Mariners Opening Day outlook

Mariners Opening Day outlook

The Mariners know what they have to do in 2006 if they're going to break a two-season cycle of punchless offense, underperforming pitching and the ultimate result of more than 90 losses: Get more consistent and get there quickly.

So a year after the team came into the 2005 season with a new field manager, a new lineup and high hopes to get back into contention in the American League West after a dismal 2004, the team enters 2006 with yet another look.

New starter Jarrod Washburn can help solidify the pitching staff, new catcher Kenji Johjima can lend a steady presence to a position that was a major problem last year, new designated hitter Carl Everett brings pop at the plate and a little bit of attitude in the dugout and new reserve outfielder Matt Lawton is a savvy veteran who can hit.

Adding all of that to exciting veteran players Ichiro Suzuki, Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson and young players loaded with potential such as Felix Hernandez, Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez gives the underdog Mariners confidence that they'll turn it around and turn some heads in the process.

BATTING ORDER
1. Ichiro Suzuki, RF:
Ichiro showed quite a bit of fire while helping Japan win the World Baseball Classic, and the Mariners hope he carries that outspoken passion over to Seattle this summer. He hit 69 points lower (.303) in 2005 than he had in 2004 (.372), so expect him to be on a mission to get back the batting title.

2. Jeremy Reed, CF:
Reed gave the Mariners a big scare during Spring Training when he sprained his wrist and the team originally labeled it a fracture. Reed is looking to bounce back from a disappointing rookie season at the plate, but the Mariners love his defense in center field and are expecting him to rebound offensively.

3. Raul Ibanez, LF:
He's solid, he's dependable and he's quietly one of the keys to the Mariners' offense. Ibanez fits very nicely into one of the major run-production spots in the lineup and could benefit hugely if Beltre and Sexson have monster years.

4. Richie Sexson, 1B:
Sexson was one of only a handful of Mariners who did what they were supposed to do offensively last year, and it was very encouraging that he did it a year after missing most of the 2004 season with shoulder problems. Sexson looked great all spring, too, which bodes well for Seattle's lineup.

5. Adrian Beltre, 3B:
Beltre's 2005 numbers weren't horrible, just a major departure from his ridiculous 2004 season (.334 average, 48 homers, 121 RBIs for the Dodgers). But work with new hitting coach Jeff Pentland seems to have paid off. He crushed the ball in the World Baseball Classic and upon his return to Spring Training, and he's a great defender at third.

6. Carl Everett, DH:
Once considered a clubhouse liability, Everett was brought in partially to give the locker room a spark with his veteran, championship experience. The major reason he was signed, however, is that Everett still has some life in his bat, as his 2005 stats prove.

7. Kenji Johjima, C:
Nobody worked harder at learning the Mariners pitchers this spring, and Johjima has impressed everyone around him with his personality, his presence behind the plate and his improving hitting stroke. After a seven-catcher musical chairs game last year, the Mariners are overjoyed to have him.

8. Jose Lopez, 2B:
Lopez has always been considered one of the Mariners' best prospects, and this is the year in which he'll get the chance to show it on a full-time basis. Lopez has get better in two major areas: hitting the ball to all fields and range at second base. Both require experience, which he'll get.

9. Yuniesky Betancourt, SS:
Cuban defector Betancourt had barely played a half-season in the United States before the Mariners became convinced that he had the defensive skills to be one of the best-fielding shortstops in the Majors for years to come. He's worked on getting stronger in the upper body to develop more gap-to-gap power and needs to see more pitches.

ROTATION
1. Jamie Moyer, LHP:
The savvy veteran bounced back from a poor 2004 by leading the staff in wins (13) and innings (200) and compiling the best home record (10-0) in the Major Leagues. He's 43 now, but he'll still rely on his bread and butter: location, changing speeds, a great changeup and the ability to paint the corners.

2. Joel Pineiro, RHP:
Pineiro missed a good portion of Spring Training last year because of shoulder issues and ended up losing a lot of velocity, which he built back up steadily throughout the season. The team is still looking for a lot more consistency from the right-hander, who looked very good pitching for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.

3. Jarrod Washburn, LHP:
Some fans gasped when they saw the four-year, $37.5 million deal that the Mariners gave this former Angel, but the team wasn't scared to pay a premium for an experienced, gritty left-hander who brings an improving package of well-located fastballs, off-speed stuff and championship experience to the rotation.

4. Gil Meche, RHP:
The former No. 1 draft choice was given a one-year deal and another shot to prove that the potential in his outstanding right arm can be realized once again. Meche looked good in the spring with a different approach of sticking to one plan the whole way through. The Mariners are eager to see if it works during the season.

5. Felix Hernandez, RHP:
Everyone knows this 19-year-old kid has the talent to be a major star and a rotation-transcending type of arm. The big challenge for the Mariners will be to keep him grounded mentally, to keep him healthy and to make sure he isn't expected to strike out every hitter in every inning.

BULLPEN
A healthy Eddie Guardado gives the team one of the best closers in the AL, but one continues to wonder as "Everyday Eddie" gets older how much more ammunition is left in that left arm, with its once-torn rotator cuff.

The good news is the Mariners have several other strong options in the 'pen, with two gifted right-handed setup men, J.J. Putz and Rafael Soriano. Putz throws hard, had a solid 2005 campaign and has been working with pitching coach Rafael Chaves on getting more ground balls with a two-seam sinker. Soriano is on the rebound from Tommy John surgery, but his mid-90s velocity has returned and he looked good in the spring. The rest of the bullpen is highlighted by trusty and versatile right-hander Julio Mateo and lefty specialist George Sherrill.

OPENING DELAYED
Outfielder Chris Snelling has been a tough-luck-injury player for years, but he's recovering from a torn ligament in his left knee and progressed in Spring Training to the point where he is taking batting practice and running. A return by the All-Star break wouldn't be a stretch.

BURNING QUESTION
After losing a total of 192 games in the last two seasons, there are plenty of questions for the Mariners to answer in 2006, but the biggest one undoubtedly has to do with the offense. The Mariners were second to last in the AL in runs scored last year and had the lowest batting average in the league to boot.

So how do the Mariners improve and score the runs they'll need to contend? It will start with Beltre and Sexson playing to the levels the Mariners believe they can achieve and the team getting typical seasons from Ichiro, Ibanez and Everett while the young guys -- Betancourt and Lopez -- improve just enough to solidify things into consistency. A Mariners offense firing on all cylinders could be a very exciting one, with a good mixture of speed, power and a situational game that takes advantage of opportunities and pressures defenses.

ON THE RECORD
"I already see a lot more fire and passion in this team, and I think we're going to surprise a lot of people." -- Guardado

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.