We can wonder when the Mariners will become the same old Mariners again or we can look at them and see reasons to think things might be different in 2018.
Their first road trip of the season could have been disastrous with built-in excuses such as injuries and cold weather, but they still went 4-3 and have yet to lose a series this year, going 2-0-2.
They beat the Royals Wednesday afternoon with a lineup that included Taylor Motter and David Freitas, two players who would be in Tacoma were it not for the injuries, and utility infielder Andrew Romine. They’re also 6-4, compared to going 2-8 in the first 10 games last year, and they’ve done so with starting first baseman Ryon Healy hitting 2 for 22 and then spraining his ankle in a post-game workout Saturday in Minnesota.
And now an already potent lineup with Dee Gordon and Jean Segura both hitting .333 and Robinson Cano at .406 will get a boost over the weekend from the returns of Ben Gamel, Nelson Cruz and Mike Zunino, probably in that order.
Gamel has perfect timing, coming back Friday night from an oblique strain just in time for Ben Gamel Cap Night, a fantastic promotion that will allow Mariners fans to do their own hair flips at Safeco Field. Cruz is expected back sometime over the weekend while the Mariners host the A’s, and Zunino, after a rehab start or two with the Rainiers, could be back next week, maybe even in time to start the opener of a four-game series against the Astros.
Those four games will give us a better idea of what to expect from the Mariners this year. Right now they’re holding their own with the Astros, tied in the loss column. But the World Series champs went 14-5 against the Mariners last year and hold a 37-20 edge the last three years. The Mariners need to go 3-1 or at least split those four games to convince me that they’ve got a shot at earning a wild-card berth and ending their 17-year playoff drought.
It’s a strange one because even if the Mariners are greatly improved this year – and the lineup gives you hope that that’s the case – they still have to play 38 games against the Angels and Astros, who could be the best two teams in the league this year. That’s nearly a quarter of their season. I’d take 19-19 right now and hope they beat up on the lesser teams on their way to 85 or 88 or 90 wins, whatever it takes to get the wild card.
In that scenario, the Mariners would have to go 66-58 in the other 124 games to get to 85 wins, 71-53 to get to 90. In past years, that was too much to expect, yet this year from what we’ve seen so far, all things are possible.
If they can get average pitching, not even above-average or outstanding pitching, they are capable of winning every game. I know that Gordon, Segura and and Cano are going to fade a bit, but even at that, those three guys are going to be on base a lot – and with Cruz, Kyle Seager and Mitch Haniger hitting behind them? Seems like many opportunities to score plenty of runs.
And the bottom of the lineup? I’ll take my chances with Healy or Daniel Vogelbach, Zunino and Gamel or Guillermo Heredia as the 7-8-9 hitters. I’m not a Healy fan, and I would have said that before he went 2 for 22. I know he hit 25 homers last year, but he struck out too much and basically parlayed one good month into what appeared to be a good season. I’m pulling for Vogelbach to be the every-day first baseman though I know the chances of that are remote. I want to see if his torrid Cactus League numbers could be a sign of a productive regular season force if he gets consistent playing time.
Then again, given my track record of doubting one guy and supporting another, this basically means that Healy, when he returns in a week or so, will explode and Vogey’s doomed to go 0 for his next 20 and be shipped to Tacoma.
I didn’t mention Ichiro as a potential No. 9 hitter with Gamel and Heredia mainly because I don’t want to see him as the No. 9 hitter even if he stays on the roster, which I guess he will as a, what, fifth outfielder? You’ll have Gamel, Gordon, Heredia and Haniger, and Romine could fill in out there in a pinch, so I don’t see the need to keep a 44 year old who seems a little lost in left field, yet you sense that they will anyway. Text message to manager Scott Servais if I had his number: “Hey, Scotty, could you please platoon Gamel and Heredia in left field and stop it already with this Ichiro nonsense? Thanks. Winking emoji.”
When you think about the Mariners, which I do a lot for reasons I can’t fully explain, I already feel like my prediction of an 81-81 season might be off by four or five wins. My biggest concerns for them right now, in order, are Felix Hernandez, Juan Nicasio and Healy. And that’s about it. Usually I’ve got five or six concerns if not seven or eight. I suppose I could throw in Casey Lawrence as a concern, but long relievers aren’t big factors in a team’s success – when they show up on the mound, you’re already down four or five runs, and they’re the lost-cause guys for that night.
Felix is a hard one to figure out, as you know. He’s had one great start, one bad start and one decent-to-good start. I’m hoping for more of those decent-to-good starts, starts that you’d expect from the No. 3 guy in your rotation. Give me six innings and three or four runs allowed every five days, and I’m good with that. Problem is, with Felix, we’re likely to see more of those wild swings where he’s as fantastic as he used to be followed by an awful start that makes you wonder if he’ll ever resemble the King again.
With Nicasio, he’s been mostly shaky as the set-up guy, but his history suggests that he’ll be fine, and I like that he’s been a good influence on Edwin Diaz, who could be an All-Star the way he’s pitching now.
And Healy? I guess I’ve already mentioned my concerns with him, but the good news is that you’ve got a Plan B with Vogelbach – you wouldn’t think they’ll both struggle to find their stroke. Besides, remember Danny Valencia in April last year? He scuffled but eventually got it going; the same could hold true for Healy this year, especially since he had his spring training shortened by hand surgery.
In the short-term, take two of three from the A’s to keep the momentum going and then get ready for an Astros series that will tell us a lot about the season ahead.