For fans of a Seattle Mariners franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2001, doubt is a part of daily life.

Disbelief underscored the start of the 2016 season after the organization underwent a massive overhaul, with nearly half of the roster being replaced in the offseason and changes being made to the coaching staff.

This was supposed to be a year of transition for the organization. And maybe it still is, if you consider the categorical definition: Seattle has transitioned into a winner.

But more than semantics, it’s important to acknowledge this Mariners team, which stood four games out of first place in the American League West as of Tuesday morning, should inspire belief in those who have made doubting the organization a personal hobby the last 15 years.

The AL West is getting more competitive than it was the first month of the season. The division-leading Texas Rangers recently got top-of-the-rotation pitcher Yu Darvish back after Tommy John surgery, and a talented, burgeoning Houston Astros team that lost to the Kansas City Royals in the 2015 American League Division Series is playing better after a horrendous start to the season.

But more competition in the division doesn’t mean the Mariners won’t remain competitive.

Through Sunday’s games, the Mariners ranked fourth in MLB with 287 runs scored. Their offense has not been the class of baseball, but it has been in the upper echelon, ranking 10th in batting average (.262) and fifth in slugging percentage (.440). Seattle ranks second in baseball with 82 home runs.

But most importantly, the Mariners have received timely hitting, as they lead MLB with 26 homers with runners in scoring position. Their .477 slugging percentage in that circumstance ranks sixth in MLB.

The Mariners come up big in the game’s biggest moments. Think of the Seattle offense like your friend who fades into the background on a regular night out but is a key player in a Vegas bachelor or bachelorette party.

The team’s pitching staff has done its part, too: As of Sunday’s games, the Mariners ranked ninth in ERA (3.80) and 10th in WHIP (1.26). The staff has been able to maintain its play with ace Felix Hernandez on the disabled list since June 1.

But the team’s bullpen has been the hallmark of this Seattle renaissance.

Through Sunday’s games, the Mariners bullpen ranked third in ERA (2.94) and batting average against (.214). The Royals just won a World Series largely because they had baseball’s best bullpen. As of Sunday, Kansas City’s bullpen ranked first in ERA.

So naturally, other organizations have tried to mimic the Royals’ formula. This offseason, we saw several teams chase well-regarded bullpen arms. Examples include the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees trading for Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman, respectively.

Teams are always searching for bullpen help. It has proved to be baseball’s most elusive asset—have one, and it nearly guarantees you will be competitive.

As of Sunday, teams in the top five in bullpen ERA—which also included the Chicago Cubs, Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals—were either leading their divisions or holding second place.

Of course, the Seattle cynics are still singing with the panache of the Harlem Gospel Choir: Sure, we all know what the Mariners have done, but can they keep it up?

After all, USA Today had the Mariners winning only 77 games. Sports Illustrated predicted Seattle would only win 76 games. 

Offensively, the Mariners’ high OBP is more a matter of habit—the team has players with a discerning eye—than it is a skill with the potential to slump. So they should continue to put runners on base, with the opportunity for the team’s power bats to drive them in.

And the Mariners haven’t experienced a sudden power surge this season. Those who are driving in runs have proved capable in previous years.

So why wouldn’t they be able to continue that in 2016?

After seeing his season-ending slugging percentage dip below the .500s his first two seasons in Seattle, second baseman Robinson Cano is hitting .289/.348/.570 with 16 homers so far this year. In the five seasons prior to his signing as a free agent with the Mariners, Cano’s slugging percentage was above .500. Third baseman Kyle Seager and right fielder Nelson Cruz, who combined to hit 70 homers in 2015, had 10 and 13 homers, respectively, as of Sunday.

One big difference between this year and last is that the power bats weren’t hitting well with men on base in 2015. Seattle ranked 28th last year in OBP with runners on (.318 OBP) compared to 10th this season (.342).

But no statistic should excite Seattle about its potential in 2016 more than this: The team’s relievers had only thrown 171.1 innings through Sunday. That is only 26 more innings than the MLB-leading Cubs, who had played three fewer games.

That means Seattle’s bullpen will be fresh for its playoff push.

No team in the AL West has had a more effective bullpen. And no team in the division has used its relievers less than Seattle.

Too much losing has tormented Seattle’s fans. A negative mentality is understandable, if not warranted, in many cases. The franchise tied a record with 116 wins in 2001 but lost in the ALCS. The Mariners won 93 games in each of the following two seasons but missed the playoffs.  

But this season, it’s time for Mariners nation to stop biting its nails. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Because every indication is that the team’s going somewhere in 2016.


Seth Gruen is national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Talk baseball with Seth by following him on Twitter @SethGruen.

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