PEORIA, Ariz. -- The baseball season can be a grind in Seattle, what with the daunting travel schedule and all those marathon flights, so the Mariners have every right to look back with pride on their 87-win effort in 2014. They rekindled enthusiasm for the game in the Pacific Northwest by contending for a playoff spot until the final day, drew 2 million fans for the first time since 2010 and laid the groundwork for some significant spring training buzz in the Cactus League.
When manager Lloyd McClendon reflects on last season, one piece of statistical minutiae fails to compute: To this day, he's mystified that the Mariners were able to amass a 32-23 record against left-handed starters. That's the most wins by any AL team vs. lefties in 2014.
"It's really strange,'' McClendon said. "I can't explain it. It's probably because teams threw them against us so much. It wasn't fun having seven lefties in the lineup against Chris Sale. I was looking at our lineup going, 'You've got to be kidding me.'''
With a series of moves in the offseason, Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik gave McClendon lineup flexibility, acquired some playmates for second baseman Robinson Cano and increased the odds that staff ace Felix Hernandez's seasonal narrative won't be the usual array of 3-2 wins intermingled with 2-1 losses.
The San Diego Padres made big news over the winter by loading up on right-handed thump at a time when it's incredibly hard to find. The acquisitions of Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers raised the stakes at Petco Park and prompted Kemp to hail general manager A.J. Preller as a "rock star'' in December.
Zduriencik is too much of a bedrock, Western Pennsylvania ball guy to appear in the same sentence with the words "rock star,'' but his offseason was arguably as effective as Preller's. He spent $57 million over four years to sign Nelson Cruz, the only big leaguer to reach the 40-home run mark last season. Then he operated surgically, functionally and within the confines of his budget to add length to the batting order. Seth Smith came over from San Diego in a trade for reliever Brandon Maurer, Justin Ruggiano arrived in a deal with the Cubs and Rickie Weeks signed a $2 million contract shortly before spring training.
Ruggiano has a career .836 OPS against lefties, and the Mariners hope Weeks can rediscover the form he displayed when he reeled off three straight 20-plus homer seasons in Milwaukee from 2010-2012. McClendon leaves open the possibility of Weeks accumulating 350-400 at-bats this season, even if his exposure to second or third base will be limited; the Mariners already are covered at those two spots.
"The young man can hit,'' McClendon said, "and when you can hit, you find your way into the lineup.''
Help for Cano
With minimal flash, Seattle's lineup will have a deeper and more versatile look this season. Cruz slots in behind Cano and ahead of third baseman Kyle Seager and first baseman Logan Morrison to give the Mariners a formidable 3-4-5-6 combination. Smith and Ruggiano will platoon in right field. And if Weeks can make significant strides as the newest pupil at the Andy Van Slyke Outfield Finishing School, he will combine with Dustin Ackley to give the Mariners what they hope will be a productive platoon tandem in left.
McClendon isn't kidding when he says opposing teams loaded up on southpaws against Seattle a year ago. The Mariners faced lefty starters in 55 games -- easily the most in the American League. They ranked last in the league with a .636 team OPS vs. lefties, so their .582 winning percentage in those games was partly a reflection of a lights-out pitching staff.
Of course, everything revolves around Cano, who largely fulfilled the expectations of his 10-year, $240 million contract in Year 1. He arrived from New York with a superstar aura and embraced the leadership responsibilities that come with all those commas and zeros in his salary. Cano also gave his young teammates a hitting clinic four or five times a night while batting .314 with 37 doubles and an .836 OPS.
"You can't beat him,'' Seager said. "He can elevate the ball to right field and drive it out of the ballpark. He'll take hits to left field or drive the ball to left. You can't shift off him because he uses the whole field, and you can't pitch him a certain way because he'll make adjustments. His swing is so pretty. Just watching him and being able to pick his brain about what he does is pretty special.''
The biggest knock against Cano last year was a lack of power. His 14 homers were a significant drop from his 27 homers in 2013 and 33 in 2012. But it's hard to imagine he won't get more good pitches to hit with Cruz behind him than he did last year with Kendrys Morales, Seager, Corey Hart and Justin Smoak as the principal four occupants of the cleanup spot.
"Very rarely did a pitcher look into the on-deck circle and say, 'I need to throw Robbie a fastball down the middle here,''' an AL scout said. "When they came in with a pitch, he would turn on it. But he's such a good hitter, most of the time he just took what teams gave him. If teams threw him a fastball down and away, he just laid it down the left-field line.''
Furthermore, McClendon's lack of bench options forced him to keep Cano and Seager in blowout games down the stretch when they were both gassed. Weeks should help in that regard. If old reliable Willie Bloomquist can return from microfracture knee surgery, he gives McClendon another bench option and more late-inning maneuverability.
The most welcome development for Cano is the presence of his new wing man. Last year, Cano arrived at spring training and publicly lobbied for the Mariners to sign Cruz. The two All-Stars bonded as teammates on the Dominican Republic's championship club at the 2013 World Baseball Classic and have ruminated for years about the possibility of playing together. But the Mariners passed on Cruz last spring, and he signed a one-year, $8 million deal with Baltimore and led the majors in homers even though Camden Yards wasn't particularly kind to him. Cruz hit 15 homers and slugged .463 in Baltimore and belted 25 homers and slugged .584 on the road, so he's not about to be unnerved by the prospect of 81 games at Safeco Field.
Cruz actually ranks the hitting background in Seattle among the best in the game. He's very happy in his new environs. Cano, in turn, seems energized by the addition of some new muscle to his entourage.
"Great player. Great person. Works hard. Likes to win. Competes. Those are guys you want to have on your team,'' Cano said of Cruz.
A decent offense has been missing from the equation for a while in Seattle. The Mariners haven't cracked the top 10 in the league in runs scored since 2007, when Ichiro Suzuki was the team's resident fire-starter and Raul Ibanez, Adrian Beltre and Jose Guillen were middle-of-the-order anchors.
The last time the Mariners were truly scary, Lou Piniella was in the dugout and "Who Let the Dogs Out?'' was a between-innings staple at Safeco. The year was 2001, and Seattle led the majors with 927 runs scored with Bret Boone, Edgar Martinez, John Olerud, Mike Cameron and a young Ichiro bludgeoning opponents into submission.
No one is ready to christen this lineup a juggernaut just yet. Ackley is 2,013 plate appearances into his big league career and he has a .245/.309/.366 slash line to show for it. Catcher Mike Zunino has power and serious plate discipline issues (as evidenced by his 158 strikeouts and 17 walks last season). Center fielder Austin Jackson is not a classic leadoff hitter, and it remains to be seen how the Brad Miller-Chris Taylor shortstop competition will play out.
But with their new, more multidimensional look, the Mariners will give lefty starters Derek Holland, C.J. Wilson, Scott Kazmir and Dallas Keuchel more to think about within the division. If King Felix and the staff pitch to expectations, Seattle doesn't have to be an offensive powerhouse. Middle-of-the-pack production might suffice.
"I think they're a 93-win team,'' an American League scout said.
The Mariners will be content with as many wins as it takes to reach the postseason for the first time since 2001. Each crack of the bat in Arizona makes them more anxious for the season to begin.