MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Mariners feel pieces are in place for special '15

Rotation depth, offensive firepower have club looking like WS contender

Mariners feel pieces are in place for special '15

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Mariners are getting the attention of the rest of the American League.

This is a team that has reason to believe it can claim the AL West, but it could well find itself next October appearing in a World Series for the first time in the franchise's 38-season history.

The Mariners have received a lot of attention the last two offseasons with the signings of second baseman Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal prior to the 2014 season, and free agent DH Nelson Cruz to a four-year, $57 million contract this past offseason. They also looked to fill offensive voids this offseason with under-the-radar signings of Rickie Weeks and Justin Ruggiano, along with the acquisition of Seth Smith from the Padres.

Nice. Very nice.

Cruz's three-run home run

Those are pieces the club needs in attempting to solve the puzzle of why the Mariners and Nationals (formerly the Expos) are the only big league teams to have never played a World Series game.

What sets the Mariners apart from other teams, however, is a starting rotation anchored by Felix Hernandez, known as "King Felix," in the Pacific Northwest, and Hisashi Iwakuma at the top. The rest of the staff is filled out by the emergence of the highly touted left-right duo of James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, along with veteran left-hander J.A. Happ.

Hernandez strikes out Baez

"We had a void with our offense in certain areas and we feel we have addressed them," said general manager Jack Zduriencik. "We have to stay healthy and the players have to perform, but we are more balanced. We will score more runs."

Zduriencik paused, and admitted, "Clearly you win with pitching."

With Hernandez and Iwakuma as the mainstays, the Mariners' rotation has been one of the better in the AL the last couple of seasons. The rotation ERA of 3.48 in 2014 matched the Rays, while trailing only the A's (3.37) among AL teams.

And that was basically without the promising arms of Paxton and Walker, who made a combined 18 starts.

Hernandez, who turns 29 on April 8, is 86-56 with an AL-best 2.73 ERA over the last six years, during which he has won two AL ERA titles, been selected for five All-Star appearances, and won the 2010 AL Cy Young Award, while finishing second in 2009 and '14.

Iwakuma, who turns 34 on April 12, is 38-20 with a 3.07 ERA in his three seasons coming to the Mariners from his native Japan.

Their presence at the top of the rotation provides a chance for Paxton and Walker to step into a rotation at the back end, easing the pressures that come with the big league adjustment.

And they have shown signs they are ready for the opportunity.

Paxton fans Blanks in the 4th

Paxton, 26, was delayed in his spring debut when he fell in an agility drill the week before camp opened and he had soreness in his forearms, but he went 3 1/3 shutout innings and threw 61 pitches on Sunday against the Rangers.

Walker, 22, is unscored upon in 12 innings this spring.

"Everyone has been waiting on his fruition," Zduriencik said.

Indications are the wait is over.

Walker's four scoreless

There is depth with Erasmo Ramirez, 24, and Roenis Elias, 26, both having seen extensive time in the rotation last year, but having moved back with the emergence of Paxton and Walker. And don't overlook lefty Danny Hultzen, who was right up there with Paxton and Walker on the Mariners pitching prospects list before missing last season with an injury.

"We will see what happens," Zduriencik said.

Rest assured the Mariners are expecting things to happen. They are looking at this year as the time for the rewards are reaped for a plan that began two years ago with the signing of Hernandez to seven-year, $175 million deal in February 2013.

"Last year, we made the move to bring in a legitimate, bona fide big league star," Zduriencik said. "We had one [Hernandez] on the mound, but didn't have that yet with a position guy. I think it paid great dividends not just with the way Robbie played, but the benefit his presence provided for some of our younger guys, Kyle Seager, Mike Zunino and Dustin Ackley.

"This year we've added three veterans. And now there's not that pressure on the young kids that they have to be force fed."

The final pieces for the Mariners have been the offensive players.

But it was feeling comfortable about having the pieces in place for the rotation that made ownership and management willing to step up in the bid to beef up the offense.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.