Our Seattle Mariners will either narrowly make or miss the American League playoffs this year — although the odds presently point to a miss. But, either way, they deserve credit for clear improvement over the previous several seasons. Waiting for Next Year will be a hopeful exercise over the coming off-season.
First, Lloyd McClendon turned out to be a good manager for this team. Known for his volatile eruptions during a previous gig as Pittsburgh Pirates manager, McClendon learned to level out during a subsequent stint coaching under Jim Leyland, then the manager of the Detroit Tigers. McClendon remained a fierce competitor but kept himself and the Mariners on a professional and even keel.
McClendon's players both liked and respected him. He and his coaches also did a first-rate teaching job with young players on the roster; you could see the latter learning and growing over the course of the season.
Second, superstar second baseman Robinson Cano proved to be the player and leader the Mariners hoped he would be when they gave him a massive, 10-year contract last winter. Cano, 31, is likely to maintain his performance level over the next three or four seasons and help this young team grow and win. His contract, after that, will be an onerous burden on the franchise. But that's to worry about later.
Third, most successful teams win at home and break even on the road. This year's Mariners did it the other way around and will finish the season at or below .500 at Safeco Field. Likewise, contending teams usually beat the heck out of losing teams and break even against more talented competitors. This year's Mariners did the opposite, faring well against good teams and often losing to ones they should have beaten.
Fourth, this was the year when General Manager Jack Zduriencik's "plan" — to home-grow the team through its farm system — finally began to look successful. Kyle Seager, Mike Zunino, Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, Brad Miller, Chris Taylor, James Jones, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Roenis Elias, Brandon Maurer, Dominic Leone, Yeorvis Medina and Carson Smith all stamped themselves certified big leaguers, Seager an all-star. Erasmo Ramirez, another player out of the Mariners system, regressed in 2014 but still could establish himself as a starting pitcher. There are a half-dozen farmhands only a year or two away from big-league status, including injured pitcher Danny Hultzen and sluggers D.J. Peterson and Patrick Kivlehan. The ultimate home-grown Mariner is, of course, pitching ace Felix Hernandez, who has known no team but the Mariners.
Finally, from the season's beginning to its looming end, the team remained without a No. 4 hitter who could hit behind Cano in the lineup, drive in 100 runs, hit 30 homers and at least that many doubles. Corey Hart, the ex-Milwaukee slugger trying a comeback after a 2013 lost to injuries, was hobbled and hurt again and no doubt will be gone at season's end. Kendrys Morales, obtained by trade in late July, missed most of the season in an ill-advised holdout engineered by agent Scott Boras and never got back his hitting groove of earlier seasons. If he's back in 2015 it would be via an inexpensive one-year contract — one Boras no doubt would counsel him to reject.
There are several matters left hanging, including the futures of first baseman Justin Smoak and designated hitter Jesus Montero. Smoak got off to a strong 2014 start but then came up with nagging injuries, faded and was sent to Tacoma, where he bashed the ball both for average and power. He did not return to the Mariners, however, until September, at which time he'd been replaced at first base by Logan Morrison, a hustler and journeyman hitter but inferior to Smoak as a fielder at the position.
Montero reported to spring training out of shape and overweight and was banished to Tacoma, where he hit just as strongly as Smoak. Then, during a minor-league injury rehab stint, he got into a silly fracas with a Mariners scout who was harassing him. Montero was suspended; the scout was fired. Smoak and Montero came in trades to the Mariners as highly touted prospects destined for stardom. Thus far they have disappointed. Both are likely to be offered in trade this winter. Their value has diminished and it's unlikely much could be gotten for them. But both still have potential.
There were many uncertainties for the Mariners entering 2014. There will be fewer going into 2015. They have solid starting and relief pitching. Austin Jackson, acquired in a late July trade, is a professional center fielder and leadoff hitter who has stabilized the outfield. Team defense and speed are excellent.
The uncertainties for next year: One is the status of Hisashi Iwakuma, the Mariners No. 2 starter behind Felix, who lost his usual consistency and went into a late August-September swoon. Is there something physically wrong with him? Another is the degree to which starter Chris Young will be able to replicate his strong comeback season of 2014. Young, in his mid-30s, had missed the entire 2013 season with injuries. But he gave multiple consistent starts this year. Will he be back and able to do the same next year?
Will Elias, a pleasant 2014 surprise who apparently will be out the rest of the season with a recent injury, continue to develop in 2015? Will Paxton and Walker be the pitching stars they're expected to be? Will Hultzen, rated above both of them earlier, be physically ready and back in form after missing 2014 after arm surgery?
Will a designated hitter and first baseman be found who will provide the extra-base power and clutch hitting so badly needed in the lineup? Will a righthanded-hitting outfielder be found to platoon with or fill in for Ackley and Saunders, both lefthanded hitters and injury prone?
If the Mariners want to be sure about a DH, first baseman, and righthanded-hitting outfielder, they will trade pitching and one or two of their young position players to get them. (Zunino and Seager will not be traded under any circumstance). If they're feeling more confident about their present talent, they'll wait until spring training to see if Smoak, Montero, Morrison or perhaps Peterson or Kivlehan can fill those gaps.
It's quite likely that 9th-inning closer Fernando Rodney, 38 next season, will no longer be able to make hair's-breadth escapes. But Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen, Leone, Maurer and Smith all have potential to replace him individually or together. Holdover lefthanders Charlie Furbush and Joe Beimel will remain as middle relievers and/or specialists against lefthanded hitters.
The 2015 Mariners are unlikely to be a juggernaut team. Cano is their only .300 hitter. They have no true home-run blaster. But pitching and fielding are the cornerstones of success. An incremental improvement in team hitting — either through trade or through improvement of players on the current roster — should be enough to move them up a notch competitively.
Next September should find this team still on the rise and building for year-in, year-out playoff competition rather than scrambling for a one-time chance after a multi-year drought.
We owe our thanks for a 2014 season which exceeded our expectations. Spring training begins in late February in Peoria, Arizona.