Can Mariners be this year's Rays?

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Rounding Third Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A lot of people, including yours truly, thought the Seattle Mariners were going to win the AL West title last season.

The Mariners were surprisingly in it for much of the 2007 campaign before fading in September. They pulled off a blockbuster trade prior to start of '08, bringing in ace left-hander Erik Bedard, as well as signing right-handed starter Carlos Silva to shore up the rotation. Not to mention they still had Ichiro Suzuki and one of the best closers in the game in J.J. Putz, who was coming off a career year.

However, to say things did not go as planned in the Pacific Northwest last year is kind of like saying Mexico may not be the best vacation spot at the moment.

Bedard spent more time in the trainer's room than he did on the field, Silva and Jarrod Washburn combined to lose 29 games, and the team struggled offensively, all of which led to manager John McLaren's dismissal on June 19.

When it was all said and done, the Mariners finished with 101 losses and found themselves 39 games out of first place.

The good news, though, was that new general manager Jack Zduriencik seemed intent on going in a different direction, as he jettisoned the disappointing Richie Sexson as well as designated hitter Jose Vidro before the end of last season, then continued to make wholesale changes this offseason, dealing Putz to the Mets as part of a three-team, 12-player deal, while opting to let the Mariners' best hitter not named Suzuki - Raul Ibanez - leave via free agency.

So, with neophyte manager Don Wakamatsu in tow, Bedard coming off season- ending shoulder surgery, Putz pitching elsewhere, old favorite Ken Griffey Jr. replacing Ibanez, and Suzuki starting the season on the disabled list, I, like most, had zero expectations for the Mariners in 2009.

The standings heading into Wednesday's action, though, just prove once again that I should really stay away from trying to predict things. Seattle is on top of what right now looks like a very winnable AL West, and owns the third- best record in the American League.

How are they doing it? It is simple. Pitching, pitching and more pitching.

Bedard (2-1, 2.08 ERA) has been the ace the team envisioned when they traded five players - including top prospect Adam Jones - for him. Washburn (3-1, 3.42) is off to one of the best starts of his career, while 23-year-old Felix Hernandez continues to blossom, leading the team with four wins.

In all, the starting pitching has amassed an ERA of a 3.50 this season while accounting for 10 of Seattle's 13 wins.

The bullpen has also been solid as Brandon Morrow, projected to be the team's third starter this offseason, has quickly adjusted to life as a closer.

Now the question is can the Mariners maintain and challenge the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who at the moment are decimated by injuries, but were the odds-on-favorite at the start of the season to win their fifth AL West crown in six years.

Ordinarily I would say no, but there is always one team that comes out of nowhere - like the Tampa Bay Rays last season, or the Colorado Rockies the year before, the Tigers in 2006 and so on - and Seattle seems poised to be that team this season.

Granted, I am basing a lot of that on the fact that I don't think the Angels are going to overcome all their injuries. I know Ervin Santana and John Lackey have already begun their rehabilitation assignments, but the team as a whole just seems snake-bitten this season.

The Nick Adenhart tragedy aside, Mike Scioscia currently has four members of his rotation on the disabled list, as well as lefty Darren Oliver, who was injured in a spot start. Not to mention superstar Vladimir Guerrero is shelved for at least the next month with a torn pectoral muscle.

Maybe it's just going to be one of those years in Anaheim this season.

Some people liked Oakland at the beginning of the year, mainly, I think, because people were begging for anyone to challenge the Angels, who ran away with the division last season, finishing 21 games ahead of the second-place Texas Rangers.

Oakland, though, is just too young. Plus they will trade Matt Holliday near the trade deadline and more than likely get even younger. And it is the same old story in Texas: plenty of hitting, but no pitching.

By process of elimination you have to like the Mariners' chances this season.

I know it is only April 29 and there is an awful lot of baseball left, but if I was a betting man, I would put the house on the Mariners being there come September.

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