Thanks to last night's thrilling game between the Suns and Mavericks and the season finale of American Idol, I doubt many people saw the Mariners' 7-4 victory over the Orioles. The Rangers lost yesterday as well, which means the M's are a mere two games out of first place at the moment. On this date last year, Seattle was already 7.5 games out and in 2004 a whopping 12.5 games behind. Do the Mariners really stand a chance to contend this year?
The short answer is no. Though the offense has improved, it has unfortunately improved very little. As a team, the Mariners batted .256 last year with a .319 OBP and .391 SLG. This year, they are batting .262, still with .319 OBP but a slightly better .401 SLG. Simply put, this little offensive production is not enough to consider the Mariners contenders.
However, there are reasons for hope. It is safe to assume that the offense will improve significantly because Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, and Jeremy Reed are all better than what they have shown so far and there are signs that Sexson and Reed are heating up. If those guys just do what they are capable of the offense will be respectable. Also, the Mariners' pitching is noticably better than last year, though they are mediocre by most measures.
A mediocre offense and mediocre pitching may not sound like the makings of a contender, but unless some team really heats up in the division, that may be good enough. The Rangers are in first place right now with a .500 record, so by definition they are mediocre. To this point the AL West looks alot like last year's NL West, which means most around baseball will probably look at the pennant race as a joke. However, even if Seattle is able to contend just because they happen to be in an absurdly weak division, it would mean a ton for this franchise. A pennant race would make fans pay attention again and generate excitement around the team that has been lacking for a couple years. It would restore faith in the organization and instill confidence that the team is improving. It likely would make Seattle a much more attractive place for free agents too.
I still have plenty of problems with what the Mariners are doing (just watch Mike Hargrove's use of the bench or Bill Bavasi's quest to acquire every catcher in the known universe) but I still believe this team can succeed with the current front office. Watching the Mariners the last few years has been so frustrating not just because they have been old and bad, but also because it seems like they never caught any breaks. This year it looks like Seattle is catching a huge break and I hope they capitalize. A .500 record is within reach and I am more and more convinced that may be enough to cause an outburst of playoff fever around Puget Sound.