Three keys for the Mariners to meet their lofty expectations

Feb 18, 2015, 5:39 PM | Updated: 5:48 pm

A healthy and productive season from James Paxton would make the Mariners’ rotation dangerous...

A healthy and productive season from James Paxton would make the Mariners' rotation dangerous. (AP)


The Mariners begin spring training this week with a strange new sense lingering in the air: expectations. I’m not talking simply of the hope of a new season and the feeling every MLB fanbase has this time of year but of a legitimate sense of expectation that this team can not only compete but contend for a divisional title and perhaps even the American League pennant.

You can read the predictions from ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The MLB Network and others that describe an improved team over the 87-win squad from a year ago that will be in the postseason this year. Those aren’t the kinds of expectations most Mariners have come to expect with this team. They are also not the kinds of expectations that result from an offseason acquisition or two, so what needs to happen for this club perform up to expectations?

Here are three things I think I think need to go down:

1. Filth served from the left-hand side.

For all of the talk of improved offense and the signing of Nelson Cruz leading that chatter, the Mariners are still a team built on the strength of its rotation. Felix Hernandez is Felix Hernandez so I am taking him for granted. The man is nicknamed “The King” after all – what else do I need to say about that? Likewise with Hisashi Iwakuma. We know about The Machine. However, James Paxton’s continued growth could provide a huge boost to this team. After four starts in 2013, Paxton was bothered by injuries and only started 13 games last year, but in those 13 games he gave a glimpse of what he could be as a left-handed power pitcher. With a fastball velocity that betters lefties like Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw and David Price and a career ERA of 2.66, it’s easy to get excited about an entire year of Paxton in the rotation. On his own, Paxton is far too young and too inexperienced to be counted on, but in a rotation with two aces, a vet in J.A. Happ and some other young talent like Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias, you can see where a power arm like Paxton’s could make the Mariners very dangerous.

2. Growth from MZ3 or ZZ Stop or Mikey Z – whatever you would like to call him.

On Tuesday’s show I made casual mention of the fact that some people like to use nicknames for Mike Zunino and the text line flooded with ideas for the young catcher. Whatever you would like to call him, Zunino’s bat needs to improve this year. He’s already a rock-solid defensive catcher and comfortable calling games for the Mariners’ star pitching staff, but that .199 batting average from 2014 is an eyesore especially when you realize that the power – he hit 22 home runs in 2014 – is there to be had. I’m not suggesting that Zunino needs to hit .300, but for a Mariners team long starved for power hitters, even a modest bump up in average could do this team wonders. If Zunino can give the bottom of this order a .230-.240 type of average and maintain his power with 20-30 home runs, that would do wonders to boost this offense.

3. Episode 2 (or 5 for you Star Wars purists): The Lloyd Strikes Back.

Lost in some of the roster analysis for the Mariners is the importance of the second year at the helm for Lloyd McClendon. In Year 1, he proved his mettle in handling the bullpen, putting pressure on players that he thought needed it (Kyle Seager for instance) and in handling the nonstop media spotlight that went along with each and every decision. Let’s not forget that McClendon followed Eric Wedge and that Wedge emptied his grenade belt on the way out of town. There wasn’t much about the management of the Mariners that wasn’t emblazoned with fresh bus tire tracks by the time Wedge was done. Regardless of what you think about the merits of those accusations, McClendon came in and did a rock-solid job of putting his stamp on this club and instilling some attitude into his players. This year he has to take the next step and live up to his mantra of being the hunter and not the hunted. He’ll have more tools in his box this year, too, with Cruz, a healthy Iwakuma and Paxton, Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano providing experienced outfield depth and Ricky Weeks coming off the bench. Throw in a core group of players that understands McClendon’s expectations and is still spitting out the bitter taste of coming up a game short of the postseason and you have a powerful head start into the year. McClendon needs to prove that his first year informs his second and continue to grow in the role.

Virtually everyone that deals with baseball believes that the Mariners have good things ahead for 2015. While the season is long, if a few things like those listed above fall Seattle’s way, it stands to be fun, too.

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