The AL West has become a tough division to compete in, and the Mariners spent plenty of money this offseason in an effort to come out on top. While the Angels are reeling from their past spending sprees, the Rangers made a blockbuster trade this winter to add more power, and the A's doubled down on their surprise 2013 squad. (The Astros are still just a cute Quadruple-A club that should pad everyone's win totals.) But the Mariners paid top dollar to the best free agent available this offseason in 2B Robinson Cano, hoping his big bat and veteran leadership will bolster this offense.
There's much debate over Cano's signing, whether it's a fool's errand bringing a power-hitting, 31-year-old second baseman into a pitcher's park, but there's no question that he's already the Mariners' best pure hitter since Ichiro Suzuki was in his prime. Will he be able to pull this offense up out of the bottom third of the majors in runs scored? That's the $240 million (10-year) question.
On the mound, the pitching staff didn't see too many changes -- at least in the rotation. While they're expected to add super prospect Taijuan Walker, it's essentially the same rotation from a year ago. However, the bullpen saw some changes, most notably with the signing of new closer Fernando Rodney, who should benefit from the spacious confines of Safeco Field.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Dustin Ackley, LF
2. Kyle Seager, 3B
3. Robinson Cano, 2B
4. Corey Hart, RF
5. Justin Smoak, 1B
6. Logan Morrison, DH
7. Michael Saunders, CF
8. Mike Zunino, C
9. Brad Miller, SS
1. Felix Hernandez, RHP
2. Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP
3. Scott Baker, RHP
4. Erasmo Ramirez, RHP
5. Taijuan Walker, RHP (shoulder)
Others: James Paxton, Blake Beavan
Bullpen: Fernando Rodney (Closer), Tom Wilhelmsen, Danny Farquhar
Is Cano going to be able to hit for power still in the cavernous Safeco Field? The biggest fantasy noise this offseason was when the former Yankees second baseman moved to the Great Northwest, going from a favorable hitter's park to a favorable pitcher's park. My colleague Michael Beller and I debated whether owners should draft Indians 2B Jason Kipnis over Cano this season. I think Cano will excel in Seattle for a few reasons.
First, too much is being built out of the larger ballpark in Seattle compared to New York. In fact, every home run that Cano hit in 2013 would have also gone out of Safeco Field. Secondly, the Yankees only scored 26 more runs than the Mariners last season, and Cano was still the best fantasy second baseman in the game. While the 2014 Yankees might be much better offensively, Cano did just fine with a bad lineup in 2013, which should make you feel better about Cano in the Mariners' lineup. The Mariners ranked 28th in the majors with a .237 team batting average last season.
Finally, the only other middle infielders chosen among the top 20 picks of most drafts are SS Hanley Ramirez and SS Troy Tulowitzki, who have missed an average of 160 games over the past three seasons. Cano missed a total of six games over his past three seasons.
Will Fernando Rodney help or hurt your fantasy team in 2014? Rodney's signing in Seattle has fantasy owners a bit cautious for this season. His problem hasn't really ever been giving up the long ball, with just six home runs allowed over his past three seasons. So Safeco Field's size shouldn't make that much of a difference in his saves totals.
However, he's coming off a relatively unimpressive sequel to his breakout 2012 season in Tampa Bay. After posting 48 saves with a 0.61 ERA two seasons ago, Rodney posted 37 saves with a 3.04 ERA last season with the Rays. His second half was a bit better than his first half, but he'll be 37 years old this season, and his WHIP nearly doubled from his record-setting 2012 season.
The best reason Rodney should help your team, however, is the fact that he's likely going to be available to you in Round 15 or 16 of a 12-team mixed draft.
If Rodney can keep his walks down (he posted nearly as many walks -- 36 -- as saves in 2012), he'll be in better position to close more games out. The Mariners do, however, have a couple guys behind him in the bullpen that gained experience closing. Tom Wilhelmsen has 53 saves over the past two seasons, and Danny Farquhar overtook him last summer to notch 16 saves of his own. The point being -- Rodney's expensive contract will keep him on the mound in the ninth, unless he starts blowing saves for a rotation that's expected to be pretty good.
What's the ceiling for pitching prospect Taijuan Walker? While Baseball America has Walker ranked as the third-best pitching prospect in baseball (behind New York's Masahiro Tanaka and Arizona's Archie Bradley). But some shoulder soreness has already slowed down his expected insertion into the Mariners 2014 starting rotation. Follow his injury news closely this month, as he should have a rotation spot waiting for him once he's ready.
A healthy Walker means the Mariners have a second power pitcher in the rotation after Felix Hernandez (heard of him?). His short three-game audition near the end of last season was a rousing success (1-0, 3.60 ERA, 12 strikeouts in 15 innings), but it's also important to note that he faced the Astros twice and the Royals once.
Walker's fastball and slider should keep him ahead of batters all season, and his four walks issued in 15 MLB innings last season showed he's not overwhelmed at this level. His athleticism (he's a former high school basketball star) should signal he'll have agility to keep from getting dinged up throughout the season. That theory already has a hole in it, of course, with his current shoulder problems.
If he's healthy, Walker projects to double-digit wins, and a strikeout per inning. You have to assume his innings will be topped off at about 175 innings (he pitched a career-high 156 innings last season). With Seattle, he should be a sub-4.00 ERA pitcher, and fantasy owners should roll the dice on him late in their 12-team mixed drafts -- as early as Round 20.
Corey Hart, OF/1B -- After getting his right knee surgically repaired in 2012, Hart missed all of 2013 after undergoing surgery on his left knee, which he injured while recovering from the first injury. If he's healthy, and all indications are that he is, then he'll work to get his batting eye back to where it was from 2010-2012, when he averaged 29 homers and 82 RBI, with a batting average above .275. If he comes anywhere near that, he'll give you OF3 value out of a player you can draft as an OF5 in the late rounds. Most fantasy services will only allow Hart to be drafted as a first baseman, but that's good news for you, since you'll be able to slot him at either first base or outfield by the second week of the season.
Hisashi Iwakuma, SP -- It's easy to peg Rodney as a possible bust, but considering he'll be among the last closers taken, there's not much room to bust. And while Cano might be the most popular pick as a bust candidate, I'm going with Iwakuma. The Japanese pitcher finished third in the AL Cy Young voting, just behind Max Scherzer and Yu Darvish. While he's not a strikeout guy (185 in 219 innings), he does have great control, posting a stellar 1.006 WHIP last season. But a strained tendon on his middle finger has his 2014 debut in jeopardy, and owners are drafting him based on last year's great numbers -- among the top 100 fantasy players. There are too many other good pitchers to bet on someone that high who is already entering the season injured.
Kyle Seager, 3B -- Seager actually had a version of a breakout season in 2013, with 22 home runs and 69 RBI last season, ranking sixth among third baseman in Head-to-Head leagues. The fact he was second only to David Wright (17) in steals (nine) among all regular third basemen helped his cause last season. He draws walks and gets on base regularly, and as a 26-year-old third baseman entering his third full season, he's a prime breakout candidate -- especially with Cano and Hart batting behind him. He should also blow away the 71 runs scored he has averaged the past two seasons. Erasmo Ramirez qualifies as another great breakout candidate, as a third-year starting pitcher. He allowed two or fewer earned runs in six of his final 10 starts last season.
AL-only guys to know
Logan Morrison, 1B -- Still just 26 years old, Morrison still has upside, despite coming off of knee surgery and being traded by the Marlins. Injuries seem to be the biggest thing holding him back, but he has shown some power in previous seasons (23 homers in 123 games in 2011). If he's healthy, or at least spelled enough to remain relatively healthy, LoMo could eclipse 20 home runs again this season.
Brad Miller, SS -- In half of a season, Miller posted pretty good numbers in his rookie year. His 33 runs scored ranked seventh among shortstops after the All-Star break. Obviously, batting ninth, he's going to need some help to score that frequently this season (he hit leadoff in 67 games last year).