It should be the perfect time to catch a raging spring dose of Mariners fever. Just one problem: The more I look at the roster, the more nagging questions and festering doubts I have.
It’s less than one month until the glorious day when Mariners pitchers and catchers report to Peoria, Ariz. And this year, that countdown is unencumbered by slavish devotion to the Seahawks’ Super Bowl fate.
In other words, it should be the perfect time to catch a raging spring dose of Mariners fever. Just one problem: The more I look at the roster, the more nagging questions and festering doubts I have.
New general manager Jerry Dipoto took the Seattle roster he inherited and smashed it to smithereens. Or maybe Hank “Bad Henry” Smithereens is a utility infielder Dipoto acquired in a minor-league deal. There are so many new faces, I get a little confused sometimes.
Oh, sure, it’s possible to look at the revamped roster from a certain angle, squint your eyes and conjure up a scenario by which everything jells in optimal fashion and the Mariners are this year’s rags-to-riches darlings. That exercise is practically a federally mandated obligation this time of year.
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But it’s just as easy to see the potential deficiencies, as well as the preponderance of players upon whom the Mariners are counting on a rebound, and fear a worst-case-scenario. The Mariners have an uncanny knack for landing those.
Maybe that kind of spring skepticism is a good thing. Last year at about this time, the Mariners were everyone’s trendy pick. They were either greatly oversold, or they greatly underperformed. I’ll let you be the judge of that one, but perhaps I’m looking at this year with more of a jaundiced eye. You know the old saying: 12 times burned, once shy. Or something like that.
It’s better to be pleasantly surprised than perpetually let down, right? A little realism is never a bad thing. New general manager Jerry Dipoto inherited a mess, and it would take a minor miracle for a one-season turnaround.
Though sometimes miracles happen, especially in the parity-driven and wild-card rich MLB. The analytical website Fangraphs recently came out with its computer projections for 2016 and had the Mariners finishing at 84-78. That not only would represent an eight-game improvement over last year, but it would put the Mariners in second place behind Houston (86-76) in the AL West, and tied with Toronto for the second wild card.
Considering the Mariners have the longest playoff drought in the majors — 15 years and counting — that would be a wildly successful season. But here’s a list of the newly acquired players coming off subpar or injury-marred years upon whom the Mariners are counting on for a rebound: center fielder Leonys Martin, left fielder Nori Aoki, catcher Chris Iannetta, closer Steve Cishek and setup men Ryan Cook and Evan Scribner.
That’s not to mention the fervent hope that Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton can stay healthy for a full season — something they were unable to do last season. The bullpen, almost completely rebuilt, is a mystery. And they’re entrusting shortstop to 22-year-old Ketel Marte, who, though impressive in his showcase last year, is still a 22-year-old with all of 57 games under his belt.
I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade. As I’ve written before, Dipoto has a clearly articulated vision for the future that he’s following with precision. He’s shored up many areas, including the Mariners’ ability to get on base and their overall defense. Adam Lind should be a major upgrade at first base, and the Iannetta/Steve Clevenger combo at catcher can’t help but be a big improvement over the mess they had behind the plate last year.
The rotation, if everyone stays healthy and Taijuan Walker and Paxton reach their potential, could be special. The core of Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager is as solid as they come.
If Dipoto hits on a good percentage of his upside plays, well, you never know. The X-factor is this kid Smithereens. I hear he’s tearing up the Dominican winter league.
The Mariners will be nothing if not fascinating, and that’s a gift in its own right. Here’s what I like best about the 2016 Mariners: They’re not the 2015 Mariners. The hopey-changey thing has been a spring staple in baseball since Connie Mack was buttoning up his overcoat on the bench. There’s really no need to dial it back now. Just as long as you don’t get your hopes up so high you can’t adjust later.
See, it took me only about 700 words to come around. The mysterious trade winds of late January are far more powerful than any dose of skepticism.