Lloyd McClendon sensed the momentum early in spring training, before exhibition games began. His Seattle Mariners were emerging as a trendy pick to win the American League West, and the second-year manager felt a little uncomfortable with the pressure that comes with a spotlight.
“Don’t pick us,” McClendon said. “Let us stay under the radar.”
It’s a little late for that. Nothing that transpired in Arizona over the last five weeks has reduced expectations for the Mariners, who finally have an offense to couple with superb pitching. Their middle-of-the-order trio of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager compares favorably to any in baseball.
Seattle is a popular pick to win a division that includes a strong Angels club coming off a 98-win season, and analysts are predicting the Mariners will reach the World Series for the first time in their 38-year history.
“We’ve made some additions that should make us better,” McClendon said. “But it’s not always the best team. It’s the healthiest team that has best opportunity to win.”
The Mariners went 87-75 and came within one win of a playoff spot in 2014, elimination coming on the final day of a season in which four of their five starting pitchers spent time on the disabled list.
“It was bittersweet, a taste none of my players will forget,” McClendon said. “You work your tail off all year, put your heart and soul into it and come up one game short, it makes you think about all the games you could have won. I believe your past prepares you for your future, and I think our future is pretty bright.”
Seattle, which led the AL with a 3.17 earned-run average last season, has a deep and talented rotation of Felix Hernandez, one of baseball’s best pitchers over the last decade, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, J.A. Happ and Taijuan Walker.
Kansas City has baseball’s best back-of-the-bullpen trio in Greg Holland, Kelvim Herrera and Wade Davis. But the Mariners may have the deepest collection of power arms in the bullpen with closer Fernando Rodney, who converted 48 of 51 save opportunities in 2014, Yoervis Medina, Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen and Dominic Leone.
Cruz, who signed a four-year, $57-million deal after hitting a major league-high 40 homers for Baltimore last season, should be a considerable upgrade in a cleanup spot that produced a .218 average and .647 OPS (on-base plus slugging), both AL-worsts last season.
He will bat between Cano, who hit .314 with 82 runs batted in, and Seager, who hit .268 with 25 homers and 96 RBIs. Seattle should be better offensively in right field with a platoon of Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano, and the Mariners have solid hitters at first base in Logan Morrison and left field in Dustin Ackley.
If speedy leadoff man Austin Jackson can rebound from a subpar year, the Mariners should score enough to support their pitching.
“They’ve come a long way offensively,” Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson said of the Mariners. “They’re getting a lot of play, and for good reason.”
Seattle’s stiffest competition will come from the Angels, who have a potent middle-of-the-order duo in Mike Trout and Albert Pujols and a deeper pitching staff.
Oakland is a bit of an unknown after a whirlwind winter in which General Manager Billy Beane made nine trades involving 27 players. The three, four and five hitters — Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes and Brandon Moss — from teams that won the 2012 and 2013 AL West titles are gone, as are top pitchers Jon Lester (free agency) and Jeff Samardzija (trade).
But the Athletics have strong pitching and defense, and Beane has a good track record when it comes to trading one young star for two or three prospects who become impact big leaguers.
“When they make a move,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said, “it’s usually one that’s going to make them better at some point.”
Texas shouldn’t be as bad as it was in 2014, when the Rangers went an AL-worst 67-95 and used the disabled list 26 times, resulting in 2,281 days lost to injury, most in the major leagues.
The return of first baseman Prince Fielder should help. He underwent surgery on a herniated disk in his neck last May 27. But losing ace Yu Darvish to Tommy John surgery was a huge blow, there are too many uncertainties in the lineup, and the bullpen is too in experienced for Texas to contend.
“Any time you get punched in the mouth like these guys did last year, it’s tough,” Rangers first-year Manager Jeff Banister said. “They went through some rough times, but they’re energetic, upbeat and hungry.”
Houston improved from 51 wins in 2013 to 70 wins in 2014, but the Astros, who led the AL with 1,442 strikeouts last season — 226 more than the league average of 1,216 — will be hard-pressed to reach .500 for the first time since 2008.