Gateway: Sports

Can the Mariners finally get back into the postseason?

The last time the Seattle Mariners played more than 162 games in a season was in 2001. I was 10 years old. Every year, I wonder if the M’s have put together a good enough group to get back to playing baseball in October. For years, Mariners fans have dealt with watching a subpar product on the field, marred by desperate signings of washed-up players, poor trades, and in recent years, the complete lack of anything even remotely resembling a formidable major league lineup. This year, things are finally looking up.

Watching bits and pieces of Monday’s home opener against the Angels — a 4-1 win by the Mariners, with King Felix in predictably dominant opening day form — the 45,000-plus packed in the stadium gave the day an exciting vibe. Opening day is always exciting — everyone is hopeful for the season — but this season feels different. The expectations surrounding the team are high, with many national analysts not only picking the Mariners to win the American League West, but also to contend for a berth in the World Series. For the first time in a while, I expect the Mariners to win. It’s a strange feeling.

It all starts with the pitching. This year’s rotation — Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker and J.A. Happ — looks like one of the best staffs in all of MLB. Whether or not it actually will be dominant is mostly predicated on how the young guys do. By now, we know what we’re getting with Felix and Iwakuma. While Paxton was impressive last year, teams will make adjustments. Walker, brimming with talent and future ace potential, will have to live up the hype. Happ, while not exactly a thrilling signing, gives the Mariners back-end experience and reliability.

Last year’s Mariners bullpen was historically good. The key signing was closer Fernando Rodney, who led all of Major League Baseball with 48 saves. The Rodney signing allowed the M’s to move capable closers down to earlier innings, giving the Mariners a bunch of guys that no hitters really want to face. This year — a couple of new faces, Carson Smith and Spokane native Tyler Olson. Did everyone see the way Smith went after Mike Trout on Monday? My goodness — fearless and impressive. While it’s realistic to expect the bullpen to regress a bit this season, if it can play anywhere near the level it did a year ago, it’s going to be a tough group to go up against.

The biggest difference with this year’s team will be with the lineup. For the first time in who knows how long, the Mariners finally, FINALLY have a legitimate middle of the order. The big offseason splash was the signing of Nelson Cruz, who led MLB with 40 home runs last year as a member of the Baltimore Orioles. The M’s 3-4-5 is now Robinson Cano, Cruz and Kyle Seager — three All-Stars. Of course, those three can’t be expected to do everything. The continued maturation and improvement of players like Dustin Ackley and Mike Zunino will be vitally important for the success of the team.

Overall, there’s just so much to like about this team. There will be ups and downs — such is the nature of the 162-game season. But this year’s team has the experience and skill to have more ups than downs. This year, the Mariners will finally get back into the postseason.

My prediction: 95-67. First place in the American League West. Detroit Tigers defeat the Seattle Mariners in the American League Championship Series, 4-3.

World Series prediction: Washington Nationals defeat the Detroit Tigers in five games.