Mariners, Angels start year with high expectations

( – The Seattle Mariners haven’t been to the postseason
since 2001. They are hoping to change that this season, as the Mariners kick
off their campaign against the defending American League West champion Los
Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Safeco Field.

The road back to the playoffs started last offseason for Seattle when it
signed second baseman Robinson Cano away from the New York Yankees to the tune
of $240 million. Cano did his part, but had little help in a lineup that
scored just 3.91 runs per game.

So, the Mariners continued to open their wallets this winter and agreed to a
four-year, $57 million deal with slugger Nelson Cruz, who hit an AL-best 40
home runs last season for the Baltimore Orioles.

Maybe not as bold as Cruz, Seattle also added outfielder Seth Smith. With
those two, as well as Cano, burgeoning superstar Kyle Seager, who himself
received a $100 million extension this offseason, Austin Jackson, Logan
Morrison and Mike Zunino, the Mariners have a lineup that should finish better
than the bottom-three in runs scored that it did a year ago.

How can you talk about the Mariners, though, and not mention Felix Hernandez?

Hernandez had another spectacular year in 2014 and will be on the hill Monday
for his eighth Opening Day start.

It was a historic season in 2014 for King Felix, as he put forth the best
statistical season of his career and a new major-league record with 16
consecutive starts in which he allowed two or fewer runs in at least seven
innings of work.

Hernandez was 15-6 last season and led the league with a 2.14 ERA and a 0.915
WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) over 34 starts. He was also fourth
in the league with 248 strikeouts and held opponents to a league low average
of .200.

Hernandez may receive all the headlines, but he is backed by some solid arms
in righty Hisashi Iwakuma and lefty James Paxton. This could also be the year
that prized prospect Taijuan Walker starts to break through.

What really makes the Mariners go, though, is their bullpen. Spearheaded by
closer Fernando Rodney, the Mariners’ bullpen ERA of 2.59 was the best in the
AL. It should be more of the same, as they return essentially the same unit.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, won more games than any team in baseball last year and
returned to the postseason for the first time since 2009 thanks in part to an
MVP season from Mike Trout and a nice bounce-back year from Albert Pujols.

Trout’s first taste of playoff action may have only lasted three games, as he
and his team ran into a buzzsaw named the Kansas City Royals, but the Halos
could be poised for some more October baseball.

Los Angeles outscored every team in the league last season, but those numbers
may go down with second baseman Howie Kendrick now playing for the Dodgers.
Still, Trout is the best player in the game and Pujols showed there was still
some life in his bat, swatting 28 home runs and knocking in 105 runs. Those
two, along with Kole Calhoun, Matt Joyce, C.J. Cron and Erik Aybar, still
provide as solid a lineup as any group in the AL.

The status of Josh Hamilton was somewhat cleared up on Friday when the Angels
found out that he would not be suspended following his relapse with drugs and
alcohol. The former AL MVP still may not be ready for some time, though, as he
is a rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery.

Jered Weaver remains the leader of this staff, but he is nowhere near the
same pitcher he was a few years ago. Luckily, they have a pretty deep group
behind him in C.J. Wilson, Matt Shoemaker and Garrett Richards once he returns
from a knee injury that cut his breakout 2014 campaign short.

Weaver will start on Monday in his seventh Opening Day assignment.