You can probably figure out at least two of the four players most important to the Mariners' success in 2014 — it's finding the other two for this piece that was a bit more challenging. While some teams have four (or more) guys who are clear keys to success, the Mariners have two top-tier stars and a bunch of Wild Cards. Fitting for a team trying to turn around national perception and make a sudden push for the postseason, isn't it?
It’d be pretty hard to not include the guy with the $240 million contract on this list, so here he is. Aside from the large raise, Cano will be tasked with improving (and essentially carrying) what’s been one of baseball’s worst offenses for the past few years. The good news is if you believe in lineup protection, it doesn’t appear Cano needs much of it — he’s coming off a season in which he hit .314/.383/.516 despite being surrounded by the washed-up remains of Ichiro and Lyle Overbay for much of the season. Until Alfonso Soriano returned to the Bronx and went on his insane hot streak, Cano was the only true threat in a crippled Yankees offense that was impossible to watch for much of the year. Cano deserves more credit than his 5th-place MVP finish for getting the Yankees to 85 wins.
With that said, this year will still be a change for Cano. Even though he’s coming to Seattle from New York, he was rarely the object of the media’s attention. Last year the New York media was more preoccupied with Derek Jeter’s injuries, the Mariano Rivera goodbye tour and the Alex Rodriguez soap opera than Cano. Now Cano will be the center of attention in Seattle, with even more national talking heads paying attention to him in his new role as The Man. Already the columns about him needing to provide Leadership and a Winning Attitude are coming out, along with the pieces from New York about he doesn’t hustle. Fair or not, it’ll be a narrative Cano will have to deal with until the Mariners — as a team — start winning games.
Another fairly obvious choice, but with Hisashi Iwakuma missing at least the first month and the back end of the rotation likely being filled by rookies, the Mariners are going to have to lean on King Felix early and often. Again. Hernandez has carried Seattle for the past five seasons, throwing nearly 1160 innings in that timeframe. It’s easy to forget that he’s still only 28, but there’s a lot of mileage on his arm already, and if you look at how his velocity has declined across the board recently, it’s easy to get a little concerned. The good news is that he’s figured out how to be successful even though he’s not consistently firing pitches in at 95 anymore — his fastball averaged just 91.9 mph last year, but he posted the highest strikeout percentage of his career while also cutting his walk percentage to a career low.
If the Mariners do have designs on making a playoff push, though, they’ll need Felix to keep pitching like the Cy Young candidate he’s been lately. And with $156 million owed to him over the next six years, they’ll need him to stay healthy in the long term, too.
He’s Seattle’s lottery ticket. Signed to an incentive-heavy one-year deal, Hart will make at least $6 million with the Mariners this year, with the potential to earn up to $13 million. Since he missed the entire 2013 season following a pair of knee surgeries, it’s easy to forget that he was one of the more underrated hitters in the National League. Over his last three seasons with the Brewers, he hit .279/.343/.514 with an OPS+ of 127, averaging 29 home runs and 31 doubles a year. If he puts up numbers like those, the Mariners got the steal of the winter.
Of course, health is a major factor. He hasn’t seen live pitching since September 2012, so a lot of eyes will be watching how he shakes off the rust this spring. You also can’t help but question how all of the knee injuries will affect his power, and the Mariners may need to ease him back into action early in the year. He probably needs to keep his time in the field limited to first base at this point — playing a 32-year-old with two bad knees and a 6’6” frame in the outfield seems like a recipe for disaster — but also needing to ease Logan Morrison back and find at-bats for Justin Smoak makes that difficult. Hart’s always had trouble staying healthy, but if he can produce while he’s active, the Mariners have a very nice complementary piece to go with Cano in the middle of the lineup.
Maybe this is an unexpected name to put on this list, but one way or another, Walker is going to have an impact on the Mariners’ season. If the Mariners make a big trade for a second ace to pair with King Felix (David Price or otherwise), Walker is likely to be in the package, or at least heavily rumored to be in it. If Seattle doesn’t trade him, they’ll be depending on him to live up to his hype as a top prospect. Despite all of the rumors, the Mariners have been insistent that they’re not trading him, and for good reason: he’s the rare pitching prospect that has #1 potential.
Walker made his big league debut just a couple weeks after his 21st birthday last season and had three solid starts before being shut down for the year. Even with quite a bit of development necessary before he hits that #1 potential, he’ll find plenty of success early on. Felix Hernandez debuted for the Mariners at 19 and didn’t fully break out until he was 23, but was still an above average pitcher before that breakout. Walker could be the next coming if Seattle is willing to avoid the temptation to deal him for a rental.