SEATTLE – Robinson Cano was just the start. The Seattle Mariners didn’t stop with one major splash in trying to catch up with the best in the A.L. West.
Even so, there remain many questions about whether Seattle’s additions as a whole can improve a team coming off a 71-win season.
The moves made by Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik were in hopes of improving the Mariners and solidifying his own future after a shaky offseason that started with Eric Wedge’s decision not to return as manager.
Lloyd McClendon is getting his second shot as a major league manager nine years after he was last leading a club in Pittsburgh. Along with Cano, Seattle signed outfielder Corey Hart, closer Fernando Rodney and traded for designated hitter Logan Morrison.
Despite those moves, there remain concerns about the depth of Seattle’s rotation beyond ace Felix Hernandez and whether players the Mariners have been waiting for to finally pop can establish themselves as reliable, everyday starters.
Yet the Mariners believe they will be competitive in one of baseball’s toughest divisions.
“We’re ready to win. That’s what it’s all about,” Hernandez said. “We’re ready to win ballgames in Seattle. We’re ready to be in the playoffs, we’re ready to do that.”
Here are five things to watch as the Mariners try and contend in the loaded A.L. West:
Cano’s signing was a stunning coup for the Mariners to pry him out of New York. But $240 million and 10 years will convince a lot of players to take up residence in the Pacific Northwest.
Is there enough around Cano, though, to make him have the same offensive impact that he did with the Yankees? That will only happen if Hart is healthy enough to be in the lineup and can be the slugger he was in Milwaukee before knee problems sidelined him for 2013. Hart, Morrison and Justin Smoak must be protection around Cano and Kyle Seager.
If not, then no one will dare pitch to Cano.
Seattle’s rotation is a concern as the season begins with Hernandez the only certainty. Hernandez was supposed to be backed up by AL Cy Young finalist Hisashi Iwakuma, star prospects James Paxton and Taijuan Walker and a veteran to be determined.
At this point, the only certainty seems to be that Paxton will be in the rotation behind Hernandez.
Iwakuma and Walker aren’t likely to join the rotation until mid- to late-April because of injuries.
The rest of the rotation will likely be filled out through a combo of Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan and, possibly, youngster Roenis Elias.
Seattle has waited for Smoak and Dustin Ackley to match the potential which made them among the top young prospects in baseball at one time. Ackley may have rediscovered the swing that made him the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft. If Ackley can stay consistent at the plate, he’ll likely be Seattle’s full-time left fielder. Smoak has already gotten a needed backing of confidence from McClendon, who proclaimed him the starting first baseman. Smoak has also shown a willingness to learn this camp, spending extra time in the cages and on the practice fields.
“I felt like what I did in the second half and getting back to things how it use to feel and getting that mindset what I needed to play at the level I needed to was really important,” Ackley said.
The signing of Rodney immediately improved the bullpen. Everyone moved up a slot, which should benefit a group that was inconsistent much of last season.
With Rodney anchoring the back end, that allows McClendon to use Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen in the seventh and eighth innings. Charlie Furbush remains a solid long-relief, left-hander.
This is McClendon’s second chance as a manager. He’s picked up new tricks in his time on Jim Leyland’s staff in Detroit and is steadfast in how he wants to operate. His approach was simple during spring, letting players enjoy what they’re doing but in the context of getting their work done. That attitude resonated in the clubhouse with veterans especially feeling McClendon’s history as a player provided the right understanding.
The test will be how McClendon and the clubhouse responds when facing adversity.
“He was there. He understands a group plays together, has fun together there’s a better chance they’re going to succeed,” Hart said. “He’s been there with other teams and trying to make that mold here and we’re all buying into it and think it’s going to work.”