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ESPN’s Jim Bowden says pitching will determine if the Mariners will play in October

ESPN's Jim Bowden is confident Felix Hernandez will bounce back after two straight down seasons. (AP)
LISTEN: ESPN's Jim Bowden on Mariners' pitching, chances at postseason in 2017

It’s been a common assertion by baseball experts that the Mariners will go only as far as their pitching will take them in 2017. Count ESPN’s Jim Bowden as one of the many subscribing to that opinion.

Bowden, the former Reds general manager, told 710 ESPN Seattle’s “Bob, Groz and Tom” on Wednesday that the Mariners have a lot of question marks in their starting rotation, but it’s not too lofty an expectation that they could see enough good results to get them to the postseason.

“It’s always about pitching,” Bowden said. “Can King Felix (Hernandez) be the ace? Can (Hisashi) Iwakuma stay healthy? Can (James) Paxton give us 30 starts finally? And can Drew Smyly be what we wanted Taijuan Walker to be? If you answer all of those things positively, you’re going to be playing in October.”

Updates from Mariners spring training in Peoria

The first question, regarding Hernandez’s ability to return to ace status after two straight down years, may end up being the most important for Seattle. Bowden at least has confidence that his extra work this offseason will pay off.

“I’m expecting King Felix to jump back,” Bowden said. “Look, I’m not gonna tell you I think he’s gonna win the ERA title like he did in 2010 and 2014, but certainly I do expect that normal 3.10 ERA and 15 wins and 200 innings again, something we didn’t see last year. … He knows how to pitch, so even if the velocity doesn’t come completely back (and) the stuff doesn’t come back as dominant, he’s gonna be successful anyways.”

Bowden is also high on Smyly, a 27-year-old left-hander who he compared to Taijuan Walker, another young starter with a high ceiling of potential that the Mariners traded away over the offseason.

“I look at the starting pitching and I like the pickup of Drew Smyly. I think that ballpark at Safeco is gonna help him, I think the outfield range and defense is gonna help him as well, and as long as he’s healthy I don’t see any reason why he can’t live up to the potential we all saw when he was traded for David Price,” Bowden said.

When it comes to potential, James Paxton’s name also needs to be included. And while he had his strongest season yet in 2016, Bowden is still looking for more from the 28-year-old southpaw.

“James Paxton, to me, has always been that guy with the great potential that I keep waiting to break out,” he said. “I think every year I’ve predicted his breakout year. I might even do it again this year.”

There’s a fifth man in the mix in Yovani Gallardo, who at 30 is looking for a renaissance of his glory years when he was the Brewers’ No. 1 starter. Gallardo struggled last season with Baltimore, going 6-8 with a career-worst 5.42 ERA.

“In terms of Gallardo, rolling the dice here a little I think. I know he’s on a mission. He’s got his whole career and legacy at stake here so he needs to come back here,” Bowden said.