By Josh Kerns
For 710 ESPN's Mike Salk, they're some of the happiest words of the year: pitchers and catchers report. And as the 2013 edition of the Mariners assembled for the start of Spring Training in Peoria, Ariz., Salk says there's plenty to be excited about for a team that's been a bitter disappointment for seemingly years (The Felix Hernandez signing notwithstanding.)
"I think that this team is going to be more fun to watch this year. Do I think that they're going to challenge? Probably not," says Salk.
The addition of Kendrys Morales to the middle of the M's lineup should bring some big improvement to Seattle's offensive output. (AP)
While many fans continue to be critical of the team and its inability to again land a big name free agent in the offseason like Josh Hamilton, Salk and guest co-host Tom Wassell say the Mariners' offseason additions of Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse should spark a significant improvement to one of baseball's most impotent offenses.
"There's a lot you can do with the team now that you have two guys in the middle that can actually hit," Salk says of the newest M's, likely to get plugged into the number three and four spots in the batting order.
Morse returned to the Mariners after four years with the Washington Nationals in the three-way trade that sent catcher John Jaso to Oakland. Morse brings some badly needed power to the lineup, ripping 31 homers and driving in 95 runs in a stellar 2011 season that saw him hit .303 with a .550 slugging percentage (he hit 18 HR's and 62 RBI's in an injury shortened 2012 season.)
Morales, who comes to Seattle via the Jason Vargas trade with the Angels, provides even more hope and potential pop to the middle of the lineup. The 29-year-old hit .273 with 22 home runs and 73 RBIs last season after missing the entire 2011 season recovering from a broken leg suffered while celebrating a game-ending grand slam against the Mariners.
His OPS of .827 over the final two months was better than every Seattle hitter during the 2012 season.
And Salk predicts both will have a significant impact on the rest of the lineup.
"Kyle Seager is not a number three hitter in baseball right now. But what if he's hitting second for you, what if he's hitting sixth for you? What if Michael Saunders is in those spots instead of being forced to hit cleanup? What if Jesus Montero can bat seventh and hit with ducks on the pond?"
The trio were standouts for the struggling team in 2012. Seager surprised many with 20 HR's and 86 RBI's. Saunders popped 19 HR's and 57 RBI's, while Montero added 15 HR's and 62 RBI's during just his second major league season.
"I still have a lot of very high hopes for what Jesus Montero grows into as he continues to develop into a big leaguer and mature," Wassell says.
Both feel strongly there will come a time when the Mariners are suddenly a good team and pennant contender, just not this year. Salk and Wassell both think they'll win somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 games, finishing just under .500. But considering where they've been the last few years, it's a start in the right direction.
"I think that they are going to be more entertaining to watch and I think that they are going to be better than last year," Salk says optimistically.