DANNY ONEIL

O’Neil: The answered and unanswered questions about the Mariners so far

Apr 9, 2021, 11:40 AM
Mariners OF Mitch Haniger...
Mitch Haniger has been the Mariners' best player through the first week of the 2021 season. (Getty)
(Getty)

Ominous, but not awful. That would be my summary for the first week of this Mariners season.

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This is a young lineup with patience to go along with its promise. Twice the Mariners have waited out opposing bullpens, notching the kind of comebacks that bode well for the future not just of this season but for this franchise.

But we’ve also seen the underside of expectations with regard to the starting pitching, and what looked like a sudden strength of this team has been cast into doubt. And now that you have the big-picture perspective, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

Three things we’ve learned.

1. Mitch Haniger is this team’s best baseball player.

It’s understandable if you’ve forgot that. After all, he hadn’t played since June 2019 when he suffered an injury that shall not be mentioned. He’s undergone three surgeries since then, which included a procedure on his back.

And all he has done so far this season is hit safely in six of the seven games the team has played, clobber one of the team’s two home runs and make a sliding catch in extra innings to keep San Francisco from pulling ahead in the season-opener. While it’s fair to wonder exactly where Haniger fits in the long-term plans for this outfield, there’s no doubt that he remains a valuable, productive player.

2. Starting pitchers are starting to be problems.

Velocity was the buzz word for Seattle this spring training with Justin Dunn, Yusei Kikuchi and James Paxton consistently hitting mid- to even upper-90s with their fastballs. Well, Kikuchi is the only one who paid off that promise in his first start. He looked great.

But Dunn walked eight batters and Paxton left his first start in the second inning after suffering an arm injury that will likely require season-ending surgery. Throw in the fact that Marco Gonzales was touched up in each of his first two starts, allowing a home run every two innings, and that leaves lots of room to be worried.

3. This team’s got an issue with contact.

Specifically, the Mariners aren’t making enough of it. Seattle has struck out 76 times thought seven games, which is tied for the fourth-most in baseball entering Friday’s games, and this is not one of those stats that has been magnified by Kyle Lewis’s absence. He strikes out a lot, too.

Three things we’re still trying to figure out.

1. Is someone going to turn on the power?

The Mariners’ strikeout total isn’t concerning in and of itself. It is a trend around the league, but the problem for Seattle specifically is that their not getting the benefit of the home runs that need to accompany that tolerance for swinging and missing. Seattle has hit two home runs as a team, both coming in the finale of the season-opening series against San Francisco.

Now, it’s early, but Seattle is going to need more home runs to offset this whiff rate, and while Lewis’ return should help in that regard, the lineup as a whole needs to exhibit more pop.

2. How worried should we be about Marco?

The first start it looked like the home plate ump wasn’t giving the high strike that Gonzales needs to be effective. But following that up with Thursday’s game in Minnesota was uncharacteristic.

There’s just one time in the previous two years that Gonzales has been touched up like this in back-to-back starts. If he struggles a third straight time it’s fair to wonder if he’s going to be capable of replicating the efficiency he demonstrated the past two seasons as Seattle’s No. 1 starter.

3. Is Kikuchi going to be Seattle’s best pitcher this season?

He looked different in his first start this season both in terms of his stuff and his energy on the mound. He was throwing not just with confidence but excitement.

While that two-run homer he allowed to Evan Longoria in the sixth inning changed his final line, he looked like a front-of-the-rotation starter in that outing and given the issues in the rest of the rotation, Seattle may very well need that to be the norm this season if they’re going to even think about bobbing above .500 this season.

Follow Danny O’Neil on Twitter.

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O’Neil: The answered and unanswered questions about the Mariners so far