BRENT STECKER

The Table Setter: Can Mariners hang with a World Series contender in opening series?

Mar 28, 2018, 5:00 AM | Updated: 10:26 am

Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz will have a strong 1-2 ahead of them in the Mariners' lineup. (AP)...

Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz will have a strong 1-2 ahead of them in the Mariners' lineup. (AP)

(AP)

At the start of each week this Mariners season, I’ll be taking a look at three topics concerning the team. With opening night set for 7:10 p.m. Thursday on 710 ESPN Seattle, here are some storylines to follow for the Mariners’ series against the defending American League Central champion Cleveland Indians at Safeco Field.

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Let’s see what this offense can do.

For all the consternation caused by the Mariners’ decision to not add to its starting rotation this offseason, public opinion has been much kinder with the team’s lineup.

And for good reason.

The Mariners will be rolling out an order that teams up one-time batting champ and three-time stolen base leader Dee Gordon and 2016 National League hits leader Jean Segura at the top in front of fellow All-Stars Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. Then they’ve got three breakout candidates (all with power) at 6-7-8 in Mike Zunino, Mitch Haniger and Ryon Healy. And when Ben Gamel gets healthy he’ll make for a pretty strong No. 9, too.

While Gamel (and maybe Ichiro) won’t be around for the opening series, the Mariners’ planned lineup will essentially be intact for the Cleveland series. It will be probably be the biggest factor in whether Seattle gets off to a good start out of the gate for the first time in Scott Servais’ tenure as manager.

Point being, it’s largely up to this potentially great offense to set the tone for the Mariners’ season.

Can the M’s out-pitch the AL’s best bullpen?

Another expected strength of the 2018 Mariners is the bullpen, which now has big right-hander Juan Nicasio alongside Nick Vincent as the set-up men to dynamic closer Edwin Diaz. With that trio and a bevy of proven or promising relievers behind them in Marc Rzepczynski, James Pazos, spring standout Dan Altavilla and the returning Wade LeBlanc (signed last weekend after Seattle lost David Phelps to a season-ending torn UCL), the Mariners have arms they can rely on if and when their starters can’t make it past the fifth or sixth innings.

That will likely be the case in the series against Cleveland – yes, because it’s the time of year when starters are still building up their pitch counts, but especially because opening night starter Felix Hernandez made just three appearances in spring training games due to a severe bruise on his right arm caused by a line drive comebacker. He will be limited to 80-85 pitches Thursday, so anything more than six innings would be a miracle, and five innings is probably the more realistic outcome.

If it turns out to be a battle of bullpens, though, the Mariners have their work cut out for them as the Indians’ relievers had the best ERA in the AL last year. Not only do they have a shut-down closer in Cody Allen and a stellar crew leading up to him that includes Dan Otero, Nick Goody and Zach McAllister, they also have the option at any point to go to probably the best reliever in baseball: Andrew Miller. After an outstanding 2016 postseason, Miller became the poster boy for a more bullpen-heavy trend in baseball, one the Mariners made no bones about following this offseason.

What better way to prove your bullpen is a game-changer than to out-pitch the team that was the prototype in the opening series.

King’s Court vs. Maple Grove.

The debate over who should start on opening night for the Mariners was a lively one this offseason. Felix has started 10 over his career for Seattle, including the last nine straight, but James Paxton was clearly the better pitcher last year. Felix still had the edge due to seniority, and the fact that starting the first game clearly means a lot to him, but his spring training injury added even more intrigue to the discussion.

In the end, the Mariners were comfortable giving the nod to Felix once again, but that wasn’t without a fair amount of calls for the team to come out and more or less anoint Paxton the new ace of the staff.

O’Neil: It’s up to Felix to prove M’s right for opening night start

Both pitchers will get their chance to shine in marquee games, at least, and in front of their own tailored fan sections. Felix gets the cheers of King’s Court and the bright lights of opening night against reigning AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber – who, by the way, is a two-time Cy Young winner (and Felix is not) because he edged out Felix in 2014 for the award. But in a day game Saturday it will be Paxton and his enthusiastic Maple Grove against Carlos Carrasco, who himself finished fourth in the 2017 AL Cy Young voting.

Only one pitcher can start opening night, but both King Felix and the Big Maple will have the opportunity to steal the spotlight in their first games of the year.

Listen to each game of the Mariners-Indians series on 710 ESPN Seattle.

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