Why the Mariners could almost, maybe, possibly see themselves in the playoffs

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

They probably won't, but the typically dull glimmer of hope is flickering a little brighter than before.

SB Nation 2014 MLB Preview

This is part of an SBNation.com MLB preview that will live on the main site, and each site was asked to submit an essay as to why their team will win the pennant. That's a difficult task for the Seattle Mariners, but an improved team coupled with a hint of hope is a lot better than I'd be able to provide in years past.

Hope springs eternal for Mariner fans. The rebuild of the Seattle Mariners after the wasteland left by former GM Bill Bavasi has been painstaking, long, and full of disappointment. The decimated farm system proved to be a difficult hole to dig out of for GM Jack Zduriencik, who has made his fair share of mistakes along the way. The collection of young talent the Mariners have acquired under Zduriencik's regime has mostly graduated, and the production from previous graduates has been underwhelming. A star has yet to emerge from this highly-touted batch of youngsters, and only third baseman Kyle Seager has developed into a quality starter.

Still, there is hope as the team embarks on a new campaign with its third manager since 2010. Even though players like Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley have failed to live up to their top prospect billing, they have shown flashes of excellence along with other still-promising players such as Michael Saunders, Nick Franklin, and Mike Zunino. The 2014 Mariners possess more upside than they have had in many years, and the fate of this season rests squarely on the shoulders of the unknown and unproven.

That is not to say that this batch of young position players has not been joined by several established talents, including superstar Robinson Cano, picked off the free-agent market with a historic $240 million contract. Cano begins the first year of his 10-year agreement with the Mariners as one of the game's best all-around players showing no signs of decline as he continues on the wrong side of 30. Two former second basemen, Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin, were left without a position, waiting to see if their future lies in the outfield or with another organization.

At first base, Justin Smoak gets yet another opportunity despite putting together some of the worst age-25 and age-26 first baseman seasons of the past 25 years. The promising Brad Miller returns at shortstop, where he flashed surprising power in his rookie campaign. Mike Zunino, recovered from a broken hand bone suffered in 2013, will attempt to improve his pitch recognition at the plate and handle a rotation in flux.

The outfield will be at least partially manned by the busted knee bandits Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, as both look to regain their former form. While Morrison's injuries have taken a significant toll on his production since his promising rookie campaign, Hart's kept him out of the game entirely in 2013. With an incentive-laden one-year contract, Hart will have plenty to prove as he attempts to resurrect his career, and Morrison, along with many other Mariner hitters, gets one more shot to live up to what was once a bright future.

The rotation is filled with its own share of upside, as long time stud Felix Hernandez and newly-minted ace Hisashi Iwakuma top out a rotation that is full of question marks. Top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker will look to turn into the star pitcher he's projected to become, and hard-throwing lefty James Paxton will attempt to build off his dazzling major league debut in September of 2013. Other rotation options include reclamation projects, as the diminutive Nicaraguan Erasmo Ramirez gets another shot at the rotation after injuries derailed his following up a promising 2012. The Mariners are very thin through the back of the rotation, especially after the announcement that Iwakuma will miss the start of the season with a finger sprain and Walker would be delayed by a sore shoulder. Cuban spring darling Roenis Elias may get a chance at a few early starts, and veteran right-hander Chris Young also joins the rotation as a late addition to help weather the storm.

The bullpen has plenty of room for improvement as well, though now anchored by former Rays closer Fernando Rodney, who followed his legendary 2012 with a solid but lesser 2013. Last year's breakout closer Danny Farquhar will look to translate his elite swing-and-miss stuff into a relief ace role, and former closer Tom Wilhelmsen will try to bounce back from a complete meltdown in 2013. Charlie Furbush and Yoervis Medina return as solid late-game options.

When the Mariners signed Cano, they improved their baseline immediately. Though the team had plenty of potential talent at second base with Ackley and Franklin, Cano is a lock. Seattle has had great difficulty attracting free agents in the past, and couldn't pass up the chance to add 5-6 wins and star appeal. Now the Mariners must make even more moves to bring them over the top because the current roster isn't good enough to compete in an increasingly difficult AL West. The Mariners have put together a high-upside roster that could surprise if the young talent prevails, but they have disappointed to date.

The Mariners appear to be an improved team that will again fall short of contention. However, they should turn a corner towards .500, bringing them out of the cellar in which they've dwelled for four of the last six years. With a high amount of volatility on the roster, the Mariners could win 85 games as easily as they could win 75. While Cano provides stability, there are too many question marks, even among the veterans, to project anything greater. But for the first time in years, there is a glimmer of hope less delusional than usual. A chance that if everything breaks just right for the Mariners and just wrong for everyone else, a playoff spot is within reach. If they reach it, once the playoffs begin, you just never know.

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