With cautious optimism abound, Mariners will end 14-year playoff drought

By Brandon Cline, Staff Writer

You read the title correctly. A franchise that has been the baseball’s biggest laughingstock since the turn of the century will be one of baseball’s best teams this season.

They’ll do it with a lineup full of professional hitters, a pitching staff that will continue to be one of baseball’s best and a bullpen that was baseball’s best last season.

Out is Abraham Almonte, Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders from last year’s Opening Day starting lineup, in is Austin Jackson, Nelson Cruz and Seth Smith in this year’s lineup. In 2014, the first group had a combined offensive WAR (oWAR) of 1.5, while Jackson, Cruz and Smith posted a combined oWAR of 9.1.

Seattle’s three, four and five slots in the lineup, occupied by Robinson Cano, Cruz and Kyle Seager, feature three all-stars from last season, making them one of the most feared, middle-of-the-lineup trios in all of baseball. The group combined for 79 home runs, 286 runs batted in and a batting average of .284 in 2014.

Hint: that’s really, really good, especially in today’s MLB, dominated by pitching and defense. Speaking of which, the Mariners excelled in both areas last season and show no signs of slowing down.

Anchored again by Felix Hernandez, the Mariners’ 2015 rotation looks even scarier than last year’s rotation, which finished second in the MLB and first in the American League in team ERA with a 3.17 earned run average.

Unlike last season when he missed all of Spring Training and the first month of the season with a finger injury, former all-star Hisashi Iwakuma has remained in great shape heading into the 2015 campaign and is primed for another successful season.

Left-handers James Paxton and J.A. Happ will balance the Mariners’ rotation in 2015, with Taijuan Walker locking up the fifth and final spot in the rotation after a nearly flawless spring. Walker gave up one earned run over 25 innings, striking out 24 batters while only walking four. If the 22-year-old righty and former highly-acclaimed prospect maintains even a semblance of his production in the regular season, he will take the rotation from very good to great.

“Last spring I would say we were learning how to win. I think this spring we expect to win. And that’s a big difference,” said manager Lloyd McClendon in an interview with ESPN’s Jim Caple.

ESPN Insider analyst Buster Olney picked the Mariners to advance to the World Series on March 21, losing to the Pirates. Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano graced the regional cover of the March 26th edition of Sports Illustrated, with the headline saying, “Time to Believe.”

Mariners fans have been burned recently when the Mariners were selected as title contenders in 2008 and 2010, as both of those teams went on to finish the season 61-101. But this team isn’t those teams. The Mariners have all the pieces to win their first championship in franchise history this season and anything less than a spot in the playoffs should and will be considered a disappointment.

It’s time for fans to embrace expectations, not shy away from them. For the first time since 2001, the Mariners will see you in October.