Year after year, the perennially underrated American League West is so intensely competitive that the impact of one player can swing the race, making the difference.
The Mariners, after finishing a game behind the A's in the AL Wild Card chase last season, are hoping Nelson Cruz's sweet swing is the elixir. It all starts on Monday, when they welcome the defending division champion Angels to Safeco Field for Opening Day.
The Mariners' Felix Hernandez will engage Jered Weaver in a prospective duel familiar to both established aces.
King Felix, 11-13 with a 3.52 ERA in 40 career starts against the Angels, will be challenged by Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Co., while Cruz joins Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager in a potentially formidable attack. Weaver is 14-10 with a 3.37 ERA in 31 starts against Seattle.
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon is delighted to welcome Cruz -- the 2014 Major League home run king in Baltimore -- to the cleanup spot between Cano and Seager. Nine Seattle hitters last season combined for the lowest batting average (.218) and slugging percentage (.352) of all AL clubs' No. 4 hitters.
Cruz, an outfielder and designated hitter, had a .271/.333/.525 line last season for the Orioles.
"I can tell you what it means to our ballclub," McClendon said. "It adds validity and extends our lineup and protects Robbie. It gives Seager more opportunities. A true No. 4 makes your lineup better all around."
The Angels, with Josh Hamilton recovering from shoulder surgery, are unclear about the identity of their cleanup man behind Kole Calhoun, Trout and Pujols. Matt Joyce, formerly of the Rays, and David Freese are candidates. Howie Kendrick, who flourished hitting fourth last season, was dealt to the Dodgers for promising starter Andrew Heaney.
"We're missing some names here and there," Freese said, "but we can still do some damage. Maybe in different ways, but we can rack up the runs this year, as well."
Trout vs. King Felix is the headline matchup. Trout is a .367 hitter against him with a .633 slugging percentage. Cano (.375) has solved Weaver, but the cross-firing veteran has contained Seager (.222) and Cruz (.211).
Trout, the reigning AL Most Valuable Player Award winner, led the league in runs (115) and RBIs (111), but his average dipped to .287. Trout plans to be more aggressive early in counts in an effort to reduce strikeouts and put more balls in play.
Cruz, who launched 25 of his 40 homers on the road, will take his hacks with little concern for Safeco's daunting history of frustrating power hitters. He is aware of the region's heightened expectations due to his presence.
"It doesn't matter what people say -- we have to believe in what we've got here and what can take us to that next level," Cruz said. "We know what we have to do to win games. The most important thing is health. If we stay healthy, we should have a pretty good shot."