When the Seattle Mariners made the biggest signing of the offseason to lure the game's biggest free agent to the Pacific Northwest, many considered the M's an outside contender - still at least a year or two away from making the playoffs in the highly competitive American League.
Fast forward several months and the Mariners might be just that - sitting in third place in the AL's best division. But Seattle holds the second-best run differential in the American League, behind Oakland, and sits nine games over .500, which is a spot the Mariners haven't been since 2007. And, most importantly, if the regular season ended today, the Mariners would find themselves matched up against the division rival Angels in a one-game Wildcard Playoff for the right to play in the ALDS. So are the Mariners for real?
I think so. In my mid-season previews, I talked about how Seattle has been improving every step along the way this year. The Mariners have uncovered players like James Jones and Dominic Leone. And that young core of tantalizing potential is beginning to fall into place as productive big leaguers.
Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak are all producing at least marginally. And in the case of Seager, the All-Star Game could be on the horizon. Robinson Cano hasn't hit many home runs, but the Mariners have been winning in spite of that. And Cano has been producing just as much offense without hitting the ball out of the ballpark. He entered Thursday hitting .323 with a .382 OBP. And his presence in the lineup has had a clear impact on the younger guys.
Then there's the pitching. The Mariners were dealt a couple blows out of the gate, losing Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma for the start of the year. Iwakuma has since come back and has been dealing like his 2013 self. And Walker made his first start on the 30th of June - an impressive victory over the much-improved Houston Astros.
With James Paxton on his way back and the emergence of Roenis Elias, the Mariners will have as solid of a five-man rotation as any to go along with their already dominant bullpen. The M's have the best bullpen ERA in the big's with arms like Leone, Beimel and Medina to go along with Fernando Rodney.
Most importantly, Lloyd McLendon has this team loving the game and enjoying playing with each other. Seattle fans are quick to support their teams when they're competitive, so if the Mariners stay in the race down the stretch, the advantage at Safeco Field will only grow. If their key guys stay healthy, and the youth keeps producing, Seattle will be a playoff team in the AL.