-year, $175 million deal this offseason, ending any rumors that always seem to pop up that he could be had in a trade.
And finally, the Mariners are just going to be better.
The biggest problem the Mariners had in 2012 was scoring runs. Seattle has scored more runs in each of the last two seasons under Eric Wedge, but still ranked at the bottom of the AL last year with 619 runs scored.
Scoring runs shouldn't be a problem this year, as youngsters Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders continue to progress, coupled with the additions of veteran boppers Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse, Raul Ibanez and even Jason Bay.
But, the biggest change for 2013 might be the reconfigured outfield at Safeco Field. The walls are moving in - most significantly in left center, where the barrier will be 17 feet closer to the plate. In addition, the left-field wall will shrink from 16 feet to 8 feet, making for a uniform height all the way around.
The result should be more homers for the Mariners, who had just one player, Seager, hit 20 last season.
Seattle is of course set on the mound with Hernandez, but after him it gets a little shaky. Lefty Jason Vargas was jettisoned after a breakout season, but the Mariners are expecting big things from Hisashi Iwakuma and Blake Beavan.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2013 edition of the Mariners, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2012 FINISH (75-87) - Fourth Place (AL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Michael Morse (OF), Kendrys Morales (DH), Raul Ibanez (OF), Kelly Shoppach (C), Jason Bay (OF)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Jason Vargas (LHP), John Jaso (C), Kevin Millwood (RHP), Mike Carp (1B)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Michael Saunders (RF); Kyle Seager (3B); Kendrys Morales (DH); Michael Morse (LF); Justin Smoak (1B); Jesus Montero (C); Dustin Ackley (2B); Franklin Gutierrez; Brendan Ryan (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Felix Hernandez (RHP); Joe Saunders (LHP); Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP); Blake Beavan (RHP); Brandon Maurer (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Tom Wilhelmsen (RHP)
MANAGER: Eric Wedge
HOW IMPROVED WILL THE OFFENSE BE?
So how bad was the Mariners' offense last season? Well, not only did they score the fewest amount of runs in the league for the fourth straight season they did so by more than 50 runs. Also, they were last in hits, last in walks, last in slugging percentage, next-to-last in home runs and doubles. Heck, the Mariners were the only team in either league to have a team OBP (.296) below .300 and a slugging percentage (.369) below .370.
The offense needed to be addressed and general manager Jack Zduriencik tried hard to land free agents Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher and Mike Napoli, but fell short.
While the team is not expecting much from Bay or Ibanez, the Mariners are certainly counting on Morse and Morales. Morse gives the Mariners a power bat in the middle of the lineup that they haven't had in years, but staying on the field has been a problem. After belting a career-best 31 home runs in 2011, Morse only played in 102 games for the Washington Nationals last season and hit 18 home runs to go along with 62 RBI.
Seattle is also hoping Morales reverts back to the player he was before a broken leg cost him all of 2011 and all but 51 games in 2010. He seemed to be on the right track last season and with a full year under his belt Morales should be even better this year.
Of course, the new dimensions will help, but this lineup will only improve if the young players give a more consistent effort.
WHAT IS THERE AFTER KING FELIX?
The best news to come out of this offseason for Seattle was the fact that it signed Hernandez to a long-term deal.
Hernandez had two years and $39.5 million on a five-year extension he signed with Seattle prior to the 2010 season. The new arrangement will pay the standout right-hander $25 million annually through 2019.
The 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner, who turns 27 in April, went 13-9 with a 3.06 ERA over 33 appearances this past season, leading the AL with five shutouts and striking out 223 batters in 232 innings.
Everyone knows how good Hernandez is, but what else is there in the Mariners' rotation?
There's a lot to like about Hisashi Iwakuma in the middle of a rotation, but for the Mariners the middle starts at No. 2. Iwakuma started last year in the bullpen, but moved to the rotation midway through the season, throwing to a 1.83 ERA over his last nine starts.
One guy who could step up is righty Blake Beavan, who was 11-11 last year with a 4.43 ERA in 152 1/3 frames. The former first round pick showed flashes at times, though, and could be poised for a breakout season.
After that it's take your pick. Veteran Joe Saunders figures to be in the mix, while right-hander Brandon Maurer is also expected to open the year in the rotation
In reality, though, everyone except Hernandez is just holding a spot until top-prospects Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton are ready to go.
BULLPEN REMAINS THE STRENGTH
As good as Hernandez is, the real strength of this team is in the bullpen.
While, the Brandon League experiment proved to be a disaster, it opened the door for flame-throwing righty Tom Wilhelmsen, who picked up his first save on June 2, then racked up 29 in 48 subsequent appearances.
Despite four blown saves in that span, he'll head into the season as the Mariners' closer and one of the more underrated players in the league. Wilhelmsen, who mixed in a changeup to his arsenal this spring, posted a 2.50 ERA and struck out 87 in 79 1/3 innings.
Despite all the early trouble with League, the bullpen produced a 3.39 ERA, which was fifth best in the American League. The unit's 23.5 percent strikeout rate was third in the AL and the group had the best fastball velocity in the AL at 94.6 mph.
Mariners relievers also stranded 72 percent of inherited runners last season, third-best in the league.
It appears the same group will be back. Veteran left-hander Oliver Perez reinvented himself as a reliever and was joined by hard-throwing youngsters Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps in addition to Rule 5 pickup Lucas Luetge
But it all starts, or ends for that matter, with Wilhelmsen.
X-FACTOR: JUSTIN SMOAK: This is a make or break year for the Mariners slugger. Last year was supposed to be his breakout season, but things went south quick and he found himself sent to Triple-A Tacoma in July. He only hit .217 last year and that includes an incredible end to the season that saw him hit .341 in September/October. He also hit five of his career-high 19 home runs in that span. Had Smoak progressed the way everyone thought he would have when they acquired him for Cliff Lee in 2010, they likely wouldn't have had to add Morales and Morse. But, Smoak's decline is primarily the reason the Mariners made those moves. Now if Smoak carries his strong finish into this season, Seattle's offense will be even better than expected.
With the Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers, and Oakland A's all set to compete for an AL West title with rosters built to win now, the Mariners will likely find themselves on the outside looking in this year. But, that doesn't mean this is a lost year. In fact when the Mariners do start to turn it around, they will look at this year as the one where it all began to change. There are some things to be excited about. The lineup took its lumps last year, but the growing pains should be gone, especially with the influx of veterans. There are few better pitchers in baseball than Felix Hernandez. Just him being there makes everyone better. And help is on the way. But the real silver lining, they won't finish last. Thanks Houston.