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February 11, 2013 at 8:32 AM

Bill James online website picks Mariners as ‘surprise’ AL team in 2013

The Bill James online website has picked the Mariners as their AL choice to go from loser to surprise playoff contender. Photo Credit: AP

This one comes as a bit of a surprise, but not really if you’ve followed some of the winter moves made by the Mariners. The Bill James online site published a free item over the weekend that picks a “surprise” team in each league for the 2013 season. So, that rules out all teams that are expected to improve big-time over what they did last year — like, say, the Toronto Blue Jays, now favored by many to win the AL East.

What they are looking for is a losing team that jumps into contention — like the Orioles last season.

Their choice for this year? Your Seattle Mariners.

What the website likes about the Mariners is the youth of their hitters, the highly-rated farm system and the fact that the team finished above .500 in the second half of last season.

As I’ve written up to now, I think this is a Mariners team that could and should finish .500 or better. I do think it is capable of winning 85 games now that the Houston Astros are playing in the AL West.

The offense now has some true mid-order hitters in Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales that they’ve truly lacked since I arrived here in 2006. Couple that with the fences coming in at Safeco Field and some young guys like Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero being primed for a jump in their development and yeah, this offense should be a quantum leap better than in past seasons.

I still worry about the lack of experience in the starting rotation and the fact that Joe Saunders and Hisashi Iwakuma are being counted on to the degree that they will be.

As far as contention, 85 wins is usually the sign a team can stay in contention at least half a season.

The 2009 Mariners won 85 games and contended right up until late July, when they were swept at home by Cleveland right after the All-Star Break and pretty much were always on the outside looking in after that. The word “contention” for me means being four or five games out with a month to go. Anything more and the math is against you and you’re hoping for a miracle run that sometimes happens but usually doesn’t.

In the end, the problem with the Mariners contending is that the Astros factor applies to three other AL West teams as well, all of which won 89 or more last season before Houston came in. So, if the Astros make the Mariners an 85-win team, then the Angels, Rangers and A’s might become 95-win teams and that’s a 10-game gap right there.

To truly make the playoffs, the Mariners need to leapfrog at least two of those three clubs. I dont see that happening right now. I’m also not as sold on the winning second-half of last season, given the dire straits of the clubs the Mariners beat up on compared to the ones they lost to.

But hey, stay in contention until the break and stuff can happen, as we saw last year with Oakland and Baltimore.

So, yeah, I’m ready to say that — five years into the rebuilding plan — this team could and should be able to produce a winning record. Even without the Astros, I think this has the look of an 80-win team and that’s just one win away from .500. The difference now is, if some young guys fall on their face, the Mariners have a contingency plan that’s been sorely lacking up to now.

But remember, with that kind of talk comes heightened expectations. I thought this was a third-place club last year and it finished last.

If the Mariners do not finish .500 or better, ¬†you will not be seeing any “hey, the kids got another year under their belts — great for them!” stories from this corner. Nope, if this squad finishes with 75 wins or worse, there will be far more serious questions being asked — and likely by people far more important than me when it comes to running this team — about where the plan is headed.

So, I’m going along with the improvement thing. I liked the winter on a whole, especially given the setbacks the Mariners had with Josh Hamilton and Justin Upton. I still think Michael Bourn would be a positive addition for a team that needs a leadoff hitter and has no long-term center fielder other than Michael Saunders on-hand. I am not as worried about the money as some, given the TV windfall that lies justaround the corner. The No. 12 draft pick? Any team can follow a Rays path to success by losing every year and piling up high picks for a decade. That’s not enough. At some point, the plan has to take hold before years 6-through-10 and I think Bourn is worth sacrificing a 12th overall pick for.

But that’s just my opinion.

I still thought Jack Zduriencik did a good job this winter at playing the hand he was dealt.

Now, the players he has invested in have to deliver.

I doubt they contend through Sept. 1. This still has the look of a franchise that isn’t planning any serious September runs until 2014 or even 2015.

But if they can do it until the all-star break, the Mariners have a much better shot at proving me wrong than if they are done come mid-May once again.

This should be a more interesting year than any of the previous three. And I don’t need Bill James online to tell me that. But hey, why not give a bigger picture beyond this blog? Have at it. That’s why they play the games.

0 Comments | More in predictions | Topics: bill james, Dustin Ackley, Jack Zduriencik

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