Mariners Finish at 75 Wins: Big Step Forward?

The Seattle Mariners finished off a seemingly disenchanted Los Angeles Angels team the last two nights to end their 2012 season with 75 wins. That win total represents an eight game improvement from the club's 2011 mark and is 14 games better than two seasons ago in 2010. But although the improvements have been obvious, is it enough of a move forward for the club?

While Seattle showed marked improvements in many areas this season, they still finished in last place in the four-team American League West, 19 games behind the Division-Winning Oakland A's, who themselves made a 20 game improvement with their improbable late-season run.

The Mariners scored 63 more runs in 2012 than they did in 2011, 106 more than they did in 2011, all while allowing the third fewest runs in a full 162-game season in franchise history. But with the recent news of the dimensions changing at Safeco Field for the 2013 MLB schedule as well as the addition of another team -- the Houston Astros -- to the AL West next year, Seattle's biggest hurdle -- from respectability to true competitor -- is still ahead of them. The team still has a big step forward to make on offense to truly compete.

Seattle did crack 87 extra base hits over their final 29 games and when Casper Wells connected for a 3-run blast off of Barry Enright in the 7th inning on Wednesday he became the 7th member of the M's roster to reach double-digits in home runs on the year. But despite the offensive improvements that saw the club hit its most home runs (149) as a team since 2009, the Mariners' offense still ranked dead last in all of baseball in team AVG (.234), OBP (.296), SLG (.369) and OPS (.665) while outscoring only three other big league teams, all from the National League.

But it isn't all doom and gloom for the Mariners. They achieved their improvements on offense in 2012 with surprise performances from players such as Kyle Seager, John Jaso and Michael Saunders while getting much less than they bargained for from the three players that are really looked at as their young core in Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak. It was revealed by manager Eric Wedge and General Manager Jack Zduriencik after the final game that Ackley had been dealing with bone spurs in his left (push-off) ankle for a while, something that Ackley confirmed. Dustin told reporters after the game that the bone spurs were, "always a nagging injury" for him. He continued, "It kind of affects my workouts. Now is the time to get it taken care of." He admitted that the injury has affected him back to his college days and said that his right leg is, "definitely stronger" than his left because of the injury making working out evenly difficult. The club said that Ackley and Ryan both underwent surgery today to fix bone spurs; Ackley in his ankle, as mentioned above, and Ryan in his right elbow.

Montero wasn't necessarily dealing with injuries, but he was dealing with the pressure of not only trying to learn to be a better defensive catcher, but also to learn how to keep loose and keep himself in the game when he wasn't catching and was the team's designated hitter, something that he has said he wasn't used to or completely comfortable with. Those words seem to play out in Montero's splits, as after collecting two more hits while catching in the finale, he ended the season hitting .310/.343/.498 with 10 home runs in 213 at-bats while catching to just .227/.266/.311 in 299 at-bats while DHing. It is also worth remembering that Montero played this whole season at just 22 years of age; two months younger than prospect John Hicks, who played at High-A High Desert this season, and just 16 months older than Seattle's 2012 top pick, Mike Zunino.

Smoak -- in his third big league season playing 100 or more games -- had 4 1/2 bad months surrounded by a great two weeks in May, during which he was named AL Player of the Week, and a fantastic September/October that saw him hit .345/427/.595 in 25 games. Smoak credits a lot of his late-season success to a change in his pre-swing hand position paired with keeping both hands on his bat during his follow through with helping get him back on track. And of all the hitters on the Mariners roster, perhaps no one more than Justin Smoak should benefit from the movement of the outfield fences.

More good news is that on Wednesday the Mariners also recognized a few minor leaguers that could help the club on offense in the near future, too. Infielders Stefen Romero and Brad Miller (as well as pitchers Brandon Maurer and Carter Capps) were rewarded for their outstanding minor league seasons in 2012 for Seattle. Romero took home the organization's Minor League Player of the Year Award and Miller was given the Heart and Soul Award for his exemplary play and leadership. The duo -- who both saw time in 2012 MLB camp in Spring Training where they certainly impressed -- combined to hit .342 with 126 extra base hits while each playing at both High-A and Double-A in 2012.

With the improvement shown from unexpected sources this year and the likelihood that the club's young core and rising minor league talent should continue to improve, the Mariners aren't as far away from being players in the AL West as some may think. Will 2013 be their year to get over the .500 mark and start being players in the playoff discussion? Only time will tell. But it is clear that the club has taken significant steps forward from where it was just a few short years ago.

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