MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 20: Ichiro Suzuki #51 and Dustin Ackley #13 of the Seattle Mariners celebrate a win against the Minnesota Twins on September 20, 2011 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Mariners defeated the Twins 5-4. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Five "If" possibilities that could bring the Mariners back to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
The 2012 Seattle Mariners are not expected to compete for the 2012 playoffs. Breaking past baseball's regular season isn't as easy as it might be in the NFL or NBA but surprises always happen and the added Wild Card could give hope to an also-ran this year and in the near future.
Last year, the Mariners lost 95 games and will be picking in the top five again. What would need to happen for Seattle to turn those 95 L's into 95 W's? Besides bribing Sesame Street, the Mariners are going to need to get lucky, get the breaks, and turn "If's" into reality. Here are five "If's" that could see the M's return to October baseball for the first time since 2001:
If the Young Hitters Hit
GM Jack Zduriencik has done an amazing job of turning the farm system around and bringing in a core of young hitters that look more promising than any crop of hitting prospects in Seattle since the nineties. Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak, and Mike Carp are all expected to contribute from the onset this year, but if Seattle is going to compete now, then patience won't have the luxury of being a virtue.
As a rookie, Ackley was the most complete hitter on the team last year and hit .273/.348/.417 in 90 games with six stolen bases. Ackley's superior plate discipline and ability to make contact project him to be a possible .300/.400/.450 hitter with 20 stolen bases and if he can approach those numbers this year, then Seattle will have at least one All-Star caliber bat.
Montero is picked by some to be the AL Rookie of the Year this season and the catcher/DH has the ability to hit for power to all fields, even in the spacious Safeco Field. If he can hit the ground running, Seattle will have a special asset that few teams can boast.
Justin Smoak struggled at times during the 2011 season, but injuries on the field and unfortunate family issues off of it (the loss of his father), could give hope to a bounceback season this year. If he reaches his potential, Smoak could be a switch-hitter of the Mark Teixeira-mold.
The only player with a higher OPS+ than Ackley on the team last year was Carp. The OF/1B/DH may not have a definite place on defense, but on offense he could be one of the top all-around bats in the offense. Carp hit .276/.326/.466 in 79 games last year and if he can do that for a full year, Seattle will have another solid hitter to rely on.
In addition to these hitters, Seattle would do well to get significant contributions from any of these young players: Casper Wells, Michael Saunders, Kyle Seager, or Alex Liddi. If any of those guys can help produce runs at an above-average pace, then Seattle will finish much higher than "last" in the AL in scoring.
If the Young Pitchers Pitch... Well.
Many people were shocked when Seattle selected University of Virginia starting pitcher Danny Hultzen with the number two pick in the 2011 draft, but looking at the 2012 starting rotation it helps make a lot more sense. With Michael Pineda now in New York, Hultzen could provide a boost to the major league rotation (and it needs it) as soon as this year.
There should be no concerns about the value of Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, and by now we should know how much Jason Vargas can do, but after those two the rotation is either mysterious or underwhelming.
Hector Noesi came along with Montero in the deal for Montero and if he can prove to be as good as Zduriencik and Yankees GM Brian Cashman say he can be, then Seattle just got themselves a solid mid-rotation starter. If Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma can keep the ball in the park and help bridge the gap to the future, then the Mariners got themselves a good deal for a number four or five starter.
After that, things get dicey in the rotation until Hultzen, James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez, and Taijuan Walker are able to help at the major league level with significance. If Hultzen and Paxton can help the big league club in 2012, and if bullpen arms like Tom Wilhelmsen and Chance Ruffin can help hold the fort down on the road to Brandon League, then the Mariners will have an above-average ability to prevent runs in the pitching department.
If Ichiro Goes Back to Being Ichiro
Many eyes will be on the future Hall of Famer this year as fans wait and wonder if the 2011 season was simply a fluke or if they really were the first sign of decline for the aging superstar. The biggest difference for Ichiro this year will obviously be the move from leadoff to hitting third and if he can go back to hitting .300 (2011 was his first year under that mark) then Seattle will have a good hitter with speed hitting behind Ackley and in front of Carp, Smoak, and Montero.
There's been much speculation on whether or not Ichiro could be as successful in a different role and whether he really had that kind of in-game power, the same that he displays in batting practice shows, and if he proves the doubters wrong then he could set career highs in a number of categories.
Something that the Mariners have lacked in recent years has been a middle-of-the-order hitter, so is it possible that he's been on the team for over ten years?
If the Defense is Elite
If the Mariners are going to surprise people, then they are going to have to find value in hidden areas. In places that perhaps aren't valued as high as hitting or pitching, aspects of the game that are more easily defined in statistics. When the Mariners won a surprising 85 games in 2009, it was widely thanks to having the best defense in the majors led by Franklin Gutierrez in centerfield, among others.
It won't all come down to pitching and defense (Seattle only allowed six more runs in 2010 than they did in 2009, but lost 24 more games thanks to a terrible offense) but if the M's can put an elite defense behind their pitchers than they could surprise some teams this year. Brendan Ryan is known for solid defense at one of the most important positions, Gutierrez is recovering from another setback, and Ichiro will be hoping for better defensive results this year in addition to getting back on track at the plate.
Jesus Montero is still a work-in-progress behind the plate, but if he can get better and spend significant time at DH as well, then the Mariners won't have much to worry about on defense.
If the Division Rivals Disappoint
The biggest barrier between Seattle and the playoffs comes in the form of the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels for the division, and the Red Sox/Yankees/Rays battle for the AL East and Wild Card spots. Simply put, Seattle doesn't look as good as these teams and therefore won't be getting over the hump this season.
The Angels added Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson and are expected to get back over 90 wins again. The Rangers have gone to back-to-back World Series and despite the loss of Wilson to the Angels, are still one of the most talented teams in baseball and they replaced Wilson with perhaps the second-best free agent on the market: Starting pitcher Yu Darvish.
The Mariners are going to have to not only hope for success from within, but they'll have to hope for failures around the league that we aren't expecting. That's when "If's" turn to "Wills?"
Will Darvish fail in his first year in the majors? Will Pujols not be enough to turn the Angels hitting around? Will injuries hit the Angels talented rotation and the Rangers potent lineup?
It would be wonderful to be on the top looking down and not hoping for the "Ifs" in order to believe that you can make the playoffs in any given year, but after a decade of playoff absence, Mariners fans will have to settle for having one of the most intriguing crop of young talent in the majors and hoping the "If's" become "Playoffs."
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