Are this year’s Seattle Mariners the next team to make a surprising run?

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Last year the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles were picked either 2nd to last or last in their divisions. They won 94 and 93 game respectively. Nobody saw it coming, both teams made some moves that many shrugged at and didn’t think would mean much. The Orioles picking up Joe Saunders from the Diamondbacks and Nate McLouth from the Pirates. Both surprisingly made significant contributions to a playoff run by the Orioles. The Athletics also made some under the radar moves, acquiring Seth Smith from the Rockies and signing Jonny Gomes to a one year deal. Both moves paid off with them platooning in left field and providing some solid-good pop with the bat.

The Mariners can be that under the radar team this season. No team in the AL or NL has an opportunity for dramatic improvement quite like the Mariners. Seattle once again finished last in runs in the AL and 4th fewest home runs in the AL in 2012. Seattle lacked a true power hitter in the lineup, didn’t have a guy at the top of the order who could get on base and swipe a bag or two. They were last in MLB in on-base percentage, the only team under .300 in all of baseball. They had team speed but didn’t get on base to showcase it. Pitching was once again a strength. They finished 10th in MLB in ERA.

This year, however, Seattle may have made enough improvements offensively to give the pitchers some support offensively. The M’s traded starting pitcher, Jason Vargas, for first baseman/ DH, Kendrys Morales. Morales didn’t really fit well with the Angels and Vargas was never really a great fit with the Mariners bringing in their fences.

Morales is as healthy as he’s been in 3 years. He took 2 years to recover from a broken leg but was never fully healthy with the Angels last season. He still managed to hit 22 home runs and drive in 73 RBIs last season with LAA. With an offseason to get healthy, he could return to 2010 form where he was well on his way to a 30 home run, 100 RBI season. If he does, the Mariners will finally have a guy in the middle of their order who pitchers fear for probably the first time since Bret Boone in 2003.

Another move the Mariners made was acquiring Michael Morse from the Nationals in a 3 team deal with the Athletics. The Mariners traded fan favorite, John Jaso, to the Athletics and got Morse in the deal. It was not viewed as a good deal by many, but the Mariners felt they needed to play Jesus Montero every day at catcher and Jaso wouldn’t receive consistent playing time, might as well do a deal to improve the offense.

Michael Morse underachieved in 2012 after having a breakthrough season in 2011. A lot of this had to do with getting off to a slow start with Washington after battling injuries before even making his season debut. Once he got healthy he was pretty productive. He hit 18 home runs and 62 RBIs in just 102 games with the Nationals last season. He is healthy this season and could return lose to his 31 home run, 95 RBI, .360 on-base percentage form this season. He’ll benefit from the fences being moved in at Safeco Field and be a significant contributor in the middle of the Mariners’ order.

The Mariners also signed Joe Saunders to a one year deal. He pitched well with Baltimore and will be in a little better park this year for pitchers. He will throw a lot of innings and be very solid. It’s crucial to have a guy like Saunders in your starting rotation.

The Mariners brought in Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay and Robert Andino to improve the bench. Ibanez went deep 18 times and drove in 62 RBIs last season,  though he got on base at a mediocre .308 clip, he raises that to .318 against righties and all his numbers improve against righties. He will pinch hit against righties and get occasional starts against right handed pitchers, don’t expect him to hit against lefties much at all this season.

Jason Bay was brought in on a one year deal. He was once an all-star player who massively disappointed in NY with the Mets thanks to repeated injuries. Last year he had by far the worst year of his career.  First season in the big leagues where he didn’t get on base at at least a .327 clip and he looked like his career might be ending.  Part of his struggles can be attributed to just plain awful luck. Last year he hit .185 on balls in play. That is extreme bad luck and highly unlikely to happen again. He should receive for good fortune this season and with an offseason to get healthy, he’s hitting balls with more authority this spring.

You add those acquisitions to go along with improvements from hitters Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders, Jesus Montero and pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma, and Erasmo Ramirez and  the potential for a really good season is there. What can make the season from pretty good to playoff contender is quality seasons from Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak. Both woefully underachieved in 2012 . Ackley didn’t get on base had slow bat speed and got exposed by pitchers. If he corrected his swing and can start getting on base more, the Mariners could have a very good leadoff man with him.  Justin Smoak has yet to blossom into the power hitting , middle of the order bat everyone expected him to. He still has time, but not much. If he plays poorly in April and May, the team will likely give up on him. He finished strong to end the season and started showcasing some of that power, now it is time for Smoak to do it consistently and over a full season. If he can finally put it together to go with the rest of this team and play to his potential, it could be a very special season in Seattle. If he doesn’t, the Mariners can always put Morse or Morales at first base.

The talent is there with this team, it’s all a matter of players stop underachieving and finally put it all together. They have definitely improved as a team and should be over .500. They were pretty close to being a .500 team in 2012 but Brandon League and Hector Noesi woefully underachieved in 2012 to go with a player in Miguel Olivo who had no business being a starting catcher. League blew 6 saves in 15 chances and was a failure as the team’s closer, Noesi had an ERA at 6.00 in mid-September and Olivo struggled with the bat and was awful defensively. Those three probably helped cost the team 10-12 wins and the team finished 12 under .500. With Olivo and League gone and Noesi not likely to pitch much at all this season, this is a +.500 team.

Projected batting order:

Kyle Seager looks to build upon strong 2012 campaign

Kyle Seager looks to build upon strong 2012 campaign

1) Dustin Ackley, 2nd baseman (2012- .226/.294/.328)

2) Franklin Gutierrez , centerfielder (2012- .260/.309/.420)

3) Kyle Seager, third baseman (2012- .259/.316/.423)

4) Kendrys Morales, designated hitter (2012- .273/.320/.467)

5) Michael Morse, left fielder (2012- .291/.321/.4700)

6) Jesus Montero, catcher (2012- .260/.298/.386)

7) Justin Smoak, first baseman (2012- .217/.290/.364)

8) Michael Saunders, right fielder (2012- .247/.306/.432

9) Brendan Ryan, shortstop (2012- .194/.277/.278)

Projected bench players:

Raul Ibanez, left fielder/DH (2012- .240/.308/.453)

Jason Bay, left fielder, right fielder, first baseman, DH (2012- .165/.237/.299)

Kelly Shoppach, catcher (2012- .233/.309/.425)

Robert Andino2nd baseman, shortstop, 3rd baseman (2012- .211/.283/.305

Projected starting rotation:

Felix Hernandez celebrates perfect game in 2012

Felix Hernandez celebrates perfect game in 2012

1) Felix Hernandez (2012- 13-9, 3.06 ERA)

2) Hisashi Iwakuma (2012- 9-5, 3.16 ERA)

3) Joe Saunders (2012- 9-13, 4.07 ERA)

4) Erasmo Ramirez (2012- 1-3, 3.36 ERA)

5) Jon Garland (2012- N/A)

Projected bullpen:

Tom Wilhelmsen throws a pitch in final inning of Mariners' no-hitter vs Dodgers

Tom Wilhelmsen throws a pitch in final inning of Mariners’ no-hitter vs Dodgers

Tom Wilhelmsen, closer (2012- 73 appearances, 29 saves, 4-3, 2.50 ERA)

Lucas Luetge, situational lefty (2012- 63 appearances, 2-2, 2 saves, 3.98 ERA)

Charlie Furbush, setup reliever (2012- 48 appearances, 5-2, 2.72 ERA)

Stephen Pryor, setup reliever (2012- 26 appearances, 3-1, 3.91 ERA)

Carter Capps, middle reliever (2012- 18 appearances, 3.96 ERA)

Oliver Perez, middle reliever (2012- 33 appearances, 1-3, 2.12 ERA)

Josh Kinney, long reliever (2012- 35 appearances, 0-3, 3.94 ERA)

Projected Mariners win total in 2013: 87 wins. Team falls just short of playoffs but builds towards a deep playoff run in 2014.

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