Moore: Why I’m buying in on the Mariners’ step-back season

Feb 11, 2019, 10:43 AM

Scott Servais has a new look team at his fourth Spring Training with the Mariners. (AP)...

Scott Servais has a new look team at his fourth Spring Training with the Mariners. (AP)


Pitchers and catchers reported to the Mariners’ Spring Training camp in Peoria, Ariz., on Monday, showing up with perfect timing this year for a fan base battling snowy conditions back home. It’s always fun to think about the possibilities in February before the preseason games are even played.

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But as you know, it’s a different deal in 2019. We’ve already been told by general manager Jerry Dipoto that this will be a step-back season with offseason transactions designed to make the Mariners consistently competitive from 2020 and beyond.

Are you buying it? I am, but I’m not sure what I’m getting. As much as we like to think the acquisitions will blossom in the future and lead to a World Series title in the 2020s, they could also turn out to be another Dustin Ackley or Mike Zunino, falling well short of expectations. Baseball prospects are impossible to project, no matter how high they were drafted – Ackley was No. 2 overall, and Zunino No. 3.

So maybe you have Justus Sheffield penciled in as a No. 2 starter and fixture in the rotation someday, and Jarred Kelenic as an All-Star outfielder, and hopefully that will be the case. Even if it doesn’t work out, I can’t complain about the approach when this is what I was hoping the Mariners would do.

We already saw where the 89-win team went last year – nowhere. And can we agree that that team maxed out and was lucky to go 89-73, winning so many one-run games. Plus in my opinion they really weren’t an 89-win team at the end of the year, going 54-32 in the first 86 games to 35-41 in the last 76. The core was getting older, and even with a few offseason additions there probably would have been a regression this year.

So in this transitional year, I’m excited to see what they have with the new players. This will be an interesting year for many reasons. I’m looking forward to making more visits to Tacoma to see Rainiers players who are being groomed for the Major League team later this year or next year. And I’ll be looking at the lower-level farm teams more than ever to see how the prospects are doing.

At the Major League level, I don’t think the Mariners are going to be terrible, guessing they’ll go 75-87. I have a hard time thinking they will be any better than that. If they are, that will mean players such as Kyle Seager, Edwin Encarnación, Jay Bruce and Félix Hernández are having good seasons. And let’s face it, if all of those guys are having good seasons, they’ll be dealt by the July 31 trade deadline, preventing the Mariners from having a better season than 75-87.

That will be strange. I don’t care as much about Encarnación and Bruce – they’re short-timers whether they shine or stink. But what if Seager and Félix have bounce-back years? Would you be OK with them leaving town if Seager is hitting .280 with an OPS of .900, and Félix somehow becomes the King again? I guess we’ll just have to suck it up and trust Dipoto’s process – if Seager and Félix are productive enough to lure more prospects, I hope Dipoto pulls the trigger on both deals.

Looking at the lineup, the Mariners should be adequate at least. I like the ideas of center fielder Mallex Smith hitting leadoff and Dee Gordon batting ninth. Gordon doesn’t take enough pitches to bat leadoff, but there’s reason to have a lot of hope for him, too – he struggled at the plate last year because of a foot injury, and he was also adjusting to a new position, playing center field. He’ll be back at second this year.

I’ll tell you this – as much as I liked watching Robinson Canó, I’m not really going to miss him. He’s 36, in the twilight of his career, losing range at second base and not wanting to play anywhere else. Gordon will be an upgrade defensively and is young enough to be a contributor when the Mariners’ window for success opens.

I’m also glad the Mariners made a change at catcher. Zunino was traded to Tampa Bay, and the Mariners acquired Omar Narváez from the White Sox to replace him. Narváez is a better hitter than Zunino. He might not hit as many homers, but he won’t strike out as much either, putting the ball in play. I know he’s not Zunino defensively, but I’m ready to cut him slack for what he’s not behind the plate in exchange for better at-bats.

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The rotation looks average with Marco Gonzales at the top and Félix as the projected No. 5 at the bottom. In between, the Mariners have Mike Leake, Wade LeBlanc and Yusei Kikuchi, their Japanese import whose pitch count will be monitored closely in his first Major League season. Of this bunch, I’m hoping Leake will be crazy good, intriguing enough to a pennant contender to bring back a prospect in July. And I guess the same goes for LeBlanc.

The bullpen shapes up as an absolute fiasco with a who’s who of no one in particular. Hunter Strickland was signed as a free agent in January and figures to be the closer. As much as the relievers look like they could be the weakest part of the team, with bullpens you never know from year to year. Sometimes when you think they’ll be great, they’re not, and vice-versa.

All in all, the 2019 Mariners won’t remind anyone of the 1995 or 2001 Mariners, but the pieces are promising enough to hold our interest while hoping for better things ahead.

Have you listened to “Bark?” It’s Jim’s podcast about dogs, available at 710Sports.com and wherever you find podcasts. If you’re interested in sponsoring “Bark,” please contact Jim at jmoore@espnseattle.com.

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Moore: Why I’m buying in on the Mariners’ step-back season