<
>

Sailing looks smoother for the Mariners

After slowly embarking on the season, the Seattle Mariners are starting to make waves in the AL West. Though they made a huge offseason splash by signing Robinson Cano, a sluggish 10-14 record in April threatened to sink their expectations. Going into 2014, even with the addition of Cano, hopes for smooth sailing were somewhat tempered for a team coming off a floundering 2013 season in which the Mariners were outscored by 130 runs on their way to an abysmal 71-91 record, sputtering to fourth place with only the scuttled Astros saving them from the deep end of the AL West. So, what factors have helped to right the ship?

Historically, the Mariners' offense has a habit of getting stuck in port. In 2014, however, they are 12th in baseball in runs scored despite being 23rd in the league in team OPS. According to Baseball-Reference.com, like many teams, they are being torpedoed by Safeco Field, generating just a .652 OPS at home. Part of that is mitigated by a .764 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position. Whether that is due to machinations of the Mariners’ new manager, Lloyd McClendon, or blind luck may be the determining factor that sets the rudder for the Mariners for the rest of 2014.

One offensive catalyst for Seattle’s improved offense is the surge of Kyle Seager. The best third baseman in the AL not named Josh Donaldson has taken his game to a new level, generating the second-best WAR among AL third basemen with a total of 3.5. That increase is fueled in part by a career-high OPS at .839 as he has added power and a bit of batting average. Also, according to Baseball-Reference.com, his defense has substantially improved, with gains in range and in fielding percentage. At just 26 years of age with an ample minor league track record, he offers good reason to believe this high tide is for real.

Another reason for the Mariners’ good voyage so far in 2014 comes in the form of Fernando Rodney. A Tampa Bay Rays castoff, Rodney is leading the AL with 25 saves, the 25th coming in the 14th inning against the White Sox on Saturday afternoon. His command of the strike zone has been stellar by his sometimes erratic standards, with just 11 walks and 39 strikeouts over 34.1 innings pitched. He’s also allowed only one home run all year. These walk, strikeout and home run stats might be considered fluky if he hadn’t done it before in his career.

Of course you haven’t forgotten the way Felix Hernandez breezes through hitters. Well, Hernandez’s 2014 performance is elite even by his kingly standards. A far cry from the days when he won the Cy Young Award with a mediocre win-loss record (supported by less-than-mediocre offense), King Felix is an early-season favorite for another one, as he has racked up a record of 10-2 while having a career year in terms of WHIP (0.92) and ERA (2.10). On Saturday he was stellar again, allowing only four baserunners and two runs over 8 innings for a no-decision in Seattle’s 3-2, 14-inning win against the White Sox. Navigating his way through the American League lineups with aplomb, Hernandez has not allowed more than two runs in a start since May 12.

After their slow start to the year, the Mariners have gone 37-25 (.596) since May 1. It won’t be easy to leapfrog the A’s, who just rocked the boat with their blockbuster trade for pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Nor will the Angels keep their sails furled, either. But as the July 31 trade deadline approaches on the horizon, expect Seattle to have the spyglass out in search of a cannon for its lineup. That might just provide the gust of wind the Mariners will need to navigate the division’s rough seas.

Richard Bergstrom writes for Rockies Zingers, a SweetSpot network blog on the Colorado Rockies.