King Felix

King Felix plays a Game of Thrones.

King Felix

Summer is coming. As the Seattle Mariners open their 36th MLB season, hopes are rising in the Emerald City. For the first time in a decade, the mantle of team leader passes from Ichiro Suzuki to 26 year old Felix Hernandez and his King’s Court . Emerging from seasons of 101 and 95 losses, the Mariners have fielded a historically anemic offenses over the past two seasons.

In a division with heavyweights like the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels, the Mariners might not contend, but their young prospects must show progress in their development. This season’s slogan, “Get after it” doesn’t tell us much about team expectations (or anything really), so what exactly will we see from the 2012 Mariners?

1. From the hand of the king

Felix Hernandez returns after two dominating seasons during which he received little to no offensive support (unless you count this). This year, Hernandez is the unquestioned leader of the pitching staff and should provide his normal 200+ innings and 220+ strikeouts. While the zip on King Felix’s fastball has been missing early this year, it is in part due to cool weather conditions.

Opening night, for instance, was very cold in Seattle and although Felix started well, he lost both velocity and control as the game proceeded. Regardless, Hernandez has demonstrated that he knows how to pitch to contact when required and remains the leader of the team. It’s the supporting cast, however, that GM Jack Zduriencik has been forced to upgrade for the King.

2. The search for a true dragon

Last year, the Mariners stopped gambling on declining veterans (see Chone Figgins, Jack Cust, Carlos Silva, Carl Everett, Ken Griffey Jr.), and instead bet heavily on youth and potential. Much of 2011 was spent seeing whether the rookies could survive at the major league level. This year, manager Eric Wedge is looking to see who can become an impact player for the team. Players to watch include:

I. Dustin Ackley (2B) – Drafted second overall in the 2009 draft. Ackley was considered one of the best hitting prospects in his class. He quickly progressed to the big league club and has settled in as the second batter in the Mariners lineup. A first baseman/outfielder in college, Ackley moved to second base with the Mariners.

II. Jesus Montero (C/DH) – The Mariners gave up pitching phenom Michael Pineda for the heavy hitting Montero. The power was evident early this season as Montero hit a line drive home run to the deepest part of Safeco Field against the A’s. The question is whether Montero’s slow feet will prevent him from being an everyday catcher. He will spend the season as DH learning to hit at the major league level while backing up catcher Miguel Olivo.

III. Justin Smoak (1B) – In the first two months of 2011, Smoak was showing signs of being a legitimate power source in the middle of the Mariners lineup. Injuries to his hands combined with the death of his father derailed his season and it wasn’t until September that he regained his form. Expected to be the cleanup hitter this year, Smoak appears much more effective when he employs his batting eye to force better pitches and draw walks. He sometimes gets into trouble when he adopts an overaggressive mindset and tries to hit home runs.

IV. Kyle Seager (3B) – Seager roared his way through minor league ball and ended up on an undermanned Mariners team in 2011. This year, Seager has shown increased power while providing strong infield defence. Soon the Mariners will have to make a decision about what to do with third base incumbent Chone Figgins to make space for the rising Seager.

V. Michael Saunders (OF) – The Victoria, BC native boasts a tantalizing combination of speed and power. This year, the Mariners need to see once and for all whether Saunders can make contact at a high enough rate to be a regular contributor. Others: Hector Noesi (SP), Casper Wells (OF), Mike Carp (OF/1B), Blake Beavan (SP), Alex Liddi (3B/1B).

3. The three kings

While the Mariners evaluate their hitting prospects at the major league level, the real future of the team rests on the development of three minor league pitchers: 2011 second overall pick Danny Hultzen (22), flamethrower Taijuan Walker (19) and former Jays first round pick James Paxton (23).

The three prospects are now pitching at double-A Jackson TN, with intentions of developing them as a unit. Paxton appears to be the most advanced at this point, Hultzen, a lefty, combines good command with a low 90’s fastball and the raw Walker features a fastball that touches 98. When these three arrive in Seattle, they will join King Felix and gives the Mariners a chance to compete with the likes of the Rangers and Angels.

The plan echoes the Jays efforts a decade ago when they tried to develop a young core of pitchers in Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay and Kelvim Escobar. A lot can go wrong as these prospects develop, but it represents a gamble that the Mariners and their fans are willing to take. The alternative of continuing to recycle the Jeff Weaver’s, Carlos Silva’s and Erik Bedard’s of the world brought the Mariners nothing but 100-loss seasons.

The Mariners young prospects will battle throughout the summer to prove their worth. Wedge has been clear that the clock has started and that tangible progress is expected from the youngsters this season. The gap between the Mariners and the Rangers/Angels must be closed and the charge must be led by the newcomers. If these young Mariners prove that they are up to the task, their divisional rivals will soon know that winter is coming.

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