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Mariners To Begin Spring Training Play With Bold Prediction

Charlie Riedel
AP Photo
Mariner Nelson Cruz bats during spring training baseball practice Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, in Peoria, Ariz.

The Mariners begin spring training play next week in Arizona with a pretty bold prediction from one of their star players.

"On paper we look like a world champion."

Those were the words of Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano as the players reported to Peoria, Ariz. this week to begin spring training practice. Games begin next week.

KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel initially thought Cano's statement was "crazy," given the years of "florid rhetoric" around the Mariners in spring training.

"But nobody — nobody — has ever said that about the Mariners' seasonal fortunes in spring training," Art said. "That says a lot about what's going on. You can say it's hyperbole and, yes, it is. But there may be something to it."

Big Reason: Nelson Cruz

Art says the offseason acquisition of slugger Nelson Cruz to serve as designated hitter is "a big missing piece that’s now filled."

"Last year, the Mariners, collectively, at the DH position hit less than .200," Art points out. "They were the worst in the American League. It was an awful situation because they couldn’t find anybody to do what is typically the easiest job.

"There are a lot of hitters out there who could do this. And the Mariners, for years and years — really almost since Edgar Martinez, who was the best DH of all time, retired – there hasn’t been anybody to fill that void."

2015 Could Be 'The Year'

Art said a lot of people were skeptical about the Mariners giving Cruz a four-year, $57 million contract. He's 34. But last year he hit 40 home runs to lead the American League.

"And for the Mariners it’s all about 2015," Art said. "Robinson Cano says this is a world championship team. And, in the three, four, five spots in the lineup, they have Robison Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager.

"That is a pretty good middle of the order — something the Mariners really haven’t had since the days of Ken Griffey, Jr."

Some Question Marks

Art says the Mariners begin spring training with fewer holes than usual. A lot of positions are secured.

"The shortstop is going to be resolved this spring between two young guys who had their moments last year, Brad Miller and Chris Taylor," he said.

In the outfield, Austin Jackson is starting in center field and the other positions will be platoon situations.

"They brought in three new outfielders," Art said. "In right, they’re going to have Justin Ruggiano, signed from the Cubs, and Seth Smith, signed from the San Diego Padres, to split with the lefty-righty pitching combinations.

"In left field, Dustin Ackley, who is the starting left fielder but who hits left-handers terribly, is going to be helped by (newly-acquired) Rickie Weeks."

Art says Weeks has never played outfield before. For the past 11 years, he played second base for the Milwaukee Brewers.

“But [Mariners GM] Jack Zduriencik was the general manager in Milwaukee when they acquired Weeks. He likes him, thinks he’s going to be versatile enough to be a great glove guy out there.

"I’m a little dubious but, nevertheless, he hits left-handers far better than Dustin Ackley does, and I think that is going to be a real advantage in getting production out of what was a weak spot," Art said.

Solid Pitching

The starting pitching rotation is looking good as well, according to Art.

“One-two is certainly guaranteed with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Number three goes, probably, to newly-acquired J. Happ. He comes from Toronto in a trade for Michael Saunders.

"The four and five spots are likely to be James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, youngsters who debuted very successfully last year. If they all stay healthy, that’s going to be a formidable starting five.”

“This is the most put-together Mariner team I’ve ever seen.”


You can find Art Thiel’s work at Sportspress Northwestand

Note: Dustin Ackley’s trip to spring training was interrupted by the premature birth of his first child. Parson Bennett Ackley arrived several weeks early on February 19th without complications.

Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.
Art Thiel is a co-founder and writer for the rising sports website Sportspress Northwest. In 2003 Thiel wrote the definitive book about the Seattle Mariners, “Out of Left Field,” which became a regional bestseller. In 2009, along with Steve Rudman and KJR 950 afternoon host Mike Gastineau, Thiel authored “The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists,” a cross between and Mad Magazine that has become mandatory reading for any sports fan who has an indoor bathroom.