The last time the Seattle Mariners were favored to win the American League West was when the franchise put together a team that virtually couldn’t lose.
That was 2001, one of the most remarkable seasons in the century-old game. That season the Mariners won a record 116 games and lost just 46, a .716 win percentage. They won the AL West by 14 games over the A’s, which still won 102 games that year.
They could do virtually nothing wrong in 2001 – and virtually nothing right since. They’ve had 13 playoff-less seasons. They’ve finished higher than third in the division just once. They’ve had eight losing seasons since, and lost at least 100 games twice.
But the train is slowly turning around. The franchise has rebuilt the lineup though the draft with and key power acquisitions – 2B Robinson Cano last year and DH Nelson Cruz this year. The rotation, aced by Felix Hernandez, ranks among the best in the game. And the bullpen is on-the-edge excellent.
Could this be the year? It helps that teams such as Texas and Oakland are down. And the L.A. Angels could be challenged to win 90 games.
The year of the Mariner? Maybe they’ve finally found their way.
Here’s a look at the American League West:
2014 Record/Finish: (87-75, third place)
Rotation: RHP Felix Hernandez; Hisashi Iwakuma, LHP James Paxton; RHP Taijuan Walker, LHP J.A. Happ.
Acquisitions: LHP J.A. Happ, DH-OF Nelson Cruz, OF Seth Smith, OF Justin Ruggiano, OF Rickie Weeks.
Departures: RHP Chris Young, OF Michael Saunders, 1B Justin Smoak, OF-DH Corey Hart, DH-1B Kendrys Morales, LHP Roenis Elias, RHP Erasmo Ramirez, RHP Carter Capps.
Comment: GM Jack Zduriencik is in the sixth year of his five-year plan to get the Mariners into the playoffs for the first time since 2001. In case you haven’t noticed, he’s late. But the club has made such strides – 71-91 in 2013 to 87-75 last year – that Mr. Z gets a reprieve. He may have bought enough time to keep his job for another decade. His team, with the acquisition of slugger Nelson Cruz and the emergence of many of the players he has acquired through the draft and trades, is being picked to win the West this season. The Mariners came within one game of the playoffs last year and all that potential is supposed to pay off for a playoff in 2015. The key players are Cruz along with rookie Taijuan Walker and catcher Mike Zunino.
Prediction: First Place
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
2014 Record/Finish: (98-64, first place)
Rotation: RHP Jered Weaver; LHP C.J. Wilson; RHP Matt Shoemaker; LHP Hector Santiago; RHP Drew Rucinski.
Acquisitions: OF-DH Matt Joyce, SP Andrew Heaney, SP Nick Tropeano.
Departures: 2B Howie Kendrick, C Hank Conger, 2B Gordon Beckham.
Comment: Are we watching the Angels disappear before our eyes? DH/OF Josh Hamilton is a mess and his situation is a mess with the team. He relapsed during the off-season yet was not suspended by the league, to the surprise of the Angels brass, who hadn’t expected or wanted him back. His declining numbers have put a load the roster and team budget. Both top-of-the-rotation hurlers Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson have also shown declines. Budding star RHP Garrett Richards has a tender knee and may not hold up to the grind. The Angels, always a big-splash participants in free agency, were unusually quiet. This is not a 98-win team but with Mike Trout in the lineup, it can compete.
Prediction: Second place, wild card
2014 Record/Finish: (70-92, fourth place)
Rotation: LHP Dallas Keuchel; RHP Scott Feldman; RHP Asher Wojciechowski; RHP Collin McHugh; RHP Roberto Hernandez.
Acquisitions: Manager A.J. Hinch, OF Evan Gattis, RHP Luke Gregerson, C Hank Conger, RHP Pat Neshek, SS Jed Lowrie, OF Colby Rasmus, 3B Luis Valbuena.
Departures: Manager Bo Porter, C Carlos Corporan, OF Dexter Fowler, 1B-OF Marc Krauss.
Comment: Surprised? Third place? You might not think so but after four years in which the Astros lost 106, 107, 111, and 92 games the overhaul may be close to respectability. This is not a playoff team. It probably is barely a winning team, but with a fairly weak AL West, the Astros may be able to feast on the Rangers and A’s just enough to slip into third and give them a boost for 2016.
Prediction: Third place
2014 Record/Finish: (88-74, second place, wild card)
Rotation: RHP Sonny Gray; RHP Jesse Hahn, LHP Scott Kazmir; RHP Kendall Graveman; LHP Drew Pomeranz.
Acquisitions: 2B Ben Zobrist, 3B Brett Lawrie, SS Marcus Semien, 1B Ike Davis, RHP Tyler Clippard, DH Billy Butler.
Departures: RHP Jeff Samardzija, LHP Jon Lester, 3B Josh Donaldson, SS Jed Lowrie, 1B-OF Brandon Moss, C John Jaso, Dan Straily.
Comment: It’s never, ever wise to pick against the A’s. How many ‘experts’ over the past decade have predicted doom and gloom for the cash-strapped franchise. And every year GM Billy Beane puts together 90-win clubs, playoff clubs, and success stories made for movies and books. But this year it just may be a bridge too far. Much of the power has departed. Coco Crisp will miss the first two months with an injury. The rotation is tough at the top, Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir, but questions abound after that. The team is still without top pitchers Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, coming back from injuries. If they come back early and find their form, then it’s a Money Ball sequel. But plenty has to fall into place before that can happen.
Prediction: Fourth place
2014 Record/Finish: (67-95, fifth place)
Rotation: RHP Yovani Gallardo, RHP Colby Lewis, LHP Ross Detwiler, RHP Nick Martinez; LHP Derek Holland.
Acquisitions: Manager Jeff Bannister, RHP Yovani Gallardo, OF-1B Kyle Blanks, C Carlos Corporan, LHP Ross Detwiler, RHP Kyuji Fujikawa, IF Ed Lucas.
Departures: Manager Ron Washington, interim manager Tim Bogar, RHP Yu Darvish (elbow surgery), 2B Jurickson Profar (shoulder surgery), RHP Mark Harrison (spinal fusion surgery), OF Alex Rios, OF Dan Robertson.
Comment: If many of the key Rangers are not sidelined with injuries – RHP Yu Darvish (elbow), 2B Jurickson Profar (shoulder), RHP Mark Harrison (spinal) – then they are coming back from injuries – DH Cecil Fielder (neck) and OF Shin-Soo Choo (ankle, elbow). How far this team has fallen from one pitch from the World Series championship to just 67 wins last year, worst record in the AL. The depth of the rotation or the lineup are both thin, which will relegate them again to the basement.
Prediction: Fifth place