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A Running Start: Mariners 'Legitimate Contender' For Playoffs This Year

MarinersCruzSpring.jpg
Lenny Ignelzi
/
AP Photo
Nelson Cruz, center, leads his Mariners teammates as they practice their leadoffs and start moves in unison at a practice prior to a spring training game against the Los Angeles Angels Monday, March 30, 2015, in Surprise, Ariz.

The Mariners start the 2015 season at home Monday afternoon. They host the Los Angeles Angles at Safeco Field.

KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says there's a different vibe surrounding the team this year, and it's got him a bit out of sorts.

Mariners? Contenders? You Bet.

A lot of sports experts are predicting great things from the Mariners this season. Art Thiel doesn't know what to do with all that optimism.

"All this 'happy, happy, joy, joy' going on with the Mariners is sort of discombobulating because we're all comfortable with our jaded cynicism about Mariner futures.

"But most of the major pundits – Sports Illustrated, Yahoo, ESPN – are all forecasting at least postseason for the Mariners," Art continued. "Probably a division championship. And likely an American League championship, which would put them in the World Series for the first time ever.

"I’m having a hard time dealing with this but, really, it’s based in fact. They look to be a legitimate contender."

Spring Training Highlights

Nelson Cruz: The superstar slugger was the Mariners' biggest acquisition in the offseason.

"As designated hitter, Nelson Cruz is finally the guy they needed to back Robinson Cano," Art said. "He'll be hitting a lot of cleanup and he's also going to help Kyle Seager. So, they're going to have a real solid middle of the order, which they have not had.

"Of course, designated hitter has been a black hole for the Mariners for many years – ever since Edgar Martinez retired.

"Nelson Cruz led baseball in home runs last year, with 40," Art said. "I don’t think he's going to do that at Safeco but I think he's going to be a real big asset." 

J.A. Happ: The Mariners acquired the veteran pitcher in the offseason.

"He'll likely be fourth in the rotation," Art said. "Veteran guy. Hasn't looked great this spring but I think he's going to be a help as the season progresses."

Taijuan Walker: The young pitcher who performed well last season shined during spring training. He'll be the fifth starter.

"He looked dominant at spring training this year," Art said. "He gave up only a single run over six starts. So, they’re really counting on him to have a breakthrough year."

Spokane’s Tyler Olson: The young pitcher from Gonzaga University fought hard for a spot in the Mariners' bullpen. He'll be the second lefty behind Charlie Furbush.

"He came in as a non-roster invitee and that's a hard thing to overcome," Art said. "Typically, the roster is 40 people, 25 of which will be on the opening day roster. He wasn't on either."

"He came from Double-A ball last year in Jackson. Really was dominant in spring training. Everyone liked him."

"He’s got a great variety of pitches. And he throws sidearm, which is a very difficult motion for a lot of batters to detect. I think a lot of people are going to get a kick out of him."

Mike Zunino: Catcher Mike Zunino was one of the nice surprises last season - behind the plate but not at the plate.

"He finished last year with a .199 batting average, which is terrible," Art said. "And he struck out a lot. This year, at least in spring training, he hit very solidly for average and not just power."

"He had 22 home runs last year, which was the most by a catcher in Mariners franchise history. But hitting .199 is really a liability."

"A lot of that happened because he was rushed to the majors too soon by the Mariners who were desperate for a catcher. They said 'don’t worry about your hitting, just catch and manage the starting pitching."

"He was rushed and hadn't had time to grow into a Major League hitter. Now he is. And that's a big part of the optimism around the Mariners."

Prediction: Postseason

Art says he's not ready to predict an American League championship for the Mariners this season.

"I'm looking at my little bag of confetti here and I'm not ready to throw it just yet," he quipped.

"But I am going to say that the Mariners are going to make the postseason. And I think they're going to have 90 wins this year."

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You can find Art Thiel’s work at Sportspress Northwest and Crosscut.com.

Kirsten Kendrick has been hosting Morning Edition on KNKX/KPLU since 2006. She has worked in news radio for more than 30 years. Kirsten is also a sports lover. She handles most sports coverage at the station, including helping produce a two-part series on the 50th anniversary of Title IX and the ongoing series "Going Deep."
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 historylink.org and Mad Magazine that has become mandatory reading for any sports fan who has an indoor bathroom.
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