Alex Carson | Prospect Insider

This is a thing that happens every year, right around the beginning of April. Baseball — with all it’s splendor — returns to us after a dormant winter and a stretch of spring training that seems to last an eternity, teasing us as we await the real deal. And every year, we joke about how each team is in first place. Every team is getting a fresh start. Any team can shock the world and do what no one expects.

For the Seattle Mariners, the looming campaign isn’t one bursting with optimism or a feeling of destiny. However, it does have enough sense of change from the past few seasons, that many fans are feeling that sense of hope beyond the passing comment and eye rolls.

While there are certainly still holes in the roster, the club made several moves to shake things up. The big one — being the addition of second baseman Robinson Cano, of course — was a massive upgrade at a premium position. Fans had hoped for a second or third major upgrade to compliment that, but instead got more reclamation projects and scrap heap findings. Still, though, there’s a vibe of what-if in the air among many. Again, blind optimism isn’t seeping out of anyone’s pores or anything, but you just might have a different feeling.

What breaks do the M’s need to ensure this feeling doesn’t fade by June?

Hisashi Iwakuma Returns, Stat
The 2013 AL Cy Young Award finalist had the early setback this spring that he’s still working his way back from. He’ll be throwing bullpens in Anaheim, then return to pitch to hitters in extended spring training soon thereafter. He’ll get some work in, stretch things out and — if all goes well — return to the club by early May. Not having Iwakuma in the rotation behind Felix Hernandez for a month is a big blow. If he suffers any setbacks, and breaks don’t go the M’s way while he’s out, it could be enough to set the team back enough to really harm their chances. While this isn’t all doom-and-gloom, the team really needs the rotation behind Felix to hold down the fort adequately until Kuma can get back his arm strength.

Taijuan Walker Returns, Whenever He’s Ready
The idea of a Felix, Iwakuma, Walker start to the rotation was really nice. But, let’s not forget that the M’s young top prospect only had a cup of coffee in the waning weeks of another lost season. Rushing him back now would not only risk the team’s chances of winning this marathon, but could turn what’s being called a minor injury into a devastating one. Anytime the words shoulder and injury are used in the same sentence for a pitcher, extra caution should be used — especially for a prized young player such as Walker.

Personally, I would like the club to ease him in. If the rotation isn’t imploding without Iwakuma and Walker, I’d prefer the latter to get a little extra time, including some time in Tacoma. The Rainiers open the season with 16 home games in a 20 day stretch to open the season, so the club can keep a watchful eye on him with their top evaluators before making that decision.

The Top Half of the order Works Out
We know Cano is going to hit, even if he’s sleeping for half of his at-bats. What we don’t know is what will happen with the rest of the top half. I’m not in Abraham Almonte‘s fan club. I know manager Lloyd McClendon doesn’t want to have a big run of lefties at the top of the lineup, but Almonte hasn’t shown much in spring. Yeah, I know spring training numbers don’t mean a ton. But I just haven’t seen him square the ball up well. If he continues to struggle, how long will his leash be? Kyle Seager has the track record to suggest he’ll get things going.

The M’s might need it, too, because two outs leading up to Cano isn’t going to result in a lot of runs. Corey Hart figures to be the cleanup guy on paper. But McClendon has already ruled him out for opening day as the club faces a right-hander Jared Weaver. He’ll get the nod against southpaws C.J. Wilson and Hector Santiago as the designated hitter the following two games. It’s early, and of course we have to remember that Hart is coming back from those knee injuries. But for this team to succeed, they really need Hart healthy enough to be more than a platoon DH. If the rest of the cast surrounding Cano struggles while Hart is limited, things could get tricky.

Don’t Squander the Breaks They’ve Already Caught
We’ve got to be honest with ourselves here. If the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers hadn’t had the poor luck they’ve had before the season even kicked off, I don’t know that we’d really be looking at this situation. But, I don’t know anyone who won’t take what they’ve been given. The projection systems — and even a professional baseball gambler — think the M’s have a shot at this thing. An easy way to make all of that look wrong would be to have a disastrous April and May. Roenis Elias and James Paxton have to step up. Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak need to finally emerge. A bullpen with some question marks needs to not falter.

There are plenty of things to worry about with this roster, but it wouldn’t be the craziest thing we’ve ever seen if it worked out. Combine that with the woes of our divisional brethren, and you might have the recipe for something a little surprising. Possibly pleasing, even.

I don’t know that this team is going to win a bunch of games. I don’t know if this team is going to win the division.

What I do know, though, is that for the first time in a while, you can be hopeful for reasons aside from the team being tied with everyone else on the first day of the season.

This could be kinda fun, you guys.

— Alex Carson
Prospect Insider

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. contributed to this report.)


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