We’ve heard it all before. This won’t be a winning year. The Mariners are rebuilding. It’s a long process. It’ll get better.
To an extent, that is true: it is an arduous task to construct a contention-worthy team, and I’m not here to complain about the lack of shiny, expensive players in Seattle or worry about the shiny, expensive players on other teams. All I want to know is this: what can we expect from the Mariners this year?
Can we expect to win 90+ games? Can we expect to secure third place while Pujols and Darvish battle for the division? Can we expect the green hydro to beat the red and yellow hydros on Opening Day?
Here’s what I think we can reasonably expect from the Mariners this season.
We can expect an influx of fresh talent. In case you missed MLB’s Top 100 Prospects list, five Mariners cracked the top 77: Jesus Montero (#12), Danny Hultzen (#16), Taijuan Walker (#18), Nick Franklin (#52), and James Paxton (#77). We may not have superstars in Seattle yet, but with Montero’s offensive acclaim, Franklin’s quick glove, and Hultzen’s fastball, this new crop of Mariners can do some damage to visiting clubs.
And consider this: during the Mariners media presser yesterday, Shannon Drayer tweeted that of the 65 invitees this spring, 55 have less than five years of major league experience, and 45 have less than a year of service. Like it or not, it’s going to be a young crowd.
We can expect Montero to develop into a major league catcher. Key word there is “develop.” Eric Wedge made it very clear that Jesus won’t be rushed into anything this year, but will be given the time, instruction, and gradual guidance into the role that he needs. For now, expect Olivo behind the plate for a good portion of games in 2012.
We can expect a new leadoff hitter. Wedge has been saying this since the Winter Meetings, if not earlier. Ichiro will likely move to the No. 2 or 3 spot, with Dustin Ackley, Chone Figgins, or Franklin Gutierrez heading the lineup.
We can expect a significant jump in offensive production. Montero’s responsibility is to rack up at-bats. Gutierrez is returning stronger and healthier, and Wedge won’t allow him to get sick again. Ichiro may revive his bat from the No. 2 spot. Ackley, Smoak, Seager, and Wells are also potential hot spots in the lineup. And with the arrival of rookie starters like Hultzen and Walker, the more run support, the better.
We can expect to win third place. In my observations, Mariners fans usually fall into one of two categories: those who envision a long, grueling road to success (Team Jack), and those who feel that the Mariners could strike the right combination of luck and talent at any point (Team Wedge). Let’s play the realist card and say that even if the Rangers and Angels have a lock on the playoffs, the Mariners have a fair shot at finishing above the Athletics.
We can expect to be better than 2011. I know, that’s setting the bar pretty low. Here’s the thing, though—we thought 2010 was dismal, and then 2011 managed to sink even lower. 2012 has to be a turnaround year, especially as we build on a foundation of young players and start heading down a path to the postseason. Jack has added 13 new players over this offseason; enough to bolster the up-and-coming prospects as they prepare to take on the AL West. This may not be another magical 116-win season, but it has to be an improvement over last year.
Granted, these are not predictions on my part, just confident expectations. Perhaps by the end of the season, we’ll see a team that has matured and proven themselves worthy of contention against top-dollar free agents and their intimidating franchises. As usual, Eric Wedge puts it best (via Todd Dybas):
“I expect better performance, I expect better numbers. [...] I expect more wins, and these guys can directly take care of that. I’m going to have more expectations of them and I expect them to have greater expectations for themselves and for each other.”