Busy winter has Mariners, Halos poised to rise

seattle mariners

by Doug Miller

March 31, 2014 (ISN) – They’re choosing different ways to go about doing it, but make no mistake: The Mariners and Angels are looking to take last year’s American League West standings and turn them upside down.

This will be the Opening Day task for these two clubs starting tonight at 7:05 PT, as Seattle, which finished in fourth place of five teams in the division last year, heads to Anaheim to meet the Angels, who finished third behind the A’s and Rangers at 78-84. The matchup pits Mariners ace Felix Hernandez against Angels right-hander Jered Weaver.

The AL West landscape has changed a bit, giving both teams hope that this might just be the year to turn things around.

Texas has some pitching issues and hasn’t yet seen how the additions of Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo will impact its lineup. Oakland’s starting rotation is in disarray because of season-ending right elbow surgery for Jarrod Parker and questions elsewhere.

So will it be the time to pounce for Seattle and Anaheim, who have both undergone substantial changes since their disappointing campaigns of a year ago? We’ll start to find out Monday.

For Seattle, a new manager (Lloyd McClendon) and new personnel all over the roster (Robinson Cano, Logan Morrison, Corey Hart, Willie Bloomquist, Fernando Rodney, Roenis Elias) will be on display, but Opening Day will mostly be about the Mariners debut of Cano — who signed for 10 years and $240 million — Hernandez and the young team that surrounds them.

“Now that we have him, it’s great,” outfielder Michael Saunders said of Cano. “But the key to our success is more the collective group of this team taking the next step. I strongly believe that being young is no longer an excuse. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t be good. I think if we collectively take a step forward, we’re going to be fighting coming into September, and September games are going to be meaningful.”

Saunders will be joined by shortstop Brad Miller, catcher Mike Zunino, third baseman Kyle Seager, outfielder Dustin Ackley and first baseman Justin Smoak, the young core that needs to improve for the club to jump in the standings. On the mound, young pitchers Taijuan Walker, Erasmo Ramirez, Elias and James Paxton could eventually help fill out the back of a rotation that starts with perennial AL Cy Young Award contender Hernandez and, once he gets back from a finger injury, one of last year’s Cy Young finalists, Hisashi Iwakuma.

Meanwhile, the Angels are all about forgetting last year and moving on, and it’s probably a bit easier to do that when you have the player widely regarded as the best all-around talent in the sport.

That would be two-time AL MVP runner-up Mike Trout, and he is the key to a lineup that could become a lot more powerful in a hurry if Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton return to form after injury-laden down years. The Angels also need big seasons from Weaver and No. 2 man C.J. Wilson, with Garrett Richards and new additions Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs filling out their top five.

“It’s going to come down to if we pitch and play defense,” Angels catcher Chris Iannetta said. “If we pitch and play defense, we’re going to be very good. If we don’t, we’re going to struggle. That was our issue last year — we didn’t pitch, and we didn’t play defense.”

Fair enough, but a healthy Pujols and Hamilton can’t hurt, and both have looked pretty fit this spring.

“Our main goal is to try to jump out and turn this thing around,” Pujols said. “Don’t dig a hole that early in the month. You always hear, ‘It’s early, it’s early.’ But you don’t want to be coming from behind. You want to have a good start.”

One team will get that good start on Monday.

Mariners: Familiar honor for King Felix

• Hernandez gets the ball for a team-record seventh Opening Day start and sixth in a row. Both marks eclipse the former franchise benchmarks set by Randy Johnson. “You always are looking for the right balance,” Hernandez said, referring to the fact that he posted a 1-6 mark and a 5.16 ERA in his final nine starts last season to finish 12-10 with a 3.04 ERA.

“That’s always the challenge for me, to get better every year. It’s just trying to be more consistent. At the end of last year, I was hurt a little bit and wasn’t consistent. That’s what I’m trying to do this year.”

• Miller, a second-year player, beat out fellow sophomore Nick Franklin for the everyday shortstop job with a strong spring. Franklin was sent down to Triple-A Tacoma.

“They both played extremely well, but Brad separated himself,” McClendon said. “I’d be a fool if I told you he didn’t. I think we all saw that. He separated himself and played extremely well. He deserves the opportunity, and he’s getting it. Nick didn’t lose the job. It was more Brad winning it.”

• McClendon set his starting rotation to have Hernandez (Monday), Ramirez (Tuesday) and Paxton (Wednesday) face the Angels in Anaheim next week, followed by Elias (Thursday), Chris Young (April 4), Hernandez (April 5) and Ramirez (April 6) taking the hill in Oakland.

Angels: Another opener for Weaver

• Angels ace Weaver will be making his sixth Opening Day start and fifth in a row, which sets a club record and moves him past Mike Witt. It’s only natural that Weaver would get the assignment.

“He wants it, and he loves it,” Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said. “It’s real. He’s a big-game pitcher, and I think the guys that are on the field and in that clubhouse want him out there as well. He’s that type of guy. He brings that to the table.”

• The Angels will have a happy center fielder on Monday. On Friday, Trout signed a six-year contract extension that sources say is worth $144.5 million. The deal, which doesn’t kick in until the start of the 2015 season, buys out three arbitration years and three free-agent years. It includes a full no-trade clause but no additional option years, making Trout a free agent again at age 29.

• The Angels have a new leadoff man in outfielder Kole Calhoun, and manager Mike Scioscia seems excited by what Calhoun can bring to the all-important offensive role.

“He had a great year in Triple-A, and I think he backed it up with a good half-year with us,” Scioscia said. “He’s an important piece, no doubt.”

Worth noting

• Fans in Seattle will be able to watch Monday’s opener live on the jumbo screen at Safeco Field, with gates opening at 5:30 p.m.

• Angels reliever Dane De La Rosa has a right forearm strain and will open the season on the disabled list.

“He’s going to need some work before he’s going to be ready to pitch in the big leagues,” Scioscia said. “Hopefully, shortly after the start of the season, he’ll be ready.”

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