This was Seattle's fourth straight fourth-place finish in the AL West, though this year they had the Astros to keep them out of the cellar. They have been under .500 the whole time, and have lost at least 90 games in three of those years.
Seattle is a stunningly beautiful city. I mean, it's gorgeous. That's a strong word, but I feel like I'm underselling just how incredible it is. I last visited in summer; it barely rained and it wasn't too hot or muggy. My understanding, and correct me Seattlites if I'm wrong, is that Seattle is not always like that. In fact, it's not often like that. That is, it's often beautiful, but more often rainy and somewhat depressing. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean that as an insult. You make it work for you, and it seems to be kind of a point of perverse pride.
The Mariners suited the city in 2013: They were often depressing and occasionally beautiful. The vast majority of that beauty stemmed from Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who were one of the two best starting tandems in baseball. Unfortunately, they fought the good fight largely alone and could only account for roughly 40 percent of the Mariners' starts. It was "Hernandez, Iwakuma, and pray for a tumah" until Taijuan Walker and James Paxton debuted in September. Joe Saunders, Aaron Harang, Brandon Maurer, and Erasmo Ramirez started exactly half of the team's games, posting a combined 5.64 ERA in a league that allowed 4.33 runs per game on average. (A reminder that their home games were in a park designed to help pitchers.) It didn't get any better in the bullpen, where Tom Wilhelmsen struggled at the back end and lost his job to little Danny Farquhar; Seattle finished 29th in baseball in relief ERA. According to Baseball-Reference's version of WAR, Hernandez and Iwakuma combined to be worth 12.2 wins above replacement, while the other 20 pitchers the Mariners used in 2013 were worth a combined -0.2.
Key Stat: .237 Batting Average
Acute Seattle-itis also infected the Mariners' bats in 2013. In an attempt to up the offense, Seattle's braintrust moved in the fences of Safeco Field last offseason. It worked, kind of: The M's hit the second-most bombs in the American League and scored more runs than they had since 2009, when league scoring was 10 percent higher than it is now. Indisputably, that's a good thing. But for as much fun as all those homers were, they were moments of beautiful, perfect sunlight in the middle of an irrepressible light rain. Visiting clubs also benefitted from the shorter fences; while the Mariners improved their scoring by 13 percent over their previous four-year average, their opponents saw their scoring increase by 19 percent.
Unsurprisingly, moving the fences did nothing to help the Mariners get on base, a chronic problem over the last five years. The Mariners had the lowest batting average in the American League in 2013, just as they had the previous four years. They also finished last in on-base percentage from 2009-2012, jumping all the way to 13th this year, and last in slugging percentage from 2010-2012. Resultantly, the Mariners were last in baseball in runs scored over those past five years, the only club with fewer than 3,000 runs, and were more than 150 runs behind the next worst team. In that time, they have been almost 600 runs below league average. Since 2005, just one Mariners hitter has drawn more than the 68 walks that Kyle Seager took this year. (That was Chone Figgins in 2010, and he was otherwise miserable.)
Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager (Scott Halleran)
The most productive hitters on the team were a 30-year-old designated hitter and a 41-year-old left fielder who should have been a designated hitter. Mike Zunino (.214/.290/.329) was rushed and predictably struggled, Dustin Ackley (.253/.319/.341, though a torrid August helped spike his numbers following his demotion and recall) continued to disappoint, and Jesus Montero (.208/.264/.327) may not actually be a major league regular.
There is some cause for hope. Justin Smoak (.238/.334/.412) finally began hitting as though his job depended on it, which it did, and managed to make himself into a passable offensive first baseman (though he fell off again in the second half, hitting .208/.291/.431 over the season's final third). Kyle Seager (.270/.360/.477 on the road) played almost every game and was very productive. The debut of Nick Franklin (.225/.303/.382) was marred by a possibly aberrant 9-for-84 (.107) in August, but was good enough overall to give reason for hope, especially if they can improve their on-base skills.
Breakout: Brad Miller, Danny Farquhar
Brad Miller (.265/.318/.418) flew through the Mariners system in less than three years and latched on to the starting shortstop job in late June. Good luck ever getting it back from him. All he's ever done is hit at every level he's played at, and had a 110 OPS+ in half a season at the big league level. He's a tough player not to like.
Danny Farquhar (SGreg Fiume )
Speaking of which, how can you not root for Danny Farquhar, who is listed at 5'9" because somebody let him stand on a box when he was getting measured? He was waived twice in June of 2012 before the Yankees dealt him to Seattle for Ichiro. Since the start of 2011, he's played for Sacramento, Las Vegas, Toronto, New Hampshire, Trenton, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Tacoma, and now for Seattle. He can throw in the mid-90s with his fastball, or dial it down with a cutter, and struck out more than a third of the batters he faced in 2013, the third-highest percentage in the AL for anyone with over 40 innings. Next year is going to be a hell of a coming out party for him.
Breakdown: Jesus Montero
If Michael Pineda's shoulder hadn't exploded, the trade that brought Montero would have been an unmitigated disaster. As it is, the Mariners gave away a then-valuable trading chip for what might prove to be minimal return. Nobody expected Montero to be Johnny Bench, but he can't block pitches in the dirt, can't throw runners out, and (perhaps with the help of Safeco) lost his grip on the hitting that was supposed to be his saving grace. Knee surgery in June might have put to rest any thoughts of him catching again, but then he only homered once in more than 100 minor league plate appearances to finish out the year, Justin Smoak raised his game, and Kendrys Morales earned a qualifying offer. Oh, and Montero was suspended for Biogenesis connections. There's no place for Montero to play in 2014, especially if he can't find his power, and he may never be passable major-league hitter. So there's that.
Prescription: Let them play
Low batting average aside, the club has a core of young hitters who need more exposure to major league pitching to further their development and are at an age where it's still possible for them to make strides towards productivity. There's been talk about free agent Jacoby Ellsbury being in the mix, but he would presumably push Dustin Ackley to a corner while he still possesses the potential to be a valuable up-the-middle player. Michael Saunders will be back and in a corner. All four infield positions are spoken for, and it seems unlikely that Zunino would start 2013 back at Tacoma (though he probably should). Taijuan Walker and James Paxton figure to be at least as useful as anybody else the Mariners filled out the back end of their rotation with last year. The best option would seem to be to roll forward with what is on hand and hope for some continued development under McClendon.
After the failure of Michael Morse, the club is still going to need some help at one of the outfield corners that free agents Shin-Soo Choo or Carlos Beltran could provide, especially given their on-base skills. The club has also been connected to Nelson Cruz, whose defense would certainly add to the ugliness that Hernandez and Iwakuma fought so hard against. He would certainly be a creative way to punish those Mariners fans who are still coming out to games. If Beltran and Choo ultimately go elsewhere, the Mariners would probably be wiser to go forward with Abraham Almonte or Carlos Peguero than to forfeit a draft choice (a second round pick) in order to bring in Cruz. The bullpen also needs a massive overhaul behind Farquhar, Yoervis Medina, and Carter Capps.
Ultimately, it's hard to see this team pushing past the Rangers and the A's in 2014, but weird things happen when a young core coalesces and guys like Joe Saunders and Harang are replaced by players who actually have something to contribute. If you get rid of those rain clouds, you let a lot more light in. It becomes possible to envision a scenario where the improvements Ackley and Smoak showed at the end of 2013 are real, and Franklin and Miller continue to develop as expected, given the Mariners as many as seven above-average players in their lineup. Then, if Walker and Paxton can stay healthy and provide a jolt in the rotation, the Mariners could press for the second wild card. That's a lot of ifs, of course, but when it's been raining for as long as it has been in Seattle, you cling desperately to any forecast that gives you hope of a little time in the sun.