It's World Series or bust for the Mariners

PEORIA, Ariz. – Over three weeks this offseason, Felix Hernandez hopscotched around Europe, from Istanbul to Cappadocia to Prague to Salzburg. Amid the sights and shopping, he couldn’t stop thinking about Seattle and what was happening with the franchise to which he wedded himself when it looked so desperate and forlorn.

Nelson Cruz is expected to provide some power for the Mariners. (AP)
Nelson Cruz is expected to provide some power for the Mariners. (AP)

Every few days, Hernandez would text Robinson Cano and ask if it was happening. It was Nelson Cruz, the major league home run leader, signing with the Mariners, like Cano had done the previous offseason. While in Prague, Hernandez got the message he’d been waiting for: Cruz was coming to Seattle, and between his arrival and the leftover core from last season’s team that missed October by one game, the Mariners, postseason-free since their 116-win juggernaut of 2001, won’t be satisfied with anything less.

“Close is not good enough anymore,” Hernandez said. “Our goal is to make the playoffs and win the whole thing. We’ve got the pieces now.”

Seattle is the chic pick in a wide-open American League without a single franchise that enters the season believing it won’t compete for a playoff spot. The AL East is a five-team pick ’em. The Central boasts enough parity that defending AL champion Kansas City is far from a lock. And the West is as curious as its brethren, with the pitching staff of division-champ Los Angeles imperiled, the entirety of Oakland’s roster overhauled and the Texas teams each suffering from the same malady: a starting-pitching drought.

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At Mariners camp, where the team GM Jack Zduriencik assembled winds toward opening day against the Los Angeles Angels, the optimism extends beyond cautious. Seattle believes it has one of the best teams in the AL after the trade for center fielder Austin Jackson last July gave it a leadoff hitter, the acquisition of Seth Smith this offseason placed a gap-hitting left-hander in front of Cano, and the $58-million deal for Cruz gave the team thunder between Cano and $100-million third baseman Kyle Seager.

“Listen, we’re good,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. “And barring injuries, we’re going to be very competitive. Where that’s going to take us, I don’t know. … We’re like everybody else: We know what we hope to be, and if all goes well, we have a good chance to get there.”

Certainly the offensive infusion helps. The last time Seattle scored more than 700 runs in a season, Mike Hargrove was manager. McClendon is the team’s sixth manager since. Part of the problem was Safeco Field, the Mariners’ stadium that was an offensive benzodiazepine. Moving the fences in before 2013 helped the park play a little more fairly and helped the Mariners argue it wasn’t the offensive graveyard that would scare away hitters who saw Adrian Beltre, a future Hall of Famer, max out at 26 home runs in one season.

While Cruz’s presence helps, the maturation of Seattle’s homegrown position players may well define its offensive capabilities. The good: Catcher Mike Zunino popped 22 home runs last season. The not-so-good: He batted .199. Shortstop Brad Miller struggled similarly, and Dustin Ackley, now 27, needs to be the strong half of a left-field platoon he’ll share with Rickie Weeks. That group, McClendon said, now has “their man muscles,” the sort that should nullify any issues over ballpark dimensions.

For all the talk of offense, the Mariners’ fortunes hinge on their pitching. Their rotation, anchored by the brilliant Hernandez, could be one of the best in the league, particularly if young, hard-throwing James Paxton and Taijuan Walker stay healthy. The bullpen is the biggest question, odd considering it led baseball last year with a 2.60 ERA.

Robinson Cano's signing helped spark the Mariners' revival. (AP)
Robinson Cano's signing helped spark the Mariners' revival. (AP)

Of course, that’s also why it merits doubt: Not only is relief pitching a volatile industry, everything in the Mariners’ numbers – from a Fielding Independent Pitching stat more than a half-run higher than its ERA to a league-high 80.7 percent strand rate that almost surely will regress – says 2015 can’t be as good as 2014.

Accordingly, the Mariners loaded up on depth in the bullpen, complementing last season’s core with hard-throwing Carson Smith, command-and-control type Tyler Olson and Rule 5 surprise David Rollins, a left-hander whose chances of making the team grow better by the outing.

Recently, former manager Jim Leyland swung by Mariners camp and spent time with McClendon, who played for Leyland with the Pirates and was on his coaching staff in Detroit. McClendon lamented the fact that he was going to have some angry players at the end of camp because he needed to cut them.

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“Better than you being ticked off because you don’t have enough talent in camp,” Leyland said.

And it was a good point, especially considering just how woebegone the Mariners were before signing Cano. They gave him $240 million for 10 years, a massive outlay, a contract more than likely to be a mess in the final few seasons, when Cano approaches 40 years old. Considering the state of baseball today, though, and how no team in the AL projects to be much more than good, the value of a single star can take a team awfully far.

“I’m more than happy,” Cano said. “When I was at the [negotiating] table, Jack said, ‘We are going to build a championship team around you over the next three years.’ And that’s what he’s done. They’ve signed the pieces for the puzzle that we needed.”

Once his wanderlust ended and he returned home, Hernandez went to a tattoo parlor and added to his body-art collection with a red rose that covers his right hand. There’s no symbolism, he said, nothing to infer about a team finally ready to blossom. King Felix did keep his left hand inkless on purpose. Close is not good enough, and when the Mariners win the World Series, he’ll need a place to commemorate it.

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