Cano, Felix lead impressive Mariners turnaround

Standout year from second baseman brought Seattle to brink of postseason

Cano, Felix lead impressive Mariners turnaround

SEATTLE -- After the Mariners signed Robinson Cano in December, the questions began ringing out. Why would Cano go to Seattle? What difference will one star make for a franchise that hadn't been to the postseason since 2001?

But the first season for Cano in the Pacific Northwest proved to be a resounding success as the game's premier second baseman helped lead a Mariners revival that took a team nobody expected much from in the spring to the brink of a Wild Card berth with an 87-75 record.

This was a Mariners club that turned a lot of things upside down, proving capable of winning in the toughest of circumstances. Seattle posted its second-best road record in franchise history at 46-35 and finished 45-32 against teams with winning records at the time they played as opposed to 42-43 against sub-.500 clubs.

They pushed for a postseason berth all the way to the final day of the season, a huge step forward for a club that went 71-91 the year before and hadn't won more than 75 games since 2009.

Felix Hernandez had another big season, perhaps his best yet in an outstanding 10-year career, and the Mariners pitching staff posted the best ERA in the American League at 3.17. Without question, those arms carried the club as a strong rotation was bolstered further by a bullpen that went from 29th in ERA among MLB's 30 teams in 2013 to first in 2014 while closer Fernando Rodney set a new club record with an AL-leading 48 saves.

New manager Lloyd McClendon did a superb job handling his pitching staff, pushing all the right buttons with his bullpen and squeezing the most out of a rotation that was without standout right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma for the first month, rising rookie sensation James Paxton for nearly four months and never got the hoped-for contribution from top prospect Taijuan Walker until the final two weeks of the season.

Setting the tone for the turnaround from top to bottom was Cano, who brought his easy confidence into the clubhouse and on the field and became a natural leader for a young group hungry to share his success.

"Great players have the ability to make other players better," McClendon said. "Robbie does that. On and off the field he's been a joy to be associated with. He's been a class act and there's no doubt that he's helped the organization immensely."

McClendon feels Cano had a big impact on young third baseman Kyle Seager, who stepped up with his first All-Star season and led the club in home runs and RBIs, while Cano led the team in batting average and on-base percentage while anchoring the lineup from the No. 3 spot.

There were some spectacular moments in 2014 -- including Austin Jackson's go-ahead hit highlighting a five-run rally with two outs in the bottom of the ninth for a huge win at Fenway Park in late August, Logan Morrison's game-winning home runs in two games during Seattle's final road trip and a walk-off win in the 11th inning against the Angels in Game 161 -- that kept the club in playoff contention to the final day.

There were big contributions from some unexpected rookies, with southpaw Roenis Elias winning 10 games, James Jones leading the club in stolen bases, Paxton providing a huge late boost with his return and relievers Dominic Leone, Brandon Maurer and Carson Smith adding quality depth to the bullpen.

And there were senior moments as well from key veterans like outfielder Endy Chavez, reliever Joe Beimel and right-hander Chris Young, who signed just before the start of the regular season after being released by the Nationals and turned into one of the best comeback stories in baseball by going 12-9 with a 3.65 ERA.

But the biggest surprise, of course, was that this Mariners club put everything together so quickly in McClendon and Cano's first year, raising the bar immediately on both the level of play in 2014 and what the future holds as well.

"We're pretty close," said Cano. "Like I said when I first signed here, there's such great young talent, guys that are going to be superstars. The bullpen did a great job, the starting rotation, I mean sometimes it doesn't end the way you want, but we fought all the way to the end."

Record: 87-75, third in American League West

Defining moment: Seager's three-run walk-off home run on April 23 against the Astros snapped an early eight-game losing streak that had Seattle on the verge of a 7-14 start to the season. McClendon points to surviving that skid while still believing in themselves as the turning point in a season that saw the Mariners go 78-62 the rest of the way. And Seager, who was hitting .156 with no home runs and two RBIs in the first 20 games, wound up batting .281 with 25 homers and 94 RBIs over the rest of the season.

What went right: The huge offseason signing of Cano paid instant dividends as he provided a strong presence in the lineup, in the field and in the clubhouse. … Hernandez had the best season of his outstanding career, leading a pitching staff that put up the best ERA in the American League. … Iwakuma overcame a finger injury that cost him the first month and again was one of the top right-handers in the league. … Young signed a one-year deal just days before the start of the season and put together an excellent campaign and the rookie Paxton came on late after recovering from a shoulder injury to provide a huge boost to the rotation, along with Elias after being promoted from Double-A. … Solidified by the signing of veteran closer Rodney, the bullpen went from 29th in the league in ERA in 2013 to first in 2014. … Seager took another step forward and became an All-Star third baseman. … The offseason acquisition of Morrison paid off as the first baseman put together a strong second half and proved to be one of the team's top clutch hitters. … Catcher Mike Zunino developed into a defensive stalwart in his first full season and led all AL catchers with 22 home runs. … McClendon provided a strong presence and calming influence on a club that took a huge step forward in his first season.

What went wrong: Several youngsters expected to make strong contributions never got going and wound up losing their jobs fairly early in the year. Center fielder Abraham Almonte was sent down to Tacoma and eventually traded away after a tough first month, first baseman Justin Smoak lost his job to Morrison and Nick Franklin was traded after losing out on the shortstop battle to Brad Miller and then not hitting when he was called up briefly on two different occasions. … DH Corey Hart was signed as a free agent to provide a right-handed threat to a lefty-leaning lineup, but he never really got on track or fully healthy after missing all of 2013 with knee problems. … Despite the addition of Cano, the offense didn't make as big a step forward as hoped and still needs to be more productive -- particularly at Safeco Field -- to support the outstanding pitching.

Biggest surprise: Given he hadn't pitched a full season since 2007 and hadn't been in the Major Leagues in more than a year, it was hard to know what to expect when the Mariners signed Young to a one-year deal after he was released by the Nationals at the end of Spring Training. Seattle really was looking mostly for early help while Iwakuma and Walker were sidelined by spring injuries, but the big right-hander stepped into Seattle's rotation and was outstanding for most of the season and figures to earn strong consideration for AL Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Hitter of the Year: Cano. While a very strong case could be made for Seager, given he led the team in home runs and RBIs, Cano had a huge impact on the lineup -- and opposing pitchers -- as he was plugged into the No. 3 spot in the order and gave the Mariners instant impact and credibility. Cano ranked sixth in the AL in batting average (.314) and on-base percentage (.382). And while his power numbers were down from his typical Yankees production, he led Seattle in doubles as well as OPS and was the Mariners' first .300 hitter since Ichiro Suzuki in 2010.

Pitcher of the Year: Hernandez. The 28-year-old is regarded as a strong favorite to win his second AL Cy Young Award after putting up his best season yet at 15-6 with an AL-leading 2.14 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. Hernandez was the AL starter in the All-Star Game for the first time and ripped off a Major League record string of 16 straight starts of seven or more innings while allowing two or less runs. He set a career high with 249 strikeouts and led a pitching staff that kept Seattle in the playoff chase all year.

Rookie of the Year: Paxton. While fellow lefty starter Elias pitched the full season and racked up more innings and wins and played a part in Seattle's success, Paxton proved a huge factor once he returned from a shoulder injury that cost him four months. The 25-year-old posted the fourth-lowest ERA ever for a Major League pitcher in his first 15 starts, dating back to last September, and appears poised to be a major contributor to the club's future.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.