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Story Lines to Follow (2014 Midseason Report, Part 3)

Taijuan Walker (photo credit: gty.im/451526750 by Bob Levey)
Taijuan Walker, as I type this post, makes his season debut tonight. That only seems appropriate as I wrap up my series of midseason reports (here's part 1 and part 2) by taking a look forward at some of the juiciest and most important story lines to follow through the rest of the season. The story lines at the MLB level are relatively well-known, which is why I'll also include some story lines sprinkled throughout the minors. I'll even offer some bold predictions!

Storyline #1: The starting rotation. The whole darn thing.

After three months the Mariners rotation has been okay, maybe even good. It's got the potential to derail or become one of the strongest units in the American League over the next three months. I'm serious.

What will Felix Hernandez do in the next three months? We know he'll be good, but how good? He's pitching as well as he ever has. It's unfair to expect him to keep up his current pace...but this is King Felix we are talking about. He's got a chance to win 20 games, and ERA title, and have the most strikeouts in the AL if he can keep his current pace up - and do all of that while likely pitching in the thick of a pennant race. How fun would that be to watch?

What will Roenis Elias do in the second half? Will he improve or trail off? He could do either. What about Chris Young? Will he get injured? History suggests he will. Is Taijuan Walker ready to take over a rotation spot? He starts to answer that question tonight. Can James Paxton get healthy? Can Erasmo Ramirez find his command by the end of the season?

I don't have a hard time imaging the Mariners rotation turning into the Felix and 'Kuma show, like last year, or rising up and featuring the King in his career year with a cavalry of number 2 and 3 starters behind him. It's interesting to have a starting rotation with such a range of possibilities at this stage in the season.

I predict that, as a unit, the starting rotation's production doesn't change - however, individual production changes greatly. Chris Young gets injured at some point and his loss is noticeable, but offset by Taijuan Walker's emergence. Adding another arm in a trade wouldn't be a bad idea, but I'm not convinced it's necessary. The Mariners have enough talent in house if it can get healthy.

Storyline #2: The missing bat

The Mariners could use another hitter. That answer could be Corey Hart, but I wouldn't bet on him at this point. In fact, I wouldn't bet on anyone in the organization right now being the answer. Instead, I predict the Mariners will pull a noteworthy trade in the next month. The centerpieces will be Nick Franklin and either Dustin Ackley or Stefen Romero, and in return the Mariners will get a left fielder or center fielder - perhaps a deal with D'Backs for either of their currently injured outfielders Mark Trumbo and A.J. Pollock, who should both be healthy by August.

Storyline #3: Who gets hot in Tacoma?

The Rainiers have a collection of players who could push their way onto the M's roster, especially if the M's offense slumps. It's easy to imagine Abe Almonte, Ji-Man Choi, Nick Franklin, Jesus Montero, Chris Taylor, or Stefen Romero in a Mariners uniform, partly because most of these players have already been up in the majors at some point this year. Somebody from the group is bound to get hot and generate buzz, especially considering that the Mariners are going with a large 13-man pitching staff for the time being. My bold prediction: Abe Almonte finds his stroke, and ends up in a center field platoon with James Jones.

Storyline #4: The Jackson third basemen

The Generals feature both Patrick Kivlehan and D.J. Peterson, two of the Mariners better hitting prospects. Peterson in particular is probably considered their best. Question marks surround both of their abilities to stay at the hot corner defensively. Obviously, they can't both play third base simultaneously. The easy fix would be alternating them between third base and DH, but this could also be a convenient excuse to give both of them playing time at different positions. My prediction is that Peterson plays some first base, but Kivlehan sticks between third and DH.

Storyline #5: Filling Vlad's Long Shadow

Fun fact: High Desert outfielder Gabby Guerrero is the nephew of retired Angels superstar Vladimir Guerrero. The older Gabby gets, the more he plays like Vlad. He's got a strong arm, power potential, and never walks. He's yet to have a crazy hot streak in High Desert, or a major slump. I predict he has one or the other, and I'll go bold and predict he has a hot streak. When that hot streak hits, Gabby Guerrero is going to look like Vlad. His hot streak will propel him up prospect lists and garner him recognition as one of the better outfield prospects in all of baseball going into 2015.

Storyline #6: More blasts, less punches

As mentioned in part 1, LumberKings prospect Tyler O'Neill flashed great power before breaking his hand when he punched a concrete wall in the dugout. How will he do when he gets back on the field? Did he start the year on a power surge, or is he simply a more powerful hitter than expected at this stage in his career? I predict that O'Neill slows down, though doesn't come to a screeching halt. He'll get to at least 11 home runs on the year, though with a mediocre average, low OBP, and high strikeout rate. He'll establish himself as a raw, intriguing talent.

Storyline #7: The next Mariners pitching prodigy

It's hard to analyze anything that happens in the short-season leagues for a plethora of reasons. Small sample size is an issue. That's combined with the majority of players getting their first taste of professional baseball. The short-season leagues are one big adjustment period for pretty much everyone involved. This is my long way of saying that there's no real reason to worry if guys like Alex Jackson and Gareth Morgan struggle this year, and there's also no real reason to think either of them will rocket through the minor league system if they show well.

However, very early on, it looks like something special is unfolding in Arizona. Luiz Gohara is about to burst on the prospect scene. He's already whispered about, but hasn't pitched much in the minors yet. He got 6 starts in Pulaski last season and looked very good. He has two starts in Arizona so far and looks utterly dominant. I predict that Gohara lights up the Arizona Rookie League, which won't get a ton of publicity, but will safely put him in position to make his full-season debut in Clinton next season. You might as well pay attention to him now before he blows up and becomes a big deal. Gohara is left-handed and I predict he will be at least as well-regarded as James Paxton, and could be the best M's left-handed prospect since Mark Langston.

The Mariners, unlike most seasons in recent memory, should be relevant through August and September. They are still relatively young and could get better from internal development. However, they could also go out and acquire some talent, especially as some of the really young players in the lower levels of the minors flash some promise. The Mariners have their holes, but they could produce a very fun three months, and this just might be the dawn of another golden age that at least gives M's fans something besides the late '90s to reminisce about with pride.