Pre-season grades and prediction time.,

Monday is the big day, the best day of the year. The Mariners open their regular season.  It’s at home in Safeco Field at the ungodly hour of 1:10, or shortly after my 5th period class begins. The M’s wrapped up the last couple of Cactus League games by whacking around the Colorado Rockies as much of the National League is likely to do this season.  Tonight they fly home with their team set and prepare for Monday’s opener with a team that is healthy, widely praised by national media and projected by many to be the American League champs.

So, as the M’s steam into the regular season I’d like to offer my grades of where the Mariners are by position as well as my predictions for the season.  There is little question this is the best Mariners team since 2003. That team won 93 games and was the last vestige of the glory years 1995-2003.  Except for Ichiro, the stars of the past were fading away and this team should be as good as that team, maybe.  Honestly I’ve been spooked over the years.  Expectations have been missed.  Teams that should have performed well have not, so I’m not going to give these guys a pass.  Let me share my scores and my reservations along the way.

Starting Rotation

If King Felix is your number one guy, followed by Hishashi Iwakuma, then all should be right with the world.  The addition of veteran lefty J.A. Happ to lefty James Paxton, and the emergence of Taijuan Walker should make a tremendous rotation.  Right? Well, yeah, but. . . Happ, Paxton, and Walker have not pitched the equivalent of 200 innings in the big leagues before.  The concern about managing everyone’s innings has led to the introduction of a six man rotation with Roenis Elias bouncing back and forth between the Rainiers and Mariners.  Though logically I understand this, I don’t think it helps either club much.

Grade: This rotation has the potential to be the best in the American League, but keeping that potential thing in mind I give the rotation a B+

Bullpen

The Mariners return their bullpen intact from the 2014 season.  The only change is rookie Tyler Olson taking the lefty spot held by Joe Beimel.  Olson had a super spring and may actually be more effective against righthanders than Beimel.  The 2014 bullpen was, top to bottom, the most effective in the major leagues.

Grade: They’ll be good, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll be as good as last year.  Bullpens usually aren’t that consistent year to year, and Fernando Rodney gives me the yips.  The bullpen rates a B

Catcher

Catcher is such an important position, because defense is so important, that league average or above offense is simply gravy.  The Mariners return two very young players behind the dish, starter Mike Zunino, age 23 and back up Jesus Sucre, 26. Zunino demonstrated superior defensive skills and handled the pitching staff well.  Sucre is also a solid defensive player. However, despite showing incredible right-handed power, Zunino struggled at the plate, hitting .199 with 158 strikeouts. Those must improve.  He’s shown a new approach at the plate and had a very good spring. But as we know, spring training numbers mean nothing.

Grade: Zunino is another player long on potential who will have to produce if the M’s are going to meet the expectations set by the media.  But because he hasn’t done it yet, I rate the catchers a C+.

Infield

Let’s do this a bit differently and focus on each position individually, which seems only fair.

First Base-Logan Morrison: When the M’s acquired Morrison last year and promised to stick him in right field with Corey Hart, I thought it was a stupid idea.  He struggled with injury and ineffectiveness early, but became a prime contributor to the M’s run through August and into September.  Morrison is another player who could make this team better if he improves on 2014’s .262/.315/.420 slash line, or at least is a consistent producer across the season.  Morrison is an adequate defender, and it’s an important year as he heads into his free agent season.

Grade: C +

Second Base-Robinson Cano. I think every Mariners fan sees the signing of Cano for the 2014 season as the watershed event in returning this team to respectability.  He is fun to watch-always cool and collected in the field, making difficult plays look easy.  He achieved as much as could be expected at the plate, taking what the pitching gave him. However, it seemed his most significant role was in the clubhouse, being a positive role model and mentoring the young Mariners, and convincing Nelson Cruz to come to Seattle.  He’s a winner.

Grade: A

Third Base-Kyle Seager: Seager’s path started on an upward arc the moment he stepped on the field for the Mariners in 2011.  Last year’s .268/.334/..454 were the best of his career earning him an All-Star bid and MVP votes. His improved defense won him a Gold Glove.  Can he get better? I believe he can.  He works on his craft constantly, and is trying to hit to left so defenses play him honestly.  He is someone who could maybe hit .280, with the same power numbers.  He’s still only 27.

Grade: A-

Shortstop-Brad Miller: The battle between Brad Miller and Chris Taylor for the shortstop spot was to be one of the most important competitions of Spring Training. When Taylor went down with a broken wrist the job became Miller’s by default.  Shortstop is such an important defensive position, and Miller is such a gifted athlete you just want him to be successful. But his performance last year raised such doubt. Miller must consistently make all the plays and avoid the defensive breakdowns of the past.  If he hits league average across the season, without the devastating slump he suffered at the beginning of 2014 Miller will boost the team toward their run to a division crown. If Miller struggles defensively and offensively he’ll make the pitching staff work and likely will be ticketed for Tacoma on Taylor’s return to full health.

Grade: C-

Designated Hitter

Designated hitter was such a black hole in the Mariners batting order in the last ten years.  Yes, there were some good ones-Jose Vidro, Russell Branyan, and yes, even Kendrys Morales  had good years for the M’s.  But mostly Mariners DH’s were terrible.  The signing of Nelson Cruz really was another down payment on a winning season.  The best right-handed hitter available with legitimate power is in Mariner blue. Not quite ready to crown this a raging success. He won’t walk a lot and will strike out a ton, but if he hits .260 with 27-32 home runs, the M’s will have gotten their money’s worth. Cruz needs to stay healthy and show he beat the Safeco Curse on right handed power. But he will be a welcome bat hitting between Cano and Seager.  Though he is not an awful outfielder, I want to see him out in right field as little as possible.

Grade: B

Outfield

Unable to acquire effective everyday players for right field, the Mariners have acquired a collection of complementary pieces to fill in the corner outfield spots.  The acquisition of Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith to form a right field platoon was smart. Both are veteran players who have played  platoon roles before and are comfortable in those roles. Both are decent defenders and are effective hitting against opposite handed pitchers.  Smith is a grinder whose .367 OBP would have been second behind Cano in 2014. Ruggiano can also play center field. This is center fielder Austin Jackson’s walk year and he needs to play well to get a contract for 2016.  He is an average defender.  The Mariners need him to rebound offensively, just get on base and let the rest of the team drive him in. There is some question whether he will lead off regularly as Rickie Weeks has a stronger on-base percentage. The organization has clearly lost some faith in Dustin Ackley.  I would think this is his Justin Smoak year. He needs to produce consistently to have a future with this team.  Like Smoak, Ackley needs to produce consistently.  Unlike Smoak, his issues seem to be more mental than physical.  He did become an effective defender in left field, and his August performance clearly boosted the team. But the decision to platoon Ackley in left with Rickey Weeks demonstrates the M’s don’t believe he will adjust to left handed pitching.  Weeks allows the M’s to bring some balance in their line up against lefties.  A career second baseman, it’s unclear how the athletic Weeks will adjust to playing the outfield.

Grade: Unlike many teams, the outfield is not the offensive strength of this team, though General Manager Jack Zdurencik has done a great job of creating some roster flexibility in the pieces he’s acquired, and re-balancing the M’s left heavy lineup. The outfield is improved, but not the strength of the team. B-

Bench

For years the Mariners bench was filled with young prospects who hadn’t really earned their way on to the team.  This year the bench looks something like Willie Bloomquist, Weeks, Ruggiano and Sucre.  Except for Sucre, these are veteran players who have had success in the majors and play vital roles on the team.  No more Stefan Romeros and James Jones.  I wouldn’t suggest these guys are all-stars, but they provide important depth the Mariners haven’t had in decades.

Grade: B

Manager

Lloyd McClendon is a crusty, curmudgeonly veteran of past manager wars, and has coached on some winning Tigers teams.  He is direct, honest, and the players really seem to love playing for him.  He tells it like it is.  Though he hasn’t been in those on-field tactical decisions that are live and die in the World Series, he seems like he’s perfectly capable of managing the X’s and O’s and the coaches he’s surrounded himself with seem solid.

Grade: A

PREDICTIONS

There will be no cake walk to victory in the American League West, despite what the pundits say.  Though the Angels did little in the off-season, the acquisition of Matt Joyce from the Rays should take a little of the sting out of the muddled Josh Hamilton situation.  Their rotation will be adequate, but not great, and they should score lots of runs. I’m not a fan of all the A’s off-season moves.  Yes, they can do match-ups and have roster flexibility, but can they score runs.  Josh Riddick for Brandon Moss?  The oft-injured Brett Lawrie for Josh Donaldson?  They will pitch well, but can they score runs? I’m dubious. The Astros will be better.  Maybe a .500 team.  The injury train keeps rolling through Texas, collecting bodies by the side of the track.

I predict the Mariners will narrowly win the American League West in a down to the wire dogfight with the Angels.  No team will run away, because honestly this is going to be a tough division that won’t allow high win totals.

Team                                     Wins     Losses

Seattle                                  91         71

Los Angeles                         90         72

Oakland                                85          77

Houston                                81           81

Texas                                    72           90

Mariners will win the division and defeat the wild card winner, and advance to the ALCS where they will beat Cleveland. They go on to the World Series where they will defeat the surprise National League champion San Diego Padres 4-3. What do you think?

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