Mariners in rare position as favorites in AL West

SEATTLE (AP) Robinson Cano is one of the few on the Seattle Mariners roster who can speak with certainty about the playoffs. In his previous stop, Cano played in the postseason seven times and hoisted one World Series trophy.

When Cano looks at the roster the Mariners have put together for the 2015 season, he sees familiar traits.

”On paper we look like world champions,” Cano said. ”But hopefully, God help us, we stay healthy and it’s not how we look on paper, we have to go out and prove it every day.”

This time it’s different for Seattle. Before the season begins the Mariners are viewed as favorites in the AL West.

It’s been a rarity for most of Seattle’s history for the Mariners to be the favorites and when they have been, they typically fell short. That’s what makes this season equal parts exciting and concerning. They could be the team that reignites the fire in Seattle fans, or one that provides another disappointment.

”There’s more of a buzz around the team from an outside perspective. Internally, we expected a lot out of ourselves last year and we did that for the most part, obviously coming one game short,” third baseman Kyle Seager said. ”But this year it’s a different feeling in the locker room. There’s more of a confidence. There’s more of a general trust in the guy next to you and confidence in the guy next to you.”

Cano’s signing a year ago brought validity to what Seattle was trying to create. That was supplemented by the development of Seager into an All-Star and Gold Glove winner, and the best pitching staff in baseball led by AL Cy Young runner-up Felix Hernandez.

But it wasn’t enough. The Mariners ended one-game short. Getting to 87 wins was a surprising achievement but left Seattle wanting more.

The Mariners have created a roster that has Cano optimistic about what Seattle can accomplish. Nelson Cruz, the major league leader in homers last season, adds punch and protection in the middle of the lineup. The Mariners upgraded their outfield with the additions of Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith and the late signing of Rickie Weeks.

And while Hernandez remains the ace, Seattle’s pitching staff could be even better because of youngsters James Paxton and Taijuan Walker.

”With the additions we made this offseason and guys getting that experience last year, being in a little bit of a race, I think this team’s prepped and ready to make a run at the postseason,” Paxton said.

Here are things to watch as Seattle looks to reach the postseason for the first time since 2001:

CRUZ CONTROL: The addition of Cruz is a massive upgrade for Seattle’s offense. While with Baltimore, Cruz was the only hitter in baseball to reach 40 homers last season, and while that came in the friendly hitting confines of Camden Yards he’s always been a strong hitter at Safeco Field. One of Cruz’s biggest impacts is the trickle down on Seattle’s lineup. He’ll hit behind Cano and in front of Seager and no longer leaves the cleanup spot in Seattle’s order a gaping hole.

GOOD TO BE THE KING: Hernandez is already driven by the desire to make the postseason. He may have gotten just a little more motivation by finishing second in the Cy Young voting to Cleveland’s Corey Kluber. He set a major league record last season when he pitched 16 straight games of seven or more innings while allowing two earned runs or less. It was a brilliant stretch from May to early August, but wasn’t good enough to get Seattle to the postseason or win the Cy Young.

PLATOON OR NO PLATOON: How manager Lloyd McClendon handles his situations in right and left field will be worth watching early in the season. Ultimately, it’s a good thing for Seattle to have as many options as it does at those positions with Smith and Ruggiano in right field and Dustin Ackley and Weeks in left field. With the strengths of each player, it’s likely Smith and Ackley will play against right-handed pitching and Weeks and Ruggiano against lefties. McClendon has said he doesn’t view either situation as a platoon.

BEST BULLPEN: Fernando Rodney was the anchor of the best bullpen in baseball last year. He led baseball in saves with 48, but he was just part of what made Seattle successful late in games. Most of that bullpen crew is back, and for as good as Seattle’s starters are expected to be, its relievers need to be equal to last season if the Mariners are going to match their expectations.