Mariner’s young core key to 2015 and beyond

By Brandon Cline, Staff Writer

As pitchers and catchers for the Seattle Mariners reported to spring training on Feb. 20, local bloggers and national pundits alike are sipping on the Mariners’ Kool-Aid for the 2015 season, and for good reason.

Coming off an 87-win season, which saw the Mariners finish one game out of the playoffs, Seattle had a productive offseason that included signing baseball’s reigning home run champion, Nelson Cruz, to a four-year contract worth $58 million.

Manager Lloyd McClendon said he plans on hitting the right-handed Cruz between left-handers Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager in the lineup, a glaring weakness in the 2014 season.

“If you look at the numbers, we were last in baseball in (production from our) No. 4 hitters. Our [designated hitter] was 14th out of 15. This guy’s track record addresses that,” said McClendon at Cruz’s introductory press conference on Dec. 4.

The Mariners made three significant trades in the off-season as well, trading for starting pitcher J.A. Happ and outfielders Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith.

These changes, on top of last year’s 16-win improvement, have many analysts picking the Mariners as a top-tier team in 2015.

David Schoenfield, a senior baseball writer for, ranked the Mariners as the sixth-best team in the MLB in his pre-spring training power rankings.

The heralded Peter Gammons, former ESPN and current MLB Network writer and analyst, predicted the Mariners to advance to the ALCS on Feb. 18.

This and the many Mariners teams to come will not be defined by offseason pickups, though. Rather, they’ll be defined by the players that have been in their system for years.

Can Kyle Seager, a first-time all-star who received a seven-year, $100 million contract extension over the offseason, continue his progression into being one of the best all-around third basemen in the game? Will he corral his streakiness at the plate and continue to develop into a more consistent hitter? Can he maintain his play in the field that won him a Gold Glove in 2014?

What about Mike Zunino, the promising young catcher? Of catchers with at least 400 plate appearances, Zunino was tied for second in home runs with 22, while placing last in batting average and on-base percentage.

If Zunino can hit for contact better to go along with his power at the plate and skills behind the plate, he’d be a top five catcher in baseball. That’s a big “if.”

And can left fielder Dustin Ackley avoid a slow first few months and put together a full season’s worth of solid hitting?

In the first half of 2014, Ackley hit for a .225 batting average, four home runs and an OPS of .616. In the final 58 games of the season, he hit .269 with 10 home runs, posting an OPS of .783.

If Ackley can produce like he did in the last half of 2014, he’ll shore up another offensive woe that the Mariners had last season.

And after promising rookie campaigns from James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, can they avoid the plethora of injuries that plague young, gifted pitchers and expand their pitching repertoire and continue transforming into the top end of the rotation starters they were predicted to be?

In 28 big league appearances, 25 of which were starts, Paxton and Walker have posted a combined ERA of 3.28, 126 strikeouts, 58 walks and a WHIP of 1.16. Both have also missed extended amounts of time with injuries.

The Mariners will be title contenders in 2015 if Seager, Zunino, Ackley and the young core of starting pitchers produce how they should, regardless if Nelson Cruz cranks 40 home runs or 20. The keys to success have been in Seattle for years, now it’s time for the Mariners to unlock the doors and bathe in its riches.