If I were a positive person, I would think the Mariners have a shot at winning 90 games and being a wild-card team this season. I’d tell you the rotation will be better than expected, that Felix Hernandez will bounce back, that the bullpen – even without David Phelps – will be solid, and the lineup is the best the Mariners have had from top to bottom in some time.
But I’d be lying. And besides, I’m not a positive person; I’m a negative and skeptical person, or what I prefer to think is a realistic person who can see the promising possibilities but can’t ignore the apparent flaws in the team. The best things I can say about my prediction of an 81-81 season is that I’m usually wrong with predictions, and better than that, this is the first season in a while where expectations aren’t high for the Mariners.
I like the idea of no one thinking they will be good enough to make the playoffs this year. Instead of having high expectations and not meeting them, which is commonplace for the Mariners, everyone is looking at them as a so-so team that might surprise us all. But if I had to bet on the extremes, I’d say they have a better chance of going 70-92 than 92-70.
Maybe you’ll agree with this assessment, maybe you won’t. The one thing I hope for most of all is a good start. Last year they went 2-8 in their first 10 games. If that happens this year, no one will pay attention to them after the middle of April. If we’re going to buy into them exceeding mediocre expectations, they need to at least be 5-5 after 10 games and give us a smidgen of hope.
The biggest problem is not the Mariners themselves. It’s the Astros, the defending World Series champs who are younger and much better than Scott Servais’ team. I guess I didn’t need to waste your time with that sentence because you already knew that. But it’s weird to think that you’re going into a season in which your best shot is a wild-card berth. The Astros appear too gifted to let a World Series hangover get in their way.
To get one of the American League’s two wild-card berths, the Mariners would need to get to 85 wins at the very least, but Sports Illustrated is predicting it will take 89 wins, and the New York Times, citing a lackluster rotation, thinks the Mariners will finish fourth in the division behind the Astros, Angels and even the Athletics.
Let’s start with the givens for the Mariners – the optimistic givens, the reasons for hope. Some of these won’t be givens for you, but they are for me:
• James Paxton will be one of the best pitchers in the American League and a candidate for the Cy Young Award. I’m not going to add the phrase “if he can stay healthy” even though I know he hasn’t stayed healthy for a full season in the past. We’re talking about the present and the future here, and I’m not concerned about Paxton’s durability in 2018.
• Dee Gordon and Jean Segura will each hit around .300 and give the Mariners the best 1-2 punch they’ve ever had at the top of their lineup.
• Mike Zunino will average .250 again and hit 30 homers and become a first-time All-Star. How can I call this a given? I went to one spring training game this year, and that was the one where Zunino hit three homers. Plus it’s my list of givens, not anyone else’s. If I’m wrong, oh well, but I truly believe that the Mariners catcher is poised for a big year.
That’s all I’ve got for givens.
Now for the good possibilities:
• Based on what he did in spring training and being another year removed from Tommy John surgery, Marco Gonzales could be one of the best fourth starters in the league. I like the Gonzaga lefty’s chances of having a strong year.
• Dan Altavailla has reached a point where he could be one of the most reliable pitchers in the bullpen, and if he’s not, you’ve got capable veteran relievers in Juan Nicasio and Nick Vincent. I’m also thinking that Edwin Diaz will have a hiccup here and there but should be one of the top closers in the game.
That’s it for good possibilities.
Ready for the concerns?
• In the rotation, I have doubts about Felix Hernandez because of the high mileage on his arm; doubts about Mike Leake, who can look lights out one start and like he’s throwing batting practice in the next with everything in between; and doubts about the fifth starter (at least for the start of the season), Ariel Miranda, who gave up too many home runs last year.
• The Mariners could have one of the best defensive outfields in the league, and I know that Gordon has seemingly made a great transition from second base to center field in Cactus League games. But I just have a feeling there will be some learning-curve misplays when the games start counting.
In right field, I have no issues whatsoever with Mitch Haniger, who I’ll take as my seventh batter in the lineup, and if anyone tries to run on him, good luck with that.
But in left field, even when Ben Gamel returns, as much as I like him and his hair, I’ll still wonder if he can consistently produce for a full season. In the meantime, I didn’t like the Ichiro signing at the time and really don’t like it now that he’s nursing a sore calf. Just give the every-day job to Guillermo Heredia and stop with this thinking that a 44 year old can help you out.
• At first base, I’d prefer a platoon of Ryon Healy and Daniel Vogelbach over simply giving the every-day job to Healy just because that’s what he was brought in to be. Things have changed. Healy has not had a full spring because of hand surgery. Meanwhile, Vogelbach hit .400 with six home runs in 50 at-bats and appears to be the guy GM Jerry Dipoto thought he would be when he traded Mike Montgomery for him in 2016.
It sounds like Servais will pick and choose when he plays Vogelbach at first, solely against right-handers, three of whom the Mariners will face back-to-back-to-back in the first series against the Indians.
In my mind, Healy is not an automatic choice at first. He had one big month last year that made his whole season look successful, but he strikes out too much for my liking. He’s young, though, and could be on the verge of a great season and terrific career. The A’s must have thought otherwise or they would not have let him go.
I’d rather think that the Mariners have a shot at going to the World Series for the first time in franchise history and at least end their 17-year playoff drought, but it’s hard to see them getting past the Astros in their own division and the Yankees, Indians and Red Sox in the playoffs. All four of those teams are more talented, and the Angels and Twins might be too.
The roster in April will look a lot different in September with trades at the All-Star break bringing prospects in return for Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and who knows who else. As with the Seahawks, 2018 looks like a transitional year for the Mariners.