Felix Hernandez King's CourtOpening Day is finally upon us. But this isn’t the same Opening Day that has come in previous years. The Seattle Mariners begin the season as a legitimate World Series contender and American League favorite, according to many pundits. The rebuilding and retooling tags have been shed. The ‘bubble team that needs things to break right’ better defined the 2014 season and hasn’t even been mentioned when discussing 2015.

This time last year, Alex Carson posed the question, “is optimism silly?” when discussing the 2014 Mariners. He noted the addition of Robinson Cano and how there was a sense of change from previous seasons under former manager Eric Wedge. There wasn’t any expectations of success, but reasonable ground for being hopeful about the coming season.

This time around though, it’s all different. The Mariners are expected to have success not only in the regular season but the playoffs, also.

Missing the playoffs by a single game will dramatically alter the outlook of any team, particular one that hasn’t played October baseball in more than a decade. Perhaps it was enough to alter the public’s perception of the Seattle franchise who are now picked by many to make a playoff run.

Going from optimism to expectations often starts when the games aren’t being played: the offseason.

To some extent, the winter played out has many expected: Seattle acquired a right-handed power bat, traded a bullpen arm, picked up a veteran starter, traded Michael Saunders, and added reasonable outfield depth. The acquisitions of Nelson Cruz, J.A. Happ, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, and Rickie Weeks all made sense. Sure, the Cruz deal may not look great two years from now nor is Smith the definition of an impact bat, but altogether, we’ve started to see how the pieces appear to fit.

Slotting Cruz between Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager in the lineup gives Seattle one of the best middle-of-the-orders in baseball. Having Smith and Ruggiano as options in the No. 2 spot allows Dustin Ackley to hit closer to the bottom of the order. Should Austin Jackson struggle with the bat, again, Weeks could be a viable option at the leadoff position.

Happ effectively replaces the departed Chris Young, who signed with the Kansas City Royals, and could be a perfect match for Safeco Field. Dealing Maurer made sense given the number of right-handed relief options at manager Lloyd McLendon’s disposal.

Perhaps the real difference-makers though, will be those already in the organization.

Taijuan Walker has dazzled this spring. And James Paxton is healthy. Between the pair, the Mariners could see No. 2 and No. 3 starter performance — and we’re not talking about their projected ceilings as top prospects. They could be such in 2015. The best part? The two will slot behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma who are still one of the top one-two punches in baseball. This doesn’t even consider that Roenis Elias, who threw over 160 innings last year, begins the season at Triple-A.

Brad Miller starts the year as the everyday shortstop but will have Chris Taylor breathing down his neck in just a few weeks. If he can take the next step with the bat, he could be the top shortstop in the division. Logan Morrison showed some promise with the bat when he was healthy last year and at age-27, he’s entering a make-or-brake season. Dustin Ackley? Basically the same story. Austin Jackson is entering his walk year and will have to prove he’s closer to the player he was in 2012 than 2014, if he wants to get paid.

The best bullpen in the major leagues in 2014, sans Brandon Maurer and Joe Beimel, will be back. Rookies Tyler Olson and Carson Smith will start the season in the pen while Dominic Leone works out some kinks at Triple-A and David Rollins serves an 80-game PED suspension — both offer depth that will be utilized in the coming months.

For all the depth in place, there are a few areas that aren’t without concern.

What happens if Morrison gets hurt again? Jesus Montero is next on the depth chart and despite a much improved physique, he’s a major question mark.

Mike Zunino played 131 games last year and will likely carry a similar workload this year since Jesus Sucre offers next to nothing in the batter’s box. Though the back-up should mark a defensive improvement over what John Buck offered for the first few months of 2014 and conceivably improve offensively.

There’s also the possibility that Jackson under performs once again and Ackley can’t find any consistency with the bat.

But this is where the difference between the 2015 and 2014 Mariners lies: McLendon has options. If Ackley struggles, Weeks can play left field off the bench. Or one of Ruggiano and Smith. If Walker struggles out of the gate or one of the starters hits the disabled list, Elias is waiting in the wings. Leone, who is coming off an excellent campaign, is the first reliever called-up if needed.

We keep talking about the Mariners depth and how if an 87-win team could make just a few marginal upgrades, the result would be a playoff berth. Well, the M’s have made marginal upgrades, and conceivably will see better performance out of a few existing players. Even if the bullpen regresses and Cruz can’t crack 20 home runs, this is still a much-improved club overall. A total of 90 wins or better is completely realistic.

One of the reasons why the M’s have become a popular pick is the lack of clarity in the American League West — not to take away from the quality of the team itself.

The Los Angeles Angels didn’t make any significant upgrades this winter and the loss of Howie Kendrick will certainly be felt. Aside from Mike Trout and Albert Pujols the lineup lacks punch. The bullpen looks stronger with a full season of Huston Street in the closer’s role though the rotation will probably determine how far this club can go. Garrett Richards is on the mend but Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson will need rebound seasons.

The Oakland Athletics seemingly turned over the entire roster in an effort to replenish organizational depth and deploy a new strategy of receiving league average or better performance out of each position. The losses of Josh Donaldson and Jeff Samardzija will hurt. Brett Lawrie, if healthy, could finally live up to some of his potential. Ben Zobrist was a nice pick-up, too, and his flexibility is a perfect match for the club’s style. Sonny Gray is a breakout candidate atop the rotation and Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffen are nearing returns.

The Texas Rangers have all but been written off for 2015 after ace Yu Darvish underwent Tommy John surgery. Healthy seasons from Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo will help, as will the presence of the seemingly ageless Adrian Beltre. But Yovani Gallardo and Derek Holland head a weak rotation that probably won’t be supported well from the bullpen. There’s a chance that Texas could be interesting if things work out, but there are definitely the makings of another lost season.

The Houston Astros are on the upswing and should top the 70 wins the club finished 2014 with. Evan Gattis and Jed Lowrie are nice upgrades and Colby Rasmus and Luis Valbuena were under the radar pick-ups. Alongside Jose Altuve and George Springer the lineup could be pretty good, albeit strikeout-heavy. The rotation lacks intrigue behind Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, though. Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshak were surprising bullpen expenditures, but their value will probably be realized once they are traded for other assets.

The AL West certainly doesn’t project as a weak division, especially in comparison to the other American League divisions that have their own sets of question marks. In comparison to the other four teams, the Mariners project as the most complete overall.

Even looking at other American League heavyweights, the Detroit Tigers, the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and the rising Cleveland Indians, the Mariners still, on paper, have the most complete team.

It’s much easier to sneak under the radar a la the 2014 Kansas City Royals. But there’s something to be said for living up to expectations. This season is ripe with opportunity. How pumped is Felix going to be when he takes the mound for the first time on Monday after narrowly missing the playoffs?

Sure, the Mariners have been pegged as favorites before and the result was a 101-loss season. But that shouldn’t be anywhere near the case this year. The influence of McLendon and the leadership in the clubhouse has conjured up a a club that believes in themselves, and that’s as good a foundation for a team as any.

The roster is set. Spring Training is complete. All that’s left is to play the games.

Go Mariners.

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Tyler Carmont

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