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Cano a star attraction, but Mariners need more

New manager McClendon hopes for big steps forward from other lineup pieces

PEORIA, Ariz. -- When general manager Jack Zduriencik was putting together the 2014 Mariners, he felt it was time to add a bona fide star to help push along the youth movement of the past several seasons.

So $240 million and a few conversations with Jay-Z later, Seattle had a new face of the franchise. Robinson Cano, one of the premier players in baseball, now anchors the Mariners' lineup and offers hope of bigger things ahead.

Cano has done nothing to disappoint so far, tearing up Cactus League pitchers and posting a batting average above .500 most of the spring. Those gaudy numbers aside, Cano offers something the Mariners have been missing since the days of Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez -- a big-time position player in the middle of their clubhouse and their offensive attack.

Over the past seven years, Seattle's No. 3 hitters in its Opening Day lineup have been Jose Vidro, Raul Ibanez, Mike Sweeney, Casey Kotchman, Milton Bradley, Ichiro Suzuki and Kendrys Morales.

First-year manager Lloyd McClendon likes to say it takes thoroughbreds to win the horse race, and he's thrilled to have a proven winner coming out of the gate in the middle of his first lineup.

"We can talk about a lot of things, but a legit No. 3 hitter in your lineup does a lot for you, and we have one," McClendon said. "And they haven't had that in a long time here. You hear me say a lot of times, check the book. The numbers don't lie. They stack up year in and year out. Robbie has the ability to hit for power, hit for average, drive in runs. That's what you want in a No. 3."

Cano brings a career .309 average to a team that hit .237 last season, last in the American League. He's averaged 45 doubles, 28 home runs and 103 RBIs over the past five seasons.

The question now is whether the five-time All-Star can replicate that success with a Mariners team that plays half its games at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field and doesn't have as much star power to surround him with in the lineup.

Some of that support will fall on designated hitter/right fielder Corey Hart, a two-time All-Star with the Brewers who signed a one-year, $6 million deal (with another potential $4.65 million in incentives) to play right field and designated hitter. Hart missed all of 2013 following microfracture surgeries on both knees, and he worked all spring to regain his timing at the plate.

But the biggest key for the Mariners figures to be the long-awaited development of some well-regarded young players who've struggled to produce consistently in the past year or two. Third baseman Kyle Seager has been very solid in his two seasons, but the Mariners need former first-round Draft picks Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak to play up to their potential, along with outfielder Michael Saunders and 2013 rookies Mike Zunino and Brad Miller, assuming Miller ultimately wins the shortstop competition with his red-hot spring.

"Obviously, Cano is going to be big for this club," said Saunders, who along with Smoak and Ackley are the only position players who've started more than one prior Opening Day for the Mariners. "It puts a guy right in the heart of the order that strikes fear into the opposition. I remember playing against him, and it always seemed like he'd always come up in the ninth with the winning run on second, and he just always seemed to be that guy -- 'Don't let Cano beat you.'

"Now that we have him, it's great. But the key to our success is more the collective group of this team taking the next step. I strongly believe that being young is no longer an excuse. Just because you're young doesn't mean you can't be good. I think if we collectively take a step forward, we're going to be fighting coming into September, and September games are going to be meaningful."

That would be a welcome step for a team that hasn't made the postseason since 2001 and has just two winning seasons in the past 10 years. But to make significant progress from last year's 71-91 mark, they're going to need to find balance in a roster that can't just be about Cano and ace Felix Hernandez.

The Mariners need Hart's right-handed bat in a lineup that leans heavily left with Cano, Seager, Ackley, Saunders and Miller. Smoak is a switch-hitter, but he was much better from the left side last year.

The effort to better balance the lineup is one of several reasons McClendon put Abraham Almonte in center field and in the leadoff role from Day 1 this spring, even though the 24-year-old has just 25 games of Major League experience from the final month of last season.

McClendon likes Almonte's combination of speed and power. Acquired last year in a trade with the Yankees, the 24-year-old has stolen 27 or more bases in six of his eight pro seasons, and he hit 15 homers in the Minors last year and two more with the Mariners after getting called up on Aug. 30.

"I like the total package," McClendon said. "Switch-hitter, gives you speed on the bases, can score from first, he's got some pop. [Outfield coach Andy Van Slyke] has done a nice job with him in the outfield. You can see the improvement and his movement laterally. The total package is pretty good."

McClendon is frank in his assessment of some of the areas of needed improvement. He said it's pretty clear the offense will be better this season with the addition of Cano and the advancement of the young nucleus. And while the team no longer has veteran outfielders Ibanez and Michael Morse with their power potential from last year, that trade-off comes with a considerable upside.

"We had a horrible defensive outfield last year," McClendon said. "I think we have options that will make it better this year."

If Almonte can set the table for a lineup that will potentially follow with Miller, Cano, Smoak, Seager and Hart, the Mariners could be putting together something impressive. McClendon believes Smoak is on the verge of a breakthrough season, but the skipper said the big first baseman just needs to focus on being a complete hitter instead of a power hitter after batting .238 with 20 homers and 50 RBIs in 131 games last year.

As for the pitching? Help is on the way there, but the club will open the season with a rotation consisting of Hernandez followed by youngsters Erasmo Ramirez and James Paxton, who have a combined 34 appearances and 155 1/3 innings on their Major League resumes. Roenis Elias, who has never pitched above Double-A ball, also appears on the verge of claiming a starting job after this week's release of veteran contenders Scott Baker and Randy Wolf.

All-Star right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, third in last year's AL Cy Young Award voting, won't likely be available until sometime in late April after spraining a tendon in his right middle finger just prior to camp. Top right-handed prospect Taijuan Walker, who also projected into the rotation, also will open on the 15-day disabled list after being slowed by a sore right shoulder early in camp.

The bullpen was bolstered by the free-agent signing of closer Fernando Rodney, which allows last year's closers -- Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen -- to slide back to setup roles along with lefty Charlie Furbush.

Add it all up, and the Mariners are eager to see how much they can improve in the tough AL West.

"I think we could make some noise," said Furbush. "This is a pretty good group."

The key there being group. Cano can't carry the load by himself. And the biggest question for the Mariners will be finding out whether the rest of the band is ready for prime time as well.

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.

Seattle Mariners, Robinson Cano