Small sample size may indicate big change in M’s

dave.boling@thenewstribune.comApril 8, 2014 

Seattle sports fans had to have been fairly certain the Mariners’ home opener Tuesday would be a chance to get a look at a quality team.

After all, the pregame festivities will include a salute to the Mariners’ SoDo neighbors, the Super Bowl XLVIII champion Seahawks, with some high-profile players there to increase the draw.

But six games into the season, the Mariners serve as enough of an attraction in their own right, returning a surprising 4-2 to lead the American League West standings as they enjoyed a Monday off to settle back into home.

Yes, it’s just a week, but the team is showing depth and power and pitching and finally some development in slow-ripening prospects.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. As of Monday, ESPN’s MLB power rankings showed the Mariners at No. 11 (best among AL West teams), a 12-spot leap from last week.

Even those bitter from a decade of disappointment have to tune in tonight with a sense of cautious optimism.

If nothing else, the home opener is not going to be a display of the same ol’, same ol’. And the

biggest reason is the most obvious — the $240 million difference: Robinson Cano.

Manager Lloyd McClendon said Cano has been even better than advertised, and that’s a big statement for a five-time All-Star.

The numbers support it. The second-baseman has hit .391 with a pair of doubles and a .500 on-base percentage. Three of the five walks he’s drawn have been intentional — putting him on base to get to No. 4 hitter Justin Smoak.

In those cases, Smoak went 1-for-3 with an RBI double, and part of that credit goes to Cano.

It’s fair, then, to assume that Cano’s presence has helped Smoak get off to a promising start, with eight RBI in the first six games (.625 slugging percentage), and Dustin Ackley with a .292 batting average.

Cano is the anchor to that order at the No. 3 spot. His presence, alone, makes it easier for guys such as Smoak and Kyle Seager to assume more natural roles.

A brief history of recent opening-day batting orders shows what a contrast Cano provides. The No. 3 batter on recent opening days were: 2013, Kendrys Morales; 2012, the out-of-place Ichiro Suzuki; 2011, Milton Bradley; 2010, Casey Kotchman, and 2009, Mike Sweeney.

It’s early and all that, but Cano is off to the kind of start that could make him the rare Mariner free-agent signee who comes in and performs as his baseball card suggests he should.

If Cano can step in and fill the role of team leader, too, it’s further value. As mentioned in ESPN’s SweetSpot blog on Monday, Cano made an impressive effort to take second base on what looked like a single to center against Oakland.

The play — although only one instance — seemed to refute the reputation Cano had with the Yankees as a guy too casual on the base paths.

“It’s one play,” the blog post pointed out. “But perhaps a sign that Cano will embrace being a leader on the Mariners.”

It’s absolutely fair to disclaim the small sample size and the calendar date. That’s smart and certainly valid with this team. They’ve teased a number of times.

The foundation of this club looks different, though, the fundamental building blocks look stronger.

And especially in baseball, the value of momentum and confidence is crucial.

Right now, the Mariners have it. Sure, it has faded before.

But when the Safeco is colored with bunting and banners, maybe this is a day when it’s fair to wonder what could happen if a little of that competitive magic just drifted across from CenturyLink.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 dave.boling@thenewstribune.com @DaveBoling

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