With a 75-87 record in 2012, the Mariners secured their third straight last place finish in the American League West and their seventh visit to the cellar over a nine-year span. Still, there were some positives to come out of this latest disappointing performance. Most notably, the team was within striking distance of .500 heading into September and even after a bleak final month, they finished with the third-fewest runs allowed in the American League.
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The organization was clearly not content with resting on these meager laurels, and this offseason's overhaul was foreshadowed by last July's trade of Ichiro Suzuki to the Yankees. The Mariners bolstered their long-dormant lineup by acquiring outfielder Michael Morse and first baseman/designated hitter Kendrys Morales through trades. They also improved their outfield depth by signing Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay as free agents. In getting some much-needed bats, the Mariners didn't have to sacrifice much, as they were able to deal from their areas of surplus, giving up catcher John Jaso to get Morse and starting pitcher Jason Vargas to get Morales. Surrendering Jaso allowed them to give Jesus Montero an opportunity to be a regular catcher, while Vargas will eventually be replaced by one of the Mariners' bevy of pitching prospects. For the time being, free agent signee Joe Saunders will hold down the rotation spot vacated by Vargas.
The opening day lineup will feature more clout than it has had in quite a while, as Morse, Morales, Montero, Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders all have a legitimate chance to hit at least 20 homers, especially since the fences at Safeco Field will be coming in. Even with the lefty Saunders, the rotation lacks a true No. 3 starter, as the dropoff from top starters Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma to the back-of-the rotation arms, which may also include Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi, could be considerable. Out of these lesser options, only Ramirez has appeal for owners in mixed leagues and he could emerge as a streaming option in standard mixed leagues. With Tom Wilhelmsen closing out games and young Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps looming as setup options, the bullpen should continue to be a strength.
The Astros should keep the Mariners out of the AL West basement, but the Mariners may not have made enough moves to keep up with the Athletics, Rangers and Angels. From a Fantasy perspective, though, there is a lot more to like in Seattle now than there has been for at least a few years.
Sleeper ... Michael Saunders, outfielder
Saunders had failed to impress in his previous trips to the majors, but last season he quietly fell a homer short of a 20-20 season. He could surge well beyond 20 homers, given that he was able to hit 19 last year despite an unusually high ground ball rate. Should Saunders get back to hitting flyballs, he could launch 25 to 30 home runs, especially if the new dimensions of Safeco Field can provide an assist. He also gets a better lineup in which to hit, so Saunders should experience an increase in RBI. Some may overlook Saunders in standard mixed leagues, but he is worth a late-round pick or a bid of a few dollars.
Bust ... Kendrys Morales, first baseman/designated hitter
After missing the better part of two years due to a pair of leg surgeries, Morales had a disappointing return with the Angels in 2012. He hit only 22 home runs with 73 RBI, as compared to 34 homers and 108 RBI in 2009 -- his last full season. Morales hit grounders at a much higher rate than in 2009 and it's a trend that started in 2010, even before he broke his leg. The rate rose after the All-Star break, so Morales' loss of power doesn't seem to be the result of rust at the beginning of the season. At age 30, it's not too late for Morales to reclaim his thunder at the plate, but signs of a recovery have been difficult to find. Don't reach for him prior to the late rounds in standard mixed league drafts.
Impact prospect ... Danny Hultzen, starting pitcher
Hultzen's express train to the majors hit some delays after his promotion from Double-A to Triple-A last June. He suddenly struggled to find the strike zone and his walk rate soared while his ground ball rate plummeted. It's unlikely Hultzen will start the season in the Mariners' rotation, but if he can go back to Triple-A and dominate there like he did at Double-A, it won't be long before he gets the call. Beavan and Noesi shouldn't present major roadblocks to Hultzen's promotion, so if the young lefty rights himself he could have a major impact in Fantasy. There are worse ways to use a late-round pick in standard mixed leagues.
Hultzen is just one of the Mariners' top-flight pitching prospects. While he could be close to making his major league debut, fellow lefty James Paxton is right there with him. Taijuan Walker is more of a long shot to get recalled this season, but he may have the highest ceiling of any of the M's prospects. Brandon Maurer emerged healthier and more durable last season, and with a solid performance at Double-A Jackson he gives the Mariners a fourth top pitching prospect. ... Mike Zunino, a first-rounder in the 2012 draft, is the team's best position player prospect and he could be major-league ready this season. However, with Montero installed as the regular catcher, Zunino may not have an opportunity to make a Fantasy impact in 2013. ... Shortstop Nick Franklin may also not be far from a big-league callup, but he may need a trade to get regular playing time. If the Mariners have a near-term successor to Brendan Ryan at shortstop, it is more likely to be Brad Miller, who will probably start this season at Double-A. ... Owners in deeper leagues need to keep Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps on their radar. Should Wilhelmsen falter, either could be in line for saves this season.
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