How freaking good are the Mariners?
After looking downright mortal during a season-opening 3-3 homestand, the Mariners have run roughshod over the AL West, ripping off nine consecutive wins over divisional rivals, the last five without their best hitter, Edgar Martinez. They've won easy (5-1 and 8-1 over the Angels) and they've won hard (late rallies to beat the Angels 5-4 and the Rangers 13-11), but they've done nothing but win.
While they've gotten a few good starts during the streak, they're mostly pounding people into submission. The Mariners haven't scored fewer than five runs in any game on the road trip (they've done so just once all season), and are averaging nearly eight runs during a game during it. They lead the AL in runs, OBP (by 29 points!), batting average, Equivalent Average, and walks, and are third in slugging average.
The performance of the offense in the absence of Martinez has been a surprise. An unconscious Ruben Sierra–.455/.526/.697–hasn't hurt, but more important has been the team's continued embrace of patience at the plate. Mike Cameron and Carlos Guillen have dramatically improved their walk rate so far this season, and are putting up stellar OBPs (.478 and .429, respectively). Even Ichiro Suzuki has four unintentional walks in 70 plate appearances, nearly doubling last year's walk rate.
OBP is Life. The Mariners, more than any team in the game–even the A's–exemplify this concept. Last year, they rode it to 116 wins and an easy divisional title. If early returns are any indication–and I have to acknowledge that we're talking about 15 games here–they have the pieces in place to do just as much damage this year.
It's not just the offense. While some of the Mariners' pitchers are scuffling early this year, they are once again getting great work from three relievers. Only this year, instead of Kazuhiro Sasaki and his great set-up men (Arthur Rhodes and Jeff Nelson, it's Sasaki and two guys who weren't even on the team this time last year. Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Joel Piniero have provided 20 1/3 innings of shutout baseball, while Rhodes and Nelson have been inconsistent. Sasaki, by the way, has yet to allow an earned run, and is allowing just a 337 OPS on the young season. It's scary to think what this team is going to be like when Rhodes and Nelson reach midseason form.
The bullpen and lineup have covered for a starting rotation that has been shaky. Only Jamie Moyer has been consistently effective, while last year's ace Freddy Garcia has scuffled, and the back of the rotation–Paul Abbott, James Baldwin, and John Halama has been all over the place. Between injuries and trades, the Mariners have lost a lot of their pitching depth in the upper levels of their system, so this is the one area in which they're vulnerable.
Keep in mind, though, that the Mariners pitch in front of the best defense in the league. To the extent that Martinez's injury had a positive aspect, it was in getting Ruben Sierra off the field, and into the DH slot, full time. With Mark McLemore in left field, the Mariners start eight above-average defensive players, including what may be the best defensive outfield in baseball. That's a lot of support, even for a shaky rotation.
Last year, the Mariners opened the season 20-4, burying the AL West before the other teams knew what had hit them. This year, they're 12-3 with seven games left against the West in April, six of them at home against teams they've already swept on the road. They look like a better offensive team than they did last year, and they feature a deeper bullpen and possibly a better defense. While it's unrealistic to predict another 116 wins, it's possible that the A's are once again going to be focusing on the wild card much sooner than they'd hoped.