SEATTLE -- As the Mariners come out of the All-Star break, they're looking at something they haven't seen for a while -- a chance to play meaningful games deep into the season and compete for a playoff spot in the second half.
The Mariners' 51-44 record leaves them eight games back of front-running Oakland in the tough American League West, but solidly in position for the second AL Wild Card spot as they're 2 1/2 games ahead of the rest of the pack in that chase with 2 1/2 months remaining.
The surprising Mariners sent four All-Stars to Minneapolis, and they have served notice that they're a team to contend with after four straight losing seasons and 12 years without a playoff berth.
"I think it speaks volumes about what they've accomplished this first half, but it also speaks volumes about where this organization is headed," first-year manager Lloyd McClendon said. "We're certainly moving in the right direction."
Five key developments
1. Felix has been King-ly
The Mariners' ace is having the best season of what has been a marvelous 10-year career, as he's 11-2 with a 2.12 ERA. Hernandez is leading a rotation that has been one of the team's most pleasant surprises with veteran Chris Young and rookie Roenis Elias combining for 15 wins and Hisashi Iwakuma looking strong again after missing the first month.
2. Cano proving his worth
It's not easy living up to a $240 million contract, but second baseman Robinson Cano has provided not only the expected consistent bat in the middle of Seattle's order, but leadership and a willingness to help set the tone for a young club that seems to enjoy his star presence. And a .334 first-half batting average doesn't hurt either.
|MVP: Robinson Cano
Kyle Seager had a tremendous first half and would be a good choice as well, but Cano has been the guiding force for a young team that has followed his lead -- and relied heavily on his veteran presence -- in the lineup and in the clubhouse.
|Top starter: Felix Hernandez
He's not just been the top starter on the Mariners, but the best pitcher in the American League while having the finest first half of his career.
|Top rookie: James Jones
Roenis Elias and Dominic Leone have played big roles on the pitching staff, but Jones gets the nod after injecting much-needed speed and life into the top of the lineup and in center field.
|Top reliever: Fernando Rodney
The bullpen has been Seattle's most surprising strength, and Rodney has solidified things with his veteran presence while racking up the most saves in the AL in the first half.
3. The bullpen has been bullish
After having a bullpen that ranked second to last in ERA in the Majors last year at 4.58, the Mariners finished the first half No. 1 out of all 30 teams in that key category at 2.39, with a group that has fallen into place nicely behind veteran closer Fernando Rodney.
4. A new All-Star arrived
Cano needs help in the Mariners' lineup, and that continues to be an issue with an offense that again ranks near the bottom of the league in most categories. But third baseman Kyle Seager had a big first half, leading the team in home runs and RBIs and earning his first AL All-Star berth in the process.
5. The landscape is changing
While the Mariners' improvement has been significant, they're also taking advantage of an AL picture in which the Red Sox, Rays and Indians -- all playoff teams a year ago -- have struggled this season, and the Rangers and Yankees have taken big dips as well. The AL West is still rugged with the A's and Angels having terrific seasons, but injuries have ravaged Texas and the AL Wild Card spots seem wide open.
Five storyline to keep an eye on
1. Searching for some balance
The Mariners opened the season with a decidedly left-handed-heavy lineup that featured five southpaws, two switch-hitters and two right-handed-hitting regulars. When the two switch-hitters -- center fielder Abraham Almonte and first baseman Justin Smoak -- lost their jobs to left-handers James Jones and Logan Morrison, the lean became even more pronounced. Smoak rejoined the team last weekend, but general manager Jack Zduriencik continues looking for a right-handed bat to supplement designated hitter Corey Hart and catcher Mike Zunino.
2. Will youth prevail?
While Seager stepped up with a big first half, several other key players have yet to make the advancement hoped for in their third and fourth seasons in the Majors. Smoak and Dustin Ackley haven't hit with the consistency expected, and second-year shortstop Brad Miller got off to a bad start before rebounding in the last month. Michael Saunders had a solid first half, but he is now on the disabled list for a second time, and he and the rest of the young nucleus need to produce down the stretch.
Players to watch in second half
The six-time All-Star has been one of the AL's top hitters for average from the get-go and a tremendous defender. The only thing missing has been his power, so it'll be interesting to see if he can add that element in the warmest months of the season.
The Mariners' top prospect made just two starts in the first half due to early shoulder issues, and one of those was a struggle in Chicago. At 21, he's raw and unproven. But the potential is high if the hard-throwing right-hander gets things squared away.
Much like Walker, the Mariners could add a key element if the 25-year-old rookie gets healthy. He's 5-0 with a 1.75 ERA in six career starts. The question is if his shoulder is going to let him help this year.
3. Is there even more in the rotation?
Hernandez and Iwakuma figure to be strong, as long as they stay healthy, but Young hasn't pitched a full season since 2007, and Elias is entering uncharted innings territory as a rookie. But if James Paxton can get healthy and Taijuan Walker lives up to anywhere near expectations, those two rookies could actually benefit from missing time early in the first half as their innings counts are low.
4. How steep is that learning curve?
Zunino and Jones are in their first full seasons as starters, and both have played critical roles in the first-half success. Zunino has been a rock behind the plate and provided some needed right-handed power. The Mariners need him to stay healthy and strong while playing the vast majority of games at the toughest position on the field. Jones didn't arrive until a month in, but his speed has been a huge asset. There've been growing pains as well, but if he continues to develop, that's a big plus for a team that struggled with Almonte in a similar role through April.
5. How rewarding -- or awarding -- could this season be?
Based on first-half results, the Mariners have several players who could contend for major postseason awards. Hernandez is the odds-on favorite to win his second AL Cy Young Award if he can maintain his outstanding season, though the 28-year-old has had some late-season struggles the last few years. Young is a strong candidate for AL Comeback Player of the Year Award as a 35-year-old who didn't pitch in the Majors last year and has dealt with shoulder issues the past six seasons. And if the team lands a playoff berth, McClendon figures to be in the hunt for the AL Manager of the Year Award after taking over a club that went 71-91 last year.