Cano has revamped Mariners poised for run

Superstar slugger guiding potent offense as pitchers overcome injuries

Cano has revamped Mariners poised for run

SEATTLE -- With a roster that underwent more offseason change than any other in baseball, new Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto and first-year skipper Scott Servais are surely pleased to hit the All-Star break with a club poised to make a push for its first postseason appearance since 2001.

What the new regime didn't foresee, however, was the path the Mariners took to a 45-44 first half, with the club getting off to a scorching 28-18 start and finding itself leading the American League West in late May before hitting a rough June that coincided with a big upswing by the division-rival Rangers and Astros.

The Mariners won their first-half finale at Kansas City to keep their record above .500 and now look to regroup at the break, knowing they will soon be reinforced by the return of Felix Hernandez and bolstered by the knowledge that their offense has taken huge strides already this year. Indeed, Seattle's bats enter the break ranked sixth in the AL in scoring, fourth in on-base percentage, third in slugging percentage and second in home runs. Though the pitching has slipped in the past month, their run differential of plus-51 remains fourth in the league and hints of a team certainly capable of competing.

The first half seemed to have two halves of its own -- the hot start when the club opened the year by going 18-7 on the road and at one point winning nine of 10 one-run games before closing the half with a 4-16 road mark and losing 12 of its last 14 one-run affairs. Perhaps it was just a matter of things evening out over the course of time, but the key to the second half clearly lies with regaining at least some of that early-season mojo.

Robinson Cano reemerged as one of MLB's elite players, Nelson Cruz again ranked among the league's best power bats, and Kyle Seager had the best first half of his career as the middle of the order more than lived up to its part of the bargain. Dipoto succeeded in forming a deeper lineup, with seven players in double-digit homers. Newcomer Leonys Martin solidified the outfield defense, and Dae-Ho Lee proved a pleasant surprise at first base. For much of the first half, new closer Steve Cishek helped steady a bullpen that also got a big boost from converted starter Mike Montgomery. And the recent promotion of hard-throwing rookie reliever Edwin Diaz has been an eye-opener.

Diaz sets a Mariners record

New leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki didn't hit or run as well as expected and finished the first half in Triple-A. Hernandez missed the last six weeks with a strained calf, and fellow starters Wade Miley and Taijuan Walker also spent time on the disabled list, while Nathan Karns was moved to the bullpen after an inconsistent first half. Veteran setup man Joaquin Benoit struggled with a bad back that limited his effectiveness and availability and, after pitching well early, Joel Peralta was DFA'd following his own struggles.

Statcast: Aoki's running catch

This is a team capable of playing very good baseball and competing with the best teams in MLB -- witness the strong start and a recent four-game sweep of AL East-leading Baltimore -- but lacking the depth to absorb too many key losses. The June swoon coincided with injuries to Martin and Ketel Marte, which greatly impacted the defense, then dovetailed into the series of hits to the pitching staff. If Hernandez and Walker return at full strength, this team seems to have the offensive pieces to make a second-half push.

Cano rebounded from a difficult 2015, carrying the Mariners early with his scorching start and earning the team's lone All-Star bid as he hit the break with 21 homers, 58 RBIs and a .313/.368/.555 line. Though Cruz leads the team in homers and Seager has moved to the top in RBIs, Cano's overall numbers as well as his strong play at second base make him the first-half MVP, as supported by his team-leading 4.6 WAR according to Baseball-Reference, which is the fourth-highest of any position player in the league.

Cano's two-homer game

With Hernandez limited to 10 starts by his calf injury, this category found itself an open competition for the first time in many years for the Mariners. And the nod goes to Hisashi Iwakuma, who was the only rotation member to make all his starts in the first half and posted a 9-6 record and 4.25 ERA. After nearly signing with the Dodgers, Iwakuma wound up back with Seattle and has notched the most wins and innings for a team that badly needed his veteran stability. Honorable mention goes to Montgomery, who is having a breakout year in the bullpen and was outstanding in a spot start to close the half.

Iwakuma fans six to earn win

Lee not only established himself as Seattle's biggest surprise, the 34-year-old slugger from Korea thrust himself into the conversation for top rookies in the AL by hitting the break with a .288/.330/.514 line with 12 homers and 37 RBIs. The big man has proven to be capable in the clutch as well, winning several games with timely hits, and he played well enough at first base to take over regular playing time there in the past month as Adam Lind moved into more of a DH role.

Lee goes back-to-back

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.