This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 21: The Seattle Mariners. You can find previews for teams 30 through 22 here.
2013 Record and Finish: 71-91, fourth place in AL West (25th overall)
2014 Projected Record: 76-86, fourth place in AL West
The Case For
Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners' general manager, says that his club's delicate wooing of Robinson Cano—which included the presentation of a birthday cake to his agent, Jay Z—played a central role in Cano's coming to Seattle. The guess here is that Seattle's offer of 10 years and $240 million outweighed even what was surely a thoughtful and delicious combination of flour, sugar and butter. Cano will bring a bat that has produced the major's 11th-best OPS (.899) over the past five years to a park, Safeco Field, that with its fences moved in finally played fair last season (it was, in 2013, a neutral run-scoring environment, after formerly heavily favoring pitchers). But the Mariners also wanted Cano for his winning pedigree. He was always considered a supporting clubhouse player with the Yankees, but with Seattle, the 31-year-old will be the man tasked with getting his highly rated but disappointing younger lineup mates (like Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak) on track. So far, a scout told me, he has taken to the new role. "He's in the middle of everything that's going on, having conversations," the scout said. "Seems like he's out to prove something." Of course, Cano is just one month in, with 115 or so more to go.
The Case Against
For all their offseason changes, the Mariners remain unbalanced. Their everyday lineup features just two right-handed hitters, Corey Hart and Mike Zunino, and Hart – who will be expected to bat behind Cano – has looked awfully rusty in his attempt to return from knee surgery. The former Brewer's first 31 spring at bats produced four hits and 16 strikeouts. The rotation is extremely top-heavy: Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are excellent, but behind them is a mix of guys who are unproven or injured or both, as is the case with top prospect Taijuan Walker. There is talent here, but can it all come together all at once?
X-Factor: Taijuan Walker
"This is a kid that’s a tremendous athlete," said one scout this spring. "Throw Bob Gibson and Dwight Gooden together in a blender and you’d come up with Taijuan Walker." The 21-year-old, who stands 6-foot-4-inches, is Baseball America's No. 18 prospect this season and can throw 98 miles an hour. However, even the scout who envisions a Gibson-Gooden smoothie concedes that "he needs to command his secondary stuff better," and could probably use a bit more time in Triple-A. He'll get a little of that, mainly due to the shoulder inflammation that delayed his first spring start until March 22, but he'll likely be in Seattle by May because the Mariners need him as soon as they can get him. If Walker can get healthy and mature quickly, then he'll give his club a one-two-three rotational punch that might rival any in baseball, including those of the Tigers, Nationals and Cardinals.
Number To Know: -73.0
It wasn't long ago that the Mariners had one of the most skilled collections of fielders the league has ever seen. In 2009, defensive wizards like Franklin Gutierrez, Adrian Beltre and Jack Wilson combined to give them an Ultimate Zone Rating of 86.0, meaning that its fielders saved the club from yielding 86 runs that league-average defenders would have permitted, the best perfomance the website FanGraphs has ever recorded. That year, the Mariners had their only winning season among the last six. In 2013, though, Seattle's UZR dropped to a league-worst -73.0, a massive swing in a span of five seasons. The offseason's additions of the defensively mediocre Cano and the outright poor Hart and Logan Morrison won't improve matters, and will increase the burden on the Mariners' starters.
Most overrated: Michael Saunders
"Five years in the major leagues, fits the physical profile but has never put up numbers. Their weakness is their outfield right now, they don't have one guy other than maybe Ackley who is guaranteed a start on Opening Day. You didn't used to get to hit .236, as Saunders did last year, and stay in the big leagues. He's not a centerfielder, and as a corner guy, he'll tease you every now and then, but he doesn't play with a hair on fire. He looks better in a uniform than he performs in one."
Most underrated: Charlie Furbush
"Big lefty reliever that is just deadly on left-handers and has the ability to get out right-handers too. They're not afraid to use him against multiple hitters, and he's one of the filthiest left-on-left guys in the game. Three-quarter slot, long, gets on top of hitters so quickly and hitters don't pick up the ball on him. Low 90s with a wipeout slider. He gets the ball up there on a hurry, and you don't pick it up well."
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