The surprise team of 2014

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Going back to 2013 to look ahead. Spoiler: who knows.

It was fifty-nine days ago when Koji Uehara struck out Matt Carpenter to end the 2013 Major League Baseball season, and in the days since, there have been some big exciting trades and wonderfully surprising free agent acquisitions and terrible episodes of Intentional Talk but what there hasn't been is any American baseball. Fifty-nine long, arduous days.

But the good news is that we are over the hump, and as of today, December 28th, there are only forty-six days left until the first Mariners' pitchers and catchers report to Peoria and start throwing baseballs to each other. Forty-six! We all know the offseason is far from over, and that the Mariners could make another bang and add Tanaka or something. Maybe they will sign Ervin Santana, or trade for Matt Kemp. Perhaps they will just sign Henry Blanco. We don't know. But yesterday, Dan Szymborski released his 2014 ZiPS projections for the Mariners, and it's just about what you would expect, despite the roster not being complete. Now, assuredly, it would be remiss to think the roster would change that much from where we are today, but it should be a signal that we are closer to February than October, and it's time to start thinking about what the Mariners are going to be able to do in 2014.

It will be interesting to see what analysts and journos all say come February, but so far, the reaction to the Mariners has pretty much been a resounding chuckle, tinged with spices of superiority and I-told-you-so's. Which could be warranted if they broke camp with the club looking like it does today, unfortunately. And forget mere opinions, those ZiPS projections are numbers. But most of us got into baseball because we like challenges and opportunities, stories and unpredictability. There is a chance the Mariners could somehow be the 2012 Orioles or the 2013 Pirates, even though the math adds up to 70-something wins. The obnoxious part about all of this is how similar the club is supposed to perform to last year, despite the marked difference in offseason building.

This year, so far: grab the best second baseman in all of baseball, despite paying up the nose. Sign a sleeper bat who was tied for 27th in wRC+ between 2010-12, and although another 1B/DH logjam was added with Justin Smoak II, it's filled with twentysomethings instead of thirtysomethings. And, hopefully, more deals to come.

Last year: ship off the team's best hitter and beard-hat marketing opportunity in a three way trade for an oft-injured one-tool player, trade for one-too-many 1B/DH types, sign a lackluster starting pitcher coming off a possibly unrepeatable career year, pick up a 40-year old fan favorite and put him in the outfield with a washed-up homegrown boy that the Mets didn't want. The Mets.

Even though the numbers so far put these two teams in roughly the same spot, something about that team last year made people excited. I remember being excited, knowing full well that holy shit, this is going to probably be a mess. But for a moment, albeit a brief one, the 2013 Seattle Mariners were going to be The Surprise Team® of the year. That team that I just described a paragraph back. Here, look:

Dave Fleming at Bill James Online:

The team most likely to surprise the American League in 2013 is the Seattle Mariners...It's easy to sleep on the Mariners, as they've been the ignored team in the AL West for a while, but they're certainly on the rise. It's likely that Oakland and Texas will decline slightly next year, and while the Los Angeles Trouts are probably going to win 162 games this year, the Mariners could get into the Wild Card race.

That's a quote from Bill James' website, not Bill Ripken's blog. And here's ESPN's Eric Karabell:

Mariners will be this year's surprise team

...Add it up and the Mariners...aren't that far from beating up on the division rival Houston Astros but also holding their own with the Angels, Rangers and Athletics and finding a way into the one-game playoff. Of course, if something's wrong with King Felix's elbow...all bets are off!

And there were more. Here's Dan Plesac on February 11th:

First things first: hahahahaha. Second: I'm not just regurgitating these quotes with the advantage of hindsight to make these writers look stupid. They have much more experience in baseball than I do and have forgotten more about the game than I'll probably ever know. But that should tell you something. Intelligent, thoughtful baseball analysts bought the hype of the 2013 Seattle Mariners hook, line, and sinker.

And I can tell you something else: I bought it too, a little bit. And many of us did on this website, to an extent. We may have the advantage of the Bavasi years and now the front-office "exposé" to censure any future optimism, but remember that ridiculous winning streak in Spring Training? Remember all those dingers in March? Remember Mike Morse killing the A's in the opening series and Felix getting through three innings without a hit in the first game? It's easy to get caught up in things we know might not be in our best interest, but if you ask me, this Mariners team is looking quite a bit better than last year's Mariners team, numbers notwithstanding.

There is a lot of time left before the roster is secured and we know exactly who will be walking into Peoria in a Mariners uniform come February. Forty-six days, to be exact. And this is the irony of the whole thing: these analysts weren't wrong in wanting to predict the surprise team of 2013. Everyone wants to guess the end of the story before it arrives, and boy, would that have been a good one.

But now that the 2013 story didn't happen, the Mariners are back to being pond scum, and the narrative is about how Cano isn't going to be enough to lift this team out of dire straits. Which is probably true. The Mariners are going to be mediocre again and land in the fourth slot in the AL West, miss the last Wild Card spot by a mile, and go back to wondering how on earth they are going to find relevance again. Now, everyone can look elsewhere for that exciting 2014 story, the breakout team that defies expectations and finds themselves playing an intense, meaningful game in late September. The 2012 Orioles of 2014. The 2013 Pirates of 2014. Eyes are fixed, bets are in. The surprise team. Who will it be?

Which...I don't know, but I always the point of a surprise was, you know, to be surprised.

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