The goal in Seattle is simple — make the playoffs. While most teams have similar aspirations, the Mariners have gone longer than any other team in MLB without a postseason appearance — 15 seasons. That growing number looms over the organization, darkening the often-gray skies in Seattle. With the core pieces of the group that went 86–76 in 2016 returning, expectations are high for 2017.
Because of that, general manager Jerry Dipoto was extremely busy this offseason, orchestrating more than a dozen trades that resulted in a rebuilt starting rotation, a new leadoff hitter and even more turnover to a 40-man roster that looks basically nothing like the one he inherited when he became the team's GM in September 2015. It still all starts with Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager, a trio that’s as good as any in baseball, but it will ultimately be the new pieces that determine Seattle’s success.
A year ago, Seattle got 57 starts of five innings or fewer and produced a record of 13–44 in those games. The disappointments started with staff ace Felix Hernandez, who posted an 11–8 record with a 3.82 ERA in 25 starts. He missed six weeks with a calf strain, but even when he was healthy, signs of deterioration and age were noticeable. He lacked consistent command as evidenced by his 1.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio — the worst of his career. The organization challenged Hernandez to come back in better shape and more prepared for 2017. Hisashi Iwakuma did not miss a start in 2016, but he fatigued late in the season. At age 35, he wins games with command and deception, but those can only go so far. Lefty James Paxton, who went 6-7 with a 3.79 ERA in 20 starts, is the other holdover following the trades of Taijuan Walker and Nathan Karns, who are expected to be replaced by Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo. Smyly was acquired from Tampa Bay and even though he has battled injuries and struggled last season (7-12, 4.88 ERA); the 27-year-old lefty has the potential to be a legitimate No. 2 starter, if not a future ace. Gallardo was acquired from Baltimore for outfielder Seth Smith and should benefit from a change of scenery after posting a 5.42 ERA in just 23 starts with the Orioles last season. Righthanders Rob Whalen and Chris Heston (another trade acquisition) and lefty Ariel Miranda will provide depth in case of an injury, which is highly likely considering the track record of the arms ahead of them.
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The bullpen is much more a known quantity this season with at least five relievers from last season expected to fill spots. Hard-throwing youngster Edwin Diaz took over the closing duties from Steve Cishek in July and excelled, saving 18 games in 21 opportunities. A converted starting pitcher, Diaz tired in the season’s final months. Cishek, who blew seven saves to lose the closer’s job, is expected to be Diaz’s late-inning setup man. It’s a role he had success in late in the season. Cishek might not be ready by Opening Day as he recovers from offseason hip surgery, but the Mariners expect him to be good to go by late April. The lack of a late-inning situational left-handed reliever was addressed in the offseason with the signing of veteran Marc Rzepczynski to a two-year contract. He has limited left-handed hitters to a .222 batting average with a .291 on-base percentage and .298 slugging percentage over his career. Hard-throwing right hander Dan Altavilla, who like Diaz jumped from Double-A to the big leagues, is expected to fill a middle relief role. Former Atlanta Brave Shae Simmons also could be a huge factor now that he’s two years removed from Tommy John surgery.
When Jean Segura steps onto the field on Opening Day, he’ll be the 10th shortstop that Cano has played with in his three seasons with the Mariners. Segura will easily be the best of that undistinguished list, which is why Seattle acquired him in the offseason. Segura is coming off a career year with the Diamondbacks, hitting .319 with an .867 OPS, 41 doubles, seven triples, 20 home runs, 64 RBIs and 33 steals in 153 games. Cano is coming off an even better 2016. He showed no effects from offseason hernia surgery, hitting .298 with an .883 OPS, a career-high 39 homers and 103 RBIs. Beyond the gaudy offensive numbers, Cano returned to form in the field, making stellar defensive plays at second. He also embraced a leadership role in the clubhouse that hadn’t been evident in his first two seasons with Seattle.
Seager just continues to put up consistently good numbers with slight increases each season. In 2016, he hit .278 with an .858 OPS, 30 homers and 99 RBIs in 158 games. He did commit an uncharacteristic 22 errors at third base, botching some routine ground balls moving to his left. But the Mariners believe it’s correctable. While Seattle has a cornerstone at third, the revolving door at first base continues. The plan for this season is to use rookie Daniel Vogelbach (acquired from Cubs last July in the Mike Montgomery deal) and veteran Danny Valencia in a platoon of sorts. The Mariners like the left-handed-hitting Vogelbach’s approach of power and patience at the plate. The right-handed-hitting Valencia is a proven masher of left-handed pitching in his well-traveled career.
Speed should not be an issue in the outfield with former Royal Jarrod Dyson in left and Leonys Martin in center. Dyson was traded for Karns and should finally get a chance to play every day. Right field figures to be a battle between rookies Mitch Haniger and Ben Gamel. Seattle picked up Haniger in the Segura trade. He was Arizona’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2016, hitting .321 with a .999 OPS between the Double-A and Triple-A levels. Gamel was acquired in late August and played in 27 games for Seattle.
Mike Zunino is back after spending the first part of the 2016 season in Triple-A to work on his swing. The changes yielded some extended periods of success, but a late swoon still put his batting average at .207 with 65 strikeouts in 164 at-bats. He did hit 12 homers and drive in 31 runs while still showing exemplary receiving and framing skills behind the plate. The Mariners acquired veteran Carlos Ruiz to serve as backup. Ruiz turns 38 before the season, but he still can hit left-handed pitching and provides a solid role model for Zunino and some insurance for the Mariners.
Cruz is not bothered by age or the unfriendly parks of the AL West. At 36, he hit .287 while posting team highs with a .915 OPS, 43 homers and 105 RBIs in 155 games. He also became more accepting of his transition to a near full-time DH. One of the big bonuses of acquiring Valencia was his ability to play first base, third base and both corner outfield spots. It gives manager Scott Servais some options. Shawn O’Malley proved to be the team’s best utility player option and showed he could play shortstop at a decent level, something that the new management team didn’t expect. The acquisition of speedy Tayler Motter will provide some competition during spring training.
Servais had never managed a game at any level in his life. There were times in the mechanics of a game where that inexperience was exposed in 2016. He dealt with injury issues to his starting rotation and a roster that was flawed and limited in versatility. But Servais got his team to buy in to a new way of thinking, preparing and playing. It helped that he got Cano, Cruz and Seager to believe in this new philosophy early in spring and embrace leadership roles.
It seems unlikely that Cano, Cruz and Seager can improve much on the stellar production of last year. But Dipoto has been very aggressive in building up the roster depth around his star trio, which should allow the Mariners to be competitive in a very tough American League West. It will come down to how the new-look starting rotation performs.