In Cust we trust? New DH gets familiar place to start

Designated hitter Jack Cust is one of 15 Mariners who weren't on the Opening Day roster last year. But he's in a familiar place, starting the season in Oakland tonight. (Photo by Greg Johns/MLB.com)

Something to watch for in tonight’s opener: Jack Cust likes hitting in Oakland. And he’d love to put a charge into a couple balls against his former teammates.

Cust wasn’t happy about the way he got handled last year by the A’s, who sent him to the Minor Leagues for the first month of the season. When he had the chance to become a free agent, he jumped at the opportunity to sign with Seattle.

Cust wasn’t throwing any darts when I talked to him yesterday on the eve of the opener, other than saying you always want to beat your former team and you hope your new squad does better than the one you just left. And yeah, he’s got a lot of buddies still over on the A’s side, so pride is on the line.

But down deep, you know there’s a little extra in this one for the Mariners new designated hitter. And perhaps more importantly, he’s always liked hitting in Oakland-Alameda County Stadium and his numbers there are pretty good, as outlined in this story I wrote last night.

What else to watch tonight when the Mariners and A’s get rolling at 7:07 p.m.? I’m interested to see if Chone Figgins gets off to a nice start. He was scorching at the plate the last two weeks of spring and seems in a much better place now, much more of the upbeat, aggressive guy the Mariners thought they were getting a year ago.

If he and Ichiro work in tandem at the top of the order as originally expected, it will definitely help this team score runs if the middle of the order can come through at all. And that might be the biggest question mark on this club — along with a rather uncertain bullpen.

Milton Bradley, Cust and Justin Smoak in the 3-4-5 holes have to produce better than what the Mariners got last year out of their left field, DH and first base slots. The potential certainly is there, but clearly there are questions as well with Bradley’s volatility and Smoak’s inexperience.

There are lots of uncertainties on this team, as you’d expect coming off a 101-loss season. Personally, I expect a solid step forward this year. Not a spectacular step, but a solid one with better offensive production up and down the lineup. If Erik “Wildcard” Bedard comes through, the starting rotation is much better than anticipated. If Michael Pineda lives up to his potential, it suddenly becomes very good.

The bullpen seems a little alarming at the moment, but you never know how those things come together. So we’ll see. And we’ll see right out of the gate with the first six games on the road against AL West foes Oakland and Texas.

Every season brings surprises and I have a feeling this one will have more than its share. This Opening Day roster is a starting point, but Jack Zduriencik and Eric Wedge will use this year as a proving ground for a lot of players. Only 10 of the 25 players on the current roster were with the team on Opening Day a year ago, so change is definitely underway.

Step one begins tonight. It’ll be a long journey, but an interesting one I’m sure as the Mariners begin laying their foundation for the future.

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