The Seattle Mariners had one of the best turnarounds in baseball last year. They managed a 16-win improvement from 71 in 2013 to 87 last year. It still wasn’t enough to make the postseason, but they were right in the race up until the final few games of the season. Their postseason drought now extends to 2001 despite leading the American League in ERA last year.

The culprit was an offense that ranked 14th, 15th and 12th, respectively, among AL clubs in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. They sported a lefty-heavy lineup that made them vulnerable to matchups in late-inning situations. Their solution this offseason was to sign free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz, who led the majors with 40 homers last season in Baltimore.

With one of the best rotations in baseball, and the majors’ top bullpen from a year ago, the Mariners are a real threat to win the AL West in 2015. Not only did they add Cruz, they also swung trades for outfielder Seth Smith (lefty) and Justin Ruggiano (righty), who can be deployed on a daily basis for favorable matchups. Let’s take a look at your 2015 Mariners.

Projected Lineup

Austin Jackson (CF) – Looking to rebound in contract year after a disappointing 2014 in his first season with the Mariners. He only hit .229 without a home run in 223 at-bats with Seattle after getting traded over from Detroit last year.

Seth Smith (RF) – The patient hitter will likely platoon with Justin Ruggiano in right after being acquired from the Padres in the offseason. He hit .266 with 12 homers and 48 RBIs last year in San Diego.

Robinson Cano (2B) – The Mariners spent big on Cano last offseason. He had a solid first season in Seattle, hitting .314 with 14 homers and 82 RBIs. All Seattle needs him to do is stay healthy so he can carry this lineup.

Nelson Cruz (DH) – Cano could be primed for an even bigger season because he now has some protection behind him. Nelson Cruz led the majors with 40 homers in Baltimore last year and was a huge addition to this lineup in the offseason.

Kyle Seager (3B) – The new $100 million man has a lot of expectations to live up to. He blossomed last season into an All-Star and Gold Glove winner. He hit .268 with 27 doubles, 25 homers and 96 RBIs last year.

Logan Morrison (1B) – He’ll get the first crack at first base thanks to his huge finish last year. Morrison hit .321 over his final 51 games after missing two months earlier in the season due to a severe hamstring injury.

Mike Zunino (C) – The young catcher is a stud behind the plate, but the Mariners aren’t going to be able to live with his .199 average again. He does at least have some pop at the plate, collecting 44 extra-base hits (22 homers) in 2014.

Dustin Ackley (LF) – The Mariners are still waiting for Ackley to put a full season together. He slashed .225/.282/.335 before the All-Star Break, but .269/.307/.467 after it in 2014.

Brad Miller (SS) – He’ll battle Chris Taylor during spring training for the starting job at short. Miller is more of a hitter with legit power and suspect defense, while Taylor is the complete opposite.

Lineup Analysis

Quietly, the Mariners have constructed one of the more underrated lineups in baseball. They spent big money to lock up their three best hitters in Cano, Cruz and Seager, and it should pay major dividends as soon as 2015. The Smith/Ruggiano platoon should work out well, and Ackley’s second half is a promising sign going forward. Jackson can’t be as poor as he was last year in Seattle, where the trade could have really taken its toll on him. This may be the best lineup the Mariners have had since the days of Ken Griffey Jr.

Projected Rotation

Felix Hernandez (RHP) – Herndandez is a great example of a young starting pitcher who gets paid, and then proceeds to elevate his game. He had a career-high 248 strikeouts last year and career-lows in ERA (2.14) and WHIP (0.915), but somehow did not win the Cy Young.

Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP) – There may not be a more underrated starting pitcher in all of baseball. This guy has a career 1.086 WHIP and just continues to get it done at a high level. Iwakuma went 15-9 with a 3.52 ERA last season.

James Paxton (LHP) – The former Kentucky Wildcat has shown tremendous talent when healthy. He went 6-4 with a 3.04 ERA and 60 strikeouts over 74 innings last year in 13 starts for the Mariners.

Taijuan Walker (RHP) – There’s no denying that Walker possesses high-end stuff. He went 2-3 with a 2.61 ERA over five starts and three relief appearances with the Mariners last year. He should be ready for a full-time role in the rotation in 2015.

J.A. Happ (LHP) – He came over in a trade from Toronto this offseason to battle Roenis Elias for the final spot in the rotation. Happ still hasn’t lived up to his potential, though. The lefthander went 11-11 with a 4.22 ERA and 160 strikeouts over 158 innings with the Blue Jays last year, which are numbers they’d live with.

Rotation Analysis

You’re looking at the single-most underrated rotation in baseball. The Mariners led the American League in ERA last year. Hernandez was the best pitcher in the AL in balloting by his peers and league executives, even if the BBWAA chose Cleveland’s Corey Kluber as the Cy Young Award recipient. Iwakuma is a legit No. 2 starter who won 15 games last year despite missing a month with a finger injury. Paxton, Walker, Roenis Elias and Danny Hultzen are four of the most talented young arms in the game. Paxton figures to be in the starting rotation for sure, but then it will be a battle between those three and Happ for the remaining two spots. That’s a good problem for the Mariners to have.

Bullpen

While the Royals’ bullpen grabbed all of the headlines last year, it was actually the Mariners who had the majors’ best overall unit by a wide margin in terms of ERA (2.59). Fernando Rodney led the majors with 48 saves in 51 opportunities. Yoervis Medina and former closer Danny Farquhar shared the eighth inning. Charlie Furbush and Joe Beimel served as lefty specialists, while rookie Dominic Leone won eight games in middle relief. Tom Wilhelmsen even compiled a 2.27 ERA as a long reliever. While Brandon Maurer and Beimel are gone, the Mariners won’t have a problem replacing them. Carson Smith shined in September and should fill in for Maurer. Lucas Luetge, Edgar Olmos and David Rollins will be in the running for Beimel’s spot.

Betting Odds (Bovada)

  • To Win World Series: 16/1
  • To Win AL Pennant: 7/1
  • To Win AL West: 9/5
  • 2015 Season Win Total: 86.5

Prediction: 1st Place AL West (90-72 – OVER 86.5)

The Mariners took a huge step in the right direction last year. They had a 16-win improvement by going from 71 wins in 2013 to 87 in 2014. I expect them to take another step forward in 2015 due to some key moves they made this offseason to improve their roster.

The additions of Nelson Cruz and the Smith/Ruggiano combo will give the Mariners a more potent lineup this year. Their offense was a weakness last season, but that is no longer. Couple that with the most underrated rotation and the best bullpen in baseball from a year ago, and the Mariners really have a recipe for success.

I have them winning 90 games in 2015, which wouldn’t have been enough to win the division last year. It will be enough this year as the Angels and A’s both take big steps back. The Mariners will be going back to the postseason for the first time since 2001.

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