(Sports Network) - The Oakland Athletics were the surprise of the American League a season ago. The Seattle Mariners are hoping to find themselves in a similar situation this year, as the AL West foes begin their 2013 seasons on Monday at O.co Coliseum.
It's hard to imagine the light at the end of the tunnel for a team that has finished last in seven out of the past nine years, including each of the previous three seasons.
But, things are getting better for Seattle.
For one, the Houston Astros now call the American League West their home, meaning it's probably a safe bet that the Mariners won't occupy the cellar.
Two, the great Felix Hernandez signed a 7-year, $175 million deal this offseason, ending any rumors that he could be had in a trade.
And finally, Seattle is just going to be better.
The biggest problem the Mariners had in 2012 was scoring runs. Seattle has scored more runs in each of the last two seasons under Eric Wedge, but still ranked at the bottom of the AL last year with 619 runs scored.
Scoring runs shouldn't be a problem this year, as youngsters Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders continue to progress, coupled with the additions of veteran boppers Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse, Raul Ibanez and even Jason Bay.
But, the biggest change for 2013 might be the reconfigured outfield at Safeco Field. The walls are moving in - most significantly in left center, where the barrier will be 17 feet closer to the plate. In addition, the left-field wall will shrink from 16 feet to 8 feet, making for a uniform height all the way around.
The result should be more homers for the Mariners, who had just one player, Seager, hit 20 last season.
Seattle is of course set on the mound with Hernandez, but after him it gets a little shaky. Lefty Jason Vargas was jettisoned after a breakout season, but the Mariners are expecting big things from Hisashi Iwakuma and Blake Beavan.
Hernandez, who will be on the hill Monday, went 13-9 with a 3.06 ERA over 33 appearances this past season, leading the AL with five shutouts and striking out 223 batters in 232 innings.
The three-time All-Star has started at least 33 games and thrown over 230 innings in each of the last four seasons, and has compiled a 98-76 record with a 3.22 earned run average over 238 starts since breaking into the majors as a 19-year-old with Seattle in 2005.
The A's, meanwhile, won their first division title since 2006 last year thanks to an incredible surge late in the season to topple the Texas Rangers.
While they lost the ALDS in five games just like they did in four of their previous five playoff appearances, 94 wins was still quite an accomplishment for a team that was supposed to be in rebuilding mode.
Oakland general manager Billy Beane continued to reload, as Brandon McCarthy, Brandon Inge, Stephen Drew, Chris Carter, Cliff Pennington and Jonny Gomes are all gone from last year's club.
Manager Bob Melvin's new faces include Hiroyuki Nakajima, Jed Lowrie, Chris Young, John Jaso and Nate Freiman.
But, it may be a returning player who holds the key to Oakland's success. Lefty Brett Anderson, who made only six regular-season starts in 2012 after coming back from Tommy John surgery and then later being bothered by an oblique injury. Still, he went 4-2 with a 2.57 ERA and in his lone postseason start, he beat the Tigers with six innings of two-hit, shutout ball, striking out six.
"I'm sure it'll kind of hit me as we get closer and closer, but obviously it's an honor to be the guy to go out there and lead your team in that first game," Anderson said. "I'm excited for the crowd. Hopefully, it's the way it was in the playoffs last year, all rowdy. It'll be fun to be a part of."
Oakland won 12 of its 19 matchups with the Mariners last season.