Three things: Revisiting the big questions for the 2016 Mariners

Oct 3, 2016, 2:29 PM

At the beginning of the Mariners’ season, I asked a number of questions that would be crucial to how Seattle’s campaign turned out. Now that the M’s have finished 2016 with a strong 86-76 record but three games out of a playoff berth, let’s see how those questions were answered.

1. Has Kyle Seager hit his ceiling?

Answer: What ceiling?

I know, I know, what kind of writer answers a question with a question? Well, that’s how good Seager was in 2016. He made me question why I was asking that in the first place. Now, Seager was by no means perfect. His defense at third base was well off what earned him a Gold Glove in 2014, and he actually ended the year offensively on the decline, as his average for the year dropped 17 points from the .295 he was sporting on Sept. 8. That all considered, you still have to applaud what he did at the plate over the whole season. He set new career-high numbers across the board, posting a .278/.359/.499 slash line with 30 homers, 99 RBIs and 89 runs scored. At various times during 2016, there was a legitimate case that he was the Mariners’ best offensive player. I know that might sound crazy, as Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz both had monster years, but at that same Sept. 8 high point, he had a higher OPS (.906) than anybody on the team. Point being, Seager made some serious improvement, and if he can extend that kind of production a little later into the season next year and rebound to his previous form defensively, the Mariners might not have to scramble to try and snatch a wild-card berth down the stretch.

2. Is Taijuan Walker ready to make the leap?

Answer: Ask again next spring.

The second full season in the big leagues for the Mariners’ talented right-hander looked a lot like a rerun, as Walker again posted an ERA over 4 and a WHIP over 1.20. What makes his final numbers so frustrating is the fact that there were moments of sheer brilliance, chiefly a complete-game shutout on Sept. 13 vs. the Angels and a scoreless eight-inning outing against the Indians on June 8, both games in which he walked none and struck out 11. Those are outliers in a season that was by and large inconsistent, though. After a stellar first four starts, he went 0-5 with a 4.91 ERA in May then began to experience foot issues in June. That injury kept him out of action for almost all of July, and it resulted in him being sent to Triple-A for a spell in August after a DL stint to work things out. He struggled upon his return to Seattle, too, but there is a silver lining. The Mariners’ coaching staff worked on new mechanics with Walker, and while it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing in September, that shutout against the Angels and a quality start (six innings, two hits, one run, five walks) in his final outing against the A’s last Friday are more than enough to keep hope alive that the 24 year old will develop into a front-of-the-rotation pitcher.

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

Answer: A fair amount.

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

That was part of what I wrote when addressing this question a the beginning of the year. And luckily for the Mariners, no good things did come to an end – at least not conclusively. Let’s look at the positives first. Cano was absolutely the MVP of the team, storming back from offseason double sports hernia surgery to slash .298/.350/.533, drive in 103 RBIs and and mash a career-high 39 home runs – that all in addition to his usual Gold Glove-caliber defense. So, even with his 34th birthday coming up later this month, yes, Cano has plenty left in the tank. Nelson Cruz, who turned 36 in July, didn’t miss a beat, either. The Boomstick crushed 43 homers, one short of the career-high he set in 2015 and the third time in his career (and third season in a row) that he topped the 40-homer mark. His slash line of .287/.360/.555 was for all intents and purposes the second best he’s ever produced. Two years into a four-year deal, Cruz has been worth every penny, and it will take a whole lot of regression for his numbers to not be considered even DH-worthy in 2017. And there’s the 35-year-old Iwakuma, whose numbers don’t look all that great (4.12 ERA, 1.33 WHIP), but his 19 quality starts led the team and were tied for 10th in the American League. Seattle was bombarded with pitching injuries, and if it weren’t for Iwakuma, the guy the Dodgers backed out of signing last offseason because of concerns with the state of his arm, there’s no telling how bad of a turn the Mariners’ season could have taken. I think first-year manager Scott Servais and Seattle’s analytics team deserves a lot of credit when it comes to Iwakuma’s performance, as they identified that he struggles when throwing more than 100 pitches and kept him from going too late in games.

There is a but, however.

Felix Hernandez, the man known as King, the ace of the staff for a decade, had his roughest season to date. A calf strain landed him on the DL midseason, and his 11-8 record, 3.82 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and (especially) 65 walks in 153 1/3 innings were quantifiably un-Felix-ish. Felix himself credits the down year to the calf injury, but the miles put on his right arm in 11-plus MLB seasons have to be even more a cause for concern after his 2016 than before. You better believe the biggest question for the Mariners heading into next year will be centered around Felix’s expectations.

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Three things: Revisiting the big questions for the 2016 Mariners