Jack Zduriencik & the Mariners' front office made a splash in early December, signing slugger Nelson Cruz to a lucrative four-year contract. Cruz, 34, mashed 40 home runs for the Baltimore Orioles in 2014 after being signed to a team-friendly deal coming off his PED suspension, leading the O's to an A.L. East title. Despite Cruz's reputation as a premier power hitter, Safeco Field's cavernous dimensions give it a reputation as a 'pitcher's park'. Cruz has previously spent his home games in Texas with the Rangers and in Baltimore, so playing a ton of games at Safeco and other pitcher-friendly parks in Anaheim and Oakland will be a big factor in his effectiveness as a Mariner.
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Taijuan Walker: what role will he have?
22-year old Taijuan Walker has a lot of promise, as evidenced by his minor league success. And he's still around, despite being 'trade bait' due to his age and reputation. But how will the Mariners utilize him in 2015? He only appeared in eight games in 2014, five of them starts. If he's able to make an impression in Spring Training, he could slide into the rotation behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma nicely. Of course, he could also be used out of the bullpen, if the M's so choose. At this point, it seems likely that he is still a 'work in progress', whose 2015 role will be determined over the next two months.
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Where does Seager go from here?
Kyle Seager had a star turn in 2014, emerging as one of the league's top third baseman en route to his first All-Star selection, a Gold Glove Award and a hefty contract extension. With Josh Donaldson now out of the division, Seager could very well be the top 3B man in the West (with apologies to Adrian Beltre). That said, what's next for Seager? He hit 25 home runs, drove in 96 runs & slashed .268/.334/.454 in '14, posting a career-high 5.8 WAR. He was prone to streakiness at the plate, though, something that will be worth paying attention to this season. If the new-look M's offense will really be a factor in 2015, the continued maturation & evolution from Seager will be a big reason why.
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Will the M's miss Saunders?
Outfielder Michael Saunders was traded to the Blue Jays for lefty starter J.A. Happ earlier in the offseason. Saunders was an intriguing-yet-frustrating player in Seattle, his offensive promise being tempered by frequent visits to the disabled list. That said, some wanted him to stick around - but instead, the M's now have Happ, a 32-year-old who went 11-11 with a 4.22 ERA and a WHIP of 1.332 in 158 innings spread across 26 starts last season. Will Happ emerge as an option for the rotation? And if so, will he be able to stick with it enough to offset the loss of Saunders? It's one narrative that is sure to get some attention once the season rolls along.
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Rodney & the 'pen: dominant again?
Closer Fernando Rodney had a tendency for stressful innings in 2014, despite racking up a league-leading 48 saves (and, subsequently, blasting off 48 invisible arrows into the stratosphere). He was at the tail end of a solid bullpen for the M's, one that manager Lloyd McClendon relied on heavily on a daily basis. That 'pen will make do without Brandon Maurer, who was traded to San Diego for outfielder Seth Smith. Maurer had exhibited some serious promise as a reliever after a few attempts at a starting role, but now he'll have to continue that experiment in So*Cal. Will Rodney & his fellow relievers perform as well in 2015 as they did in 2014? Time will tell.
How will the new guys fit in?
Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano are the three outfielder types brought in by the M's front office to help accentuate the strengths of an offense that was largely inconsistent in 2014. Cruz's reputation is well-known, but Smith (a career .277/.358/.481 hitter against RHP) and Ruggiano (a career .257/.319/.431 hitter over six seasons) should provide some additional depth and flexibility to the lineup. While only one of them is a bona fide 'star', all three could help fix some of last season's glaring holes - assuming all goes according to plan, of course.
Will the changes push the M's high enough?
The A.L. West is one of the toughest divisions in the league, as shown by last season's results. While the M's re-tooled this offseason, their foes did just the same: the Oakland A's reinvented themselves yet again, the Houston Astros brought in some veteran talent to go with their strong young core, and the Los Angeles Angels should be getting Garrett Richards back somewhat close to Opening Day. And don't forget about the Texas Rangers - there's just no way they have as many injury issues in 2015 as they did in their disastrous 2014. That said, 2015 should be a dogfight once again, with two (if not three) of the division's teams battling it out for the top spot. How far the M's get will likely be determined by how their new additions mesh with the roster's core.