The Mariners have the pieces to field their most potent lineup in years, but there's more than just a lack of starting pitching that could extend their playoff drought to 17 seasons.
Three reasons why…
1. Potent Lineup
The Mariners should score runs. The first five hitters in their projected everyday lineup — Dee Gordon, Jean Segura, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager — are previous All-Stars with career résumés that reflect their success and paychecks. The addition of Gordon, to go with Segura at the top of the order, allows Seattle not to rely just on homers. The Mariners can create runs with their legs. Gordon has stolen more than 50 bases in three seasons, including 60 in 2017.
The Mariners believe Seager won’t be as streaky this season after finally settling on a swing. Cano and Cruz are each a year older but are still productive and dangerous.
But what could make the lineup particularly potent are the hitters after the first five. Seattle will use Ryon Healy, Mitch Haniger and Mike Zunino in the No. 6,7,8 spots in some varied order. Healy and Zunino have legitimate power, each hitting 25 homers last season. Haniger’s first 20 games last season and the final 29 games of the season were brilliant, as he displayed his hitting versatility.
2. Paxton power
James Paxton has done everything to be healthy for 2018 and become the type of dominant starter that he was for extended periods last season. Armed with a mid- to high-90 mph fastball, a nasty curveball and cutter and an improved changeup, he has all the tools to be one of the best starting pitchers in the American League.
He posted a 12-5 record with a 2.98 ERA in 24 starts last season. He struck out 156 in 136 innings and career marks in wins, starts, innings, strikeouts and ERA (2.98). But that success was interrupted by two stints on the disabled list because of a forearm strain and later a pectoral strain. His absence crushed a Mariners’ rotation he had been anchoring.
In past offseasons, he’s modified his routine to trim unneeded weight and become more flexible with the use of hot yoga. This season he revamped his diet, removing all cow’s milk and related products in an effort to remain healthy.
If he gives Seattle 30 starts, it would take some pressure off the rest of the staff.
3. Pleasant surprises
Realistically, the Mariners need more than a few surprising contributions or performances that exceed expectations. They have a good idea what they’ll get from established players, particularly the position group, but if a starter like Marco Gonzales can put together or a strong season or if hard-throwing reliever Dan Altavilla can harness his stuff and be a reliable set-up man, the Mariners could have a different outlook.
Gonzales, with a new natural arm slot and two years removed from Tommy John surgery, has looked outstanding this spring. He has given a glimpse of why he was a first-round draft pick and a touted prospect with the Cardinals. Altavilla adjusted his slider grip, simplified his mechanics and has been one of Seattle’s best relievers this spring.
MARINERS PREVIEW 2018
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- Fans, you're not alone: Players agree it's gone on too long | Matt Calkins
- 'Mistakes were made': Inside the dysfunction behind the drought
- Mariners Missteps: From 116 wins to 16 years of futility, how they got here
- Din Tai Fung is coming to Safeco Field: Here are all this season's new vendors
- Meet the starting lineup »
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After two seasons of dealing with injuries, it would be a pleasant surprise if Felix Hernandez could make 28 to 30 starts and display a level of consistency with his command. While no one expects Hernandez to be the King Felix of five years ago, there is a belief that cleaner mechanics and a simpler delivery will allow him to be a useful starter if he stays healthy.
… and why not
Every team deals with them, but in the past few seasons and even this spring, it seems as if the Mariners have had to deal with them more than the rest.
The Mariners’ bullpen, which the front office and coaching staff considered to be a strength, was dealt a body blow when David Phelps suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, ending his season before it started. Phelps was supposed to pair with Juan Nicasio as shutdown set-up men before closer Edwin Diaz.
Seattle will be without outfielder Ben Gamel (oblique strain) for the first month of the season, and No. 5 starter Erasmo Ramirez (lat strain) won’t make his first scheduled start. Their early absence isn’t ideal for a team that wants/needs to get off to a strong start.
And Ichiro at age 44, Cruz at 37 and Cano at 35 are injury risks, and Hernandez and Paxton have also dealt with their injury issues.
2. The competition
The American League West features the defending World Series champion Houston Astros, a team that the Mariners have struggled to beat since they joined the division, posting a 39-55 record against over the last five seasons. Houston returns the bulk of its team and many in baseball are predicting back-to-back titles.
The Angels should be improved, adding second baseman Ian Kinsler and third baseman Zack Cozart to their infield, and retaining outfielder Justin Upton to go with all-everything center fielder Mike Trout. The Angels’ pitching — both the rotation and bullpen —- is a question mark, even with the addition of Shohei Ohtani. Still, many insiders feel they are better than the Mariners.
The American League could be dominated by four “super” teams — the Astros, Yankees, Indians and Red Sox. Even with Minnesota’s success last season, Cleveland seems to be a lock in the AL Central while the Yankees and Red Sox will battle in the AL East with the loser likely to grab with top wild card spot. Unlike past years when the second wild card team got into the postseason with 85 to 86 wins, it’s very possible that the second-wild card team could need to win closer to 88 to 90 games. Does Seattle seem like an 88-win team?
3. Just because
Maybe it’s bad luck or the curse of the upside down trident.
Maybe it’s the baseball gods punishing them for past sins like the Erik Bedard trade and the Heathcliff Slocumb trade before that.
Maybe it should be expected.
For any number of reasons discussed, the Mariners have not made the postseason since 2001. Breaking that trend isn’t simple. It gets into the heads of fans and coaches and players.
“What’s going to go wrong first?”
“What bad thing will happen next?”
It’s easy to see all that can go wrong this season:
Injuries, continued to age-related regression from Cano, Cruz and Hernandez. League-adjustment regression for Haniger, Gamel and Gonzales. Injuries and a lack of roster and organizational depth exposed.
Any of those things could be crushing to the Mariners postseason hopes.