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Why the Mariners will be the surprise team

4/2/2014

Here's the deal: It's distinctly possible I am inherently biased. After all, as most of you know, I am a Mariners fan since the days of Ruppert Jones and Danny Meyer and as this recent article at Baseball Prospectus argued, we all tend to overrate our favorite teams heading into the season, even those of us who study all the statistics and projections.

But if you're looking for a surprise team for 2014 -- this year's Pirates or Indians -- the Mariners may very well be your best bet. By surprise team, I mean a team that finished below .500 the year before; I'd suggest expanding that to all that finished under .500 in each of the past two seasons. That eliminates teams such as the Giants or Angels who were pretty good in 2012 (the Giants won the World Series, of course) and wouldn't exactly be a surprise if they contended.

That leaves the Cubs (nope), White Sox (don't actually fit our criteria but don't see them contending), Rockies (maybe), Astros (not yet), Marlins (unlikely), Mets (less likely), Twins (bad team), Phillies (don't meet our criteria but they're awful), Padres (possible) or Blue Jays (tough division).

So, that leaves the Mariners. Here's why:

1. The AL West could be ripe for the taking. The Rangers have more injuries than a Civil War regiment, the A's lost their top two starters from last year, the Angels have pitching questions and the Astros are three years away. Even if the Mariners don't win the division, if the AL West isn't as strong as it has been the past couple of years that would bode well in the wild-card race.

2. They have a superstar pitcher in Felix Hernandez and now have a superstar hitter in Robinson Cano. The Cano upgrade will be huge -- Mariners second basemen hit .214/.289/.330 last season. He gives the Mariners their first legit middle-of-the-order bat in years and helps extend the lineup one spot deeper than a season ago.

3. Their core hitters are all at the ages when players generally peak. Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders are in their age-27 seasons while Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley and Logan Morrison are 26. It's not that those guys are great players, but considering their ages and experience there's a good chance they improve collectively as a group and a good chance one of those guys breaks out with a big season.

4. Brad Miller can hit. I like this kid. His defense at shortstop is an issue but he had a solid rookie season (.265/.318/.418), a huge spring, can run (although he's not necessarily a big base stealer) and looks as if he'll enjoy hitting in front of Cano. I can see him hitting .285 with 15 home runs and a bunch of doubles and triples.

5. The defense will be better. It's still a concern -- Miller booted a routine grounder Tuesday, Ackley failed to run down a catchable fly ball in left Monday -- but the defense was so bad last year (minus-99 defensive runs saved, 29th in the majors), it has nowhere to go but up. Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay and Michael Morse are no longer around with their statuesque efforts in the outfield, so it's more addition by subtraction as much as anything.

There is the scary possibility that we'll see Morrison and Corey Hart too much in the corners, although hopefully they'll just ending up sharing time at designated hitter. It's not a good defense, but shaving even 40 runs would be worth an extra four wins.

6. There is potential improvement in the rotation. Yes, Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker began the season on the disabled list, but they hopefully should be ready in a few weeks. The Mariners will have to weather April -- and 22 of their first 25 games are against division opponents -- but if Iwakuma comes back strong (remember, he was third in the Cy Young voting last season), the Mariners will have one of the best one-two punches in the league.

They just need the rest of the guys to step up -- Erasmo Ramirez looked good in his debut, James Paxton starts Wednesday night, veteran Chris Young will try to stay healthy for more than three weeks and rookie Roenis Elias will start the year in the rotation. Again, it's addition by subtraction as Joe Saunders, Aaron Harang and Brandon Maurer combined for 68 starts and a 5.60 ERA in 2013. Shaving even a run off that ERA would be worth about 40 runs with room for even more gains.

7. The bullpen will be better. The Mariners ranked 29th in the majors with a 4.58 bullpen ERA -- but they ranked fourth in strikeout percentage, a sign that there are some good arms down there. They signed Fernando Rodney to be the closer and while he has to prove he can succeed away from Tampa Bay, the Mariners should be better in the late innings (they lost six games they led heading into the ninth and were 6-15 in extra innings).

8. Nick Franklin is good trade bait. If they wish to upgrade center field or find a starter down the road, Franklin could bring some help.

9. The projection systems see a close AL West race. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection has the top four teams between 87 and 80 wins. FanGraphs now has the top four teams all between 85 and 83 wins.

10. You never know.