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Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Mariners will be this year's surprise team

By Eric Karabell

Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse
Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse should provide the pop that Seattle has been recently lacking.
In the fantasy baseball world, everyone wants to know if Mike Trout can repeat his amazing 2012 performance. It's not likely, certainly not to that level, in part because there's basically no precedent for what he did at his age. But when it comes to surprising teams, it's more common to see accomplishments like what the Orioles and A's achieved last year. We're not talking about actually winning the World Series, but going from out of consideration to, well, relevance. With Felix Hernandez now officially under contract for seven more years, I think Seattle Mariners fans would jump at more good news for 2013 besides Felix's new deal.

Sounds outrageous, right? Well, it needs to be in February. Did you think the Orioles and Athletics could contend a year ago? Look at the 13 teams that lost more games than they won a year ago, remove the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox, for they have the financial means -- and frankly wouldn't be much of a surprise -- and find a contender. The 2012 Orioles didn't win their 93 games with MVP hitters and Cy Young contenders; it was mainly bullpen, which is impossible to predict from year to year, and a ridiculous 29-9 mark in one-run games and 16-2 record in extra innings. The Orioles barely outscored their opponents. The Athletics were considerably better in run differential, though they won only one more game than Baltimore and scored only one more run. The Athletics certainly didn't succeed by getting on base or avoiding strikeouts, but they prevented runs. A rotation full of rookies posted the third-best ERA for AL starting staffs.

In the Mariners' case, I don’t think it's far-fetched to see them in a one-game playoff if these reasonable things happen:

1. Bring the power: It's unfathomable to post a sub-.300 OBP three consecutive seasons, but the M's have done it. This year they'll raise the mark to .310, which still stinks, but it's all the Athletics did in 2012. Expect improvement from Dustin Ackley at the top of the order, and hopefully Nick Franklin soon, but watch for an Oakland-like improvement in the power department. Yes, the fences have been moved in at Safeco Field, but there's also more power now.

Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse aren't stars, but they don't have to be. That duo should be able to hit 45 home runs with regular playing time. Jesus Montero might be a poor catcher, but he's a power-hitting one. He will improve at the plate, too. The 2011 Athletics had one guy (Josh Willingham) hit more than 15 home runs. Last year five Athletics did so, in Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Moss, Jonny Gomes and Chris Carter. Their team OBP actually went down, but they won 20 more games. I love OBP, but this year's Mariners could reasonably add 50 home runs to their 2012 total, enough to rank in the middle of the pack in runs, just like the Athletics and Orioles a year ago. Sure, it would have been nice had the Mariners addressed OBP -- Michael Bourn, anyone? -- but a team can somewhat overcome this, on a short-term basis, with power.

2. Miss more bats: Orioles starting pitchers lowered their incredibly awful 5.39 ERA of 2011 to a palatable, and again middle of the pack, 4.42 mark in 2012. They also relied on defense. The Mariners have several excellent defenders, notably at shortstop with Brendan Ryan and center field with Franklin Gutierrez, but unlike those Orioles shouldn't have to make their defense work as hard. The Mariners were only 22nd in pitcher strikeouts in 2012, but look at the underrated work Hisashi Iwakuma and Erasmo Ramirez did as they combined for a 2.97 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over 24 starts, each with a healthier K rate than what Kevin Millwood and Hector Noesi provided. Now they're expected to make 60 starts. Drop a run off that ERA, and it's still good enough.

Joe Saunders and Blake Beavan are competent, especially at home, but don't expect 60 starts from them; instead, dream of the top-level prospects ready to emerge in Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer. Several of these guys could help immediately, like Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone did for Oakland, but in this case they'll be striking hitters out and removing potential BABIP luck. Oh yeah, they've got an ace, too, and he's never been in a playoff game. Sounds like a team rallying cry.

3. Be fortunate: It can't be forced, but a strong relief corps can make the rest of a team look greater than its parts, even if it's mostly magic. The 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks went from last to first thanks in large part to a revamped bullpen that lowered its collective ERA from 5.74 to 3.71. It wasn't as pronounced, but the 2011 Orioles shaved more than a run off its bullpen ERA. Well, look at the current Mariners, and you can see the potential for a great 'pen. Right-hander Carter Capps hits triple digits with his fastball, and is a future closer. The Mariners bullpen was third in the AL in K rate, and it should improve as Capps, closer Tom Wilhelmsen, Stephen Pryor, Josh Kinney and even lefty Charlie Furbush each fanned more hitters than innings pitched. In short, there's no need for a Pedro Strop-type to come from nowhere. They're already here, and while performance in close games cannot be predicted, when in doubt, go with power arms, not groundballers like Jim Johnson.

Add it up and the Mariners -- whether SweetSpot editor/blogger David Schoenfield (a Mariners fan for life) believes it or not -- aren't that far from beating up on the division rival Houston Astros but also holding their own with the Angels, Rangers and Athletics and finding a way into the one-game playoff.

Of course, if something's wrong with King Felix's elbow ... all bets are off!