The five biggest questions about the 2016 Seattle Mariners season

Apr 3, 2016, 8:57 AM | Updated: 4:53 pm
At 23, Mariners starting pitcher Taijuan Walker has shown glimpses of his superstar potential. (AP)...
At 23, Mariners starting pitcher Taijuan Walker has shown glimpses of his superstar potential. (AP)
(AP)

With Opening Day finally upon us, it’s time to get down to brass tacks on the Seattle Mariners in 2016.

Here are my five biggest questions about the M’s for this season:

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1. Is Taijuan Walker ready to make the leap?

If there’s one prediction I’ve heard more than any other by MLB experts concering the Mariners this spring, it’s that Taijuan Walker is about to come into his own. The Mariners can only hope.

The 23-year-old Walker has the potential to be Seattle’s ace of the future, the Fresh Prince to follow in the footsteps of King Felix. His general manager is a huge fan and even compared him to Cam Newton. In a best-case scenario, he could perhaps become the kind of cool, extremely-marketable, homegrown superstar the Mariners once had in Ken Griffey Jr.

The glimpses of greatness have been there – I’ve written several times about Walker’s incredible run last summer in which he posted a 6-1 record, 1.68 ERA and 51 strikeouts over a seven-start, 48 1/3-inning stretch, and his dazzling one-hitter with 11 strikeouts against Minnesota was one of the best single-game pitching performances of 2015. But he struggled almost as much as he excelled last year, which is how he ended the campaign with a 4.56 ERA. If Walker learns from those mistakes, though, watch out, because there aren’t many pitchers in the world with stuff like his.

2. Has Kyle Seager hit his ceiling?

When the 2016 season is in the books, I believe it will be looked at as the year that was the most indicative of what Seager is capable of as a Major League player.

In one way, the pressure will be off of him – the Mariners have a solid lineup around Seager that should give him the best opportunities he’s ever seen as a MLB hitter. If he hits second, proven leadoff man Nori Aoki will be in front of him, and All-Stars Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz will be behind him. If he hits fifth or sixth, he’ll get plenty of chances with runners on, and he’ll still have protection with Adam Lind, Franklin Gutierrez and/or Seth Smith hitting near him.

In another way, however, Seager might have more pressure on him than ever before. He’s right in the prime of his career at 28 years old, and there’s doubt creeping in that he’ll ever break out with a monster season. Looking at his career numbers, he’s been very consistent with a typical average in the .260s, home runs in the 20s, and an OPS in the mid-to-high .700s. It’s good production, but if he wants to be a perennial All-Star and not just a guy on the fringe every year, there needs to be more coming from his bat. Right now, Seager is a star, but he’s not a superstar.

Where he’ll really factor into the Mariners’ success is with how well he hits with runners in scoring position. “Brock and Salk” producer James Osborn, better known to 710 ESPN Seattle listeners as Boy Howdy, pointed out to me that Seager hit just .179 in those situations in 2015. A repeat of that won’t be of much help in the Mariners’ pursuit for the playoffs, and it just might cement his status as a good but not great player.

3. How much is left in the tank for Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Hisashi Iwakuma and even Felix Hernandez?

There’s no question about it – four of the Mariners’ most important players have a lot of miles on them. Cano is 33, Iwakuma is 34 and Cruz is 35. And yes, King Felix is only turning 30 this week, but you have to consider that he’s already 10 years into his MLB career, has thrown at least 200 innings each of the last eight seasons and over 190 in the other two, so he belongs in this category with the rest of them.

The good news: Cano had an exceptional spring training and looks revitalized after undergoing offseason double sports hernia surgery; Cruz had his best season yet in 2015 and at least for now has to be considered one of the most premier sluggers in the game; Felix hasn’t shown any true signs of breaking down yet; and, oh yeah, Iwakuma threw a no-hitter not seven months ago.

All good things come to an end, though. The Mariners are hoping that in the case of these four players, this season won’t be when the cracks start to show.

4. The bullpen.

Alright, this isn’t framed as a question, but that’s because the state of the Mariners’ relievers at this point is the definition of a question mark.

Let’s take stock of what Seattle has in the bullpen:

• Steve Cishek, the new closer, lost his job as Miami’s ninth-inning man last year and had to redeem himself in a lesser role with St. Louis.

• The one staple left over from past Mariners bullpens, Charlie Furbush, has a major shoulder issue and no timetable in place for when he could return.

• A starter, Mike Montgomery, is taking Furbush’s place as one of the lefties in the pen, and there’s no telling how well that will work out.

• Vidal Nuno, the other southpaw, might be the reliever with the most goodwill built up with Mariners fans on the Opening Day roster, which is pretty telling in and of itself considering he was a midseason pickup last year.

• Set-up guy Joaquin Benoit has been good to great the last six seasons for San Diego, Detroit and Tampa Bay, but at 38 it would not be a surprise for him to hit a wall at any point.

• Tony Zych has a lot of promise, but he only has 18 1/3 innings of MLB experience and until further notice will be best known as the guy Seattle acquired for $1.

• The final piece of the bullpen, Nick Vincent, has only been with the team since Wednesday, when GM Jerry Dipoto acquired him from San Diego when it became clear the pen still needed help.

In summation, a lot of things have to go right for the Mariners to have a good bullpen in 2016. A lot of things.

5. How important will the added depth turn out to be?

If there was one theme to Dipoto’s whirlwind of offseason moves, it was that he believed the Mariners needed to add depth to be a competitive Major League Baseball team. He certainly addressed that, establishing platoons in right field (Gutierrez and Smith) and first base (Lind and Dae-Ho Lee), adding a number of utility players, and stockpiling multiple backup options at important positions like catcher and starting pitcher. If and when the Mariners end up having to rely on the second, third and maybe even fourth options is when we’ll find out just how crucial all those moves were.

More to think about:

• Can Ketel Marte make it through the season as the starting shortstop?

• How will the platoon of Lind and Lee work out at first base?

• How will Scott Servais do in his first season managing at any level?

• Will Dipoto be as active during the season as he was during the offseason?

• Will James Paxton return from Triple-A Tacoma after losing the fifth starter battle to Nathan Karns?

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