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Mariners Corner: Three… is a Magic Number

The Seattle Mariners last won the AL West in 2001, the very same year they tied the MLB record for wins in a regular season, with 116. In the eight seasons since, the M’s have finished last in the West four times and second to last another two.

Not coincidentally, 2001 was the last year DH Edgar Martinez had an above average offensive season. Seattle has been searching in vain for reliable middle of the order forces ever since.

Mike Cameron, Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, Jose Guillen and Randy Wynn were all major let-downs. And Kenji Johjima was something much worse. Watching Johjima at the plate hacking at air, was akin to being constipated while having a heart attack. Really, only former right-fielder Raúl Ibáñez was someone Seattle could count on to produce.

It’s tough to build a winner without having an anchor in the middle of the order, even with the best rotation or defense. Having a power-hitting RBI threat, who plays with pitchers minds, as your clean-up hitter is great, but not totally necessary. Having an all-around producer hitting third is.

It is likely that is what prevented so many baseball minds across the country,, from picking the Mariners to win the division this year. Via trades, they acquired Milton Bradley from the Chicago Cubs and Casey Kotchman from the Boston Red Sox, but really; who amongst us figured on either of those guys becoming mainstays in the heart of Seattle’s order?

So 2010 was destined to look like ever other year since 2002. That is, until center fielder Franklin Gutiérrez lay claim to the three-hole.

Gutiérrez, traded to Seattle by Cleveland two years ago, has always been an electrifying athlete. Watching him run down deep flies in center is mesmerizing, but I’m not so sure Mariner’s GM, Jack Zduriencik, envisioned the 27-year-old hitting third when he dealt for his prize. At least, not this quickly anyway.

Look, no one is going confuse Gutiérrez with Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira or Evan Longoria; he just doesn’t have the pop those guys do. But the masonry-oven hot start Guti has gotten off to may not be a fluke. In 2006, ’07 and ’09, he had a BAbip (batting average on balls in play) of .321 or higher, including .333 last year. Numbers that prove he was doing something right.

Through 18 games this year, Gutiérrez is second in the AL in hitting, at a clip of .375. Only two home runs, but again, if you want long balls, you’ve got the wrong guy. Realistically, the kid isn’t the 30 home run a year type, at least, not yet. Expecting 15-20 is much more reasonable. And while there’s little chance Guti ends the year second in the league in hitting, the way he looks, there’s no reason to believe he can’t hit around .315 or so, making him MORE than an acceptable three-hole hitter for Seattle.

And sure second baseman, Chone Figgins has struggled sandwiched between Gutiérrez and lead-off hitter, Ichiro Suzuki, but at some point he’s going to hit. And when he does, Guti will have more than his fair share of RBI opportunities. Driving in 100-plus is well within his cross-hairs this season.

Simply put, Seattle fans are really starting to like the heart of their order. Which is something they haven’t been able to consistently say since 2001. And a lot of that security is thanks to their young No. 3 hitter.

Gutiérrez looks primed to have a big year and should he reach the levels he is capable of, the M’s may soar to heights seldom seen this past decade.

I am on the record as someone predicting big things for the Mariners this season, in large part due to the top of their order. And if you read my recent fantasy sleepers column, you probably already know that I expect significant production from their newly minted No. 3 hitter. While I originally preferred a slightly altered top three when the M’s first signed Figgins (I didn’t mention it in my AL West prediction blog, but told just about everyone I talked to this spring, that Seattle should have gone with a Figgins-Gutiérrez-Ichiro, one-two-three, rather than the current order), you’d be hard pressed to argue now that they didn’t hit it big, with the three they have now.

Any way you split it, three appears to be quite the magic number in the Northwest. And the team hopes that number leads them to No. 1 in the standings come October.

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