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Table Setter: 10 reasons why the 2019 Mariners season will be fun

The deceptive delivery of Mariners LHP Yusei Kikuchi should perplex opposing hitters. (AP)

Rebuild. A step back. A re-imagination of the roster.

Ex-M’s LHP O’Flaherty has advice for Félix to lengthen his career

Whatever you want to call it, the message has been sent loud and clear about the 2019 Seattle Mariners season: This one isn’t about trying to sneak into the playoffs now, but instead it’s about laying the foundation so the Mariners can be a real contender later.

To a lot of baseball fans, watching 162 games of a team that knows it’s probably not going to contend for a playoff spot doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But let me let you in on a little secret: It can be a lot of fun.

Seasons like the one the Mariners will be embarking upon when they play their first game at the renamed T-Mobile Park on Thursday are where fans build connections to the up-and-coming young players that will become the centerpieces of future successful teams. And that can be a beautiful thing, even if the team is out of the race by the time fall rolls around.

I’ve come up with 10 reasons why this Mariners season should be an enjoyable one. Let’s not waste any more time.

Mitch. Haniger.

In the Pacific Northwest we are plenty familiar with the Mariners’ lone returning 2018 All-Star, but I get the feeling this is the year the rest of the baseball world will take notice of Mitch Haniger.

He was already ranked the fourth-best right fielder in the game by the MLB Network in the offseason, ahead of Bryce Harper and behind only Yankees star Aaron Judge and the reigning AL and NL MVPs, Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich. He’s coming off a season that would be a career year for most good players – .285 average, .859 OPS, 26 home runs, 90 runs scored, 93 RBIs – and with his dedication to his craft and upward trajectory, we might see those numbers closer to benchmarks like .300 and 30 homers and an OPS over .900.

And Haniger’s not just an offensive player. Don’t forget that he can do things like this. And this.

And all of this.

Silver Slugger? Gold Glove? MVP? When you have five tools like Haniger does, it’s all in the realm of possibility.

Opposing hitters facing Yusei Kikuchi for the first time.

You’ve probably seen the video of Yusei Kikuchi fooling Joey Votto, the former National League MVP and one of baseball’s most disciplined hitters, with a curveball in the new Mariners left-hander’s first spring training start. But what’s the harm in watching it one more time? (Watch it here.)

So if Kikuchi made Votto look like that, what’s it going to look like as the hitters of the American League face him for the first time? Yeah, we’re probably gonna get plenty of excuse-me swings, awkward waves of the bat and reaction GIF-worthy faces.

What about Kikuchi will confuse hitters? First of all, he’s got some pretty serious breaking stuff, and when that’s coupled with a fastball that can reach the mid-90s, it makes for a tough day at the plate. But perhaps even more important is how well he hides the ball from hitters with his delivery. Freeze that video I linked to at the 2-second mark and look at where the ball is. Kikuchi tucks it under his left thigh. Then, because of the way he contorts his body, the ball is still hidden behind his back and then head before it finally comes into view right before his release point.

Now if that doesn’t sound like fun to watch, I don’t know what to tell you.

Domingo Santana home runs.

One of the newest Mariners, Santana already has his first home run for Seattle under his belt. He stroked a laser of a grand slam the opposite way in Seattle’s Opening Day win over the A’s in Japan. And while that homer showed off Santana’s strength, it was not in a way his homers usually do.

In the Tokyo Dome, it didn’t even look like Santana got all of the pitch on his slam. But in Arizona during Cactus League play, Santana hit majestic moonshots with all the launch angle and hangtime you could ever want.

The Santana pickup may be the one I’m most excited about from general manager Jerry Dipoto’s very busy offseason. The Milwaukee Brewers had a crowded outfield, so finding playing time for Santana when the aforementioned Yelich, Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun are on the roster wasn’t all that plausible. As a matter of fact, it resulted in Santana going from a 30-homer season in 2017 to slumping while his playing time was drastically cut last year.

The Mariners solved a problem for Milwaukee by giving them Ben Gamel, a player whose speed, contact ability and defensive prowess make him tailor-made to be a fourth outfielder in the National League, and got a steal in Santana, a player who not could bounce back in a big way in 2019 but at just 26 years old could be one of the building blocks of Seattle’s rebuild.

Quote machine Mallex Smith.

OK, Mallex Smith is going to be a ton of fun for just about every reason in the book. He steal bases, he makes great plays in the outfield, and he should be a strong leadoff man for the Mariners.

But above all, he’s got personality.

We learned that pretty quickly when he joined 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny, Dave and Moore for an interview shortly after Dipoto re-acquired him from the Rays (we’ll get to that original Mariners acquisition of Smith in a second), as he shared the politically correct and not politically correct explanations for why he wears the number 0.

Smith also stole the show at the Mariners’ pre-spring training media day, including a good line about what he thought when Dipoto, who previously flipped him to Tampa Bay just 77 minutes after getting him from Atlanta in 2017, had traded for him again in the deal that sent Mike Zunino to the Rays.

“Initial thought: Jerry’s gonna flip me again,” Smith said. “No, but I was happy. I was happy to be back. I’ll actually get to suit up as a Mariner hopefully this time.”

In Thursday’s home opener against Boston, that should finally happen.

Marco Gonzales, No. 1 starter.

Nobody’s going to mistake Marco Gonzales for being an ace quite yet, but his 2018 season featured an eye-opening stretch from June 29 to July 29 where he posted a 5-0 record with a 1.57 ERA. And similar to Haniger, the strong impression the 27-year-old Gonzales left last year plus his work ethic makes 2018 seem like it was just the beginning for the first pitcher not named Félix Hernández to start for the Mariners on Opening Day in 10 years.

Something that really jumped out to me over the offseason was an interview Gonzales had on 710 ESPN Seattle’s Hot Stove in January, where he talked about why being on the same pitching staff as some crafty veterans has helped him grow.

“That was the culmination of really learning from other guys – guys like Wade LeBlanc, James Paxton, and probably the most important guy that people may not know is Mike Leake,” Gonzales said about his strong 2018 campaign. “(Leake is) a guy that just has balance and feel for all of his pitches. Being able to watch a Mike Leake bullpen every week, those are things that I really learned from and put into my own game.

“You learn how to kinda push and pull the hitters in and off the plate and keep guys off balance, and I learned how my pitches kind of work like that, which pitches work with each other and which pitches don’t. … Putting that all together helped me put together a strong balance and repertoire to attack hitters.”

Pitching is as much mental as it is physical, and it sounds like Gonzales is getting both areas of that game down.

Gerson Bautista’s fastball.

Gerson Bautista is not Edwin Díaz. I mean, only Edwin Díaz is Edwin Díaz. But Bautista throws really hard, just like Díaz, and maybe that will make the first season with Sugar in the Big Apple a little easier to get through in the Emerald City.

The 23-year-old Bautista wasn’t one of the big names coming back to Seattle in the trade that sent Díaz and Robinson Canó to the Mets, but he stood out early in spring training, and it seemed like manager Scott Servais was excited about what he was seeing.

“We know we got a big power arm there,” Servais said after Bautista’s first spring outing. “That’s an electric fastball, he’s got the wipeout slider as well.”

Dee Gordon is himself again.

Dee Gordon was a house of fire in the early stages of the 2018 season, but you probably have never seen someone go from a sure All-Star to completely out of the conversation as he was last year.

There was Dee Gordon pre-toe injury and Dee Gordon post-toe injury in his first season with the Mariners, and they were most definitely two different players. When Gordon was healthy, he hit .353 with 15 stolen bases in 17 attempts over his first 34 games. After he broke his toe, he finished the final 107 games of his season with a .240 average and 15 stolen bases in 25 attempts.

When Gordon is feeling good, he’s one of the most exciting players in baseball. He’s looked more like that this spring. Plus he’s already 3 for 10 with a stolen base and two runs scored in Seattle’s two-game sweep of Oakland in Japan, so he’s off to a running start.

Road trips to Cheney Stadium.

Some of the most fun players at Mariners spring training won’t be in Seattle this year, or at least not for a while. But they’ll be a short trip down I-5 playing for the Tacoma Rainiers at Cheney Stadium.

There will be Shed Long. He’s awesome. He doesn’t drink water, is learning to be a super-utility player, and has some serious pop.

Shortstop J.P. Crawford will be playing there as well, honing the talent that made him a 2013 first-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Braden Bishop, the former University of Washington star who made his MLB debut during the Mariners’ trip to Japan, will be roaming the outfield and showing off the improved power he has developed by diving into biomechanics on his own.

Erik Swanson, one of the players acquired from the Yankees for James Paxton, will be doing his best to show on the mound that he’s ready to make the leap to the bigs.

And, at least for the beginning of the year, Tacoma is where you’ll be able to see this next guy we have to talk about.

Justus will be served – eventually.

One of the other players the Mariners got in the Paxton trade is a fellow left-hander with a high ceiling: 23-year-old Justus Sheffield.

While Seattle will have him start his year in Triple-A, Sheffield’s spring was just about as impressive as anybody’s, and you have to imagine whenever one of the Mariners’ five starting pitchers goes down to injury or hits a bump in the road, Sheffield’s name will be called.

Sheffield has just a little MLB experience, joining the Yankees as a September call-up last fall, but you’d never know it from watching him in Arizona. He made a pair of starts in Cactus League play, throwing four scoreless innings and allowing just one hit and one walk, and both his manager and general manager were happy with what they saw.

First, here’s Servais: “He’s ready to take the next step in his career, and the next step’s really the big league level. When does that happen? Does he break with us Opening Day? Is it somewhere during the season? He’s ready. You can see it when he takes the mound, he knows this is his time and he’s ready to go and grab it.”

And now Dipoto: “Justus could not do much more than he’s done in this camp to convince us of what his upside potential is, and maybe his current readiness (to pitch in the MLB).”

So it’s a matter of when, not if, when it comes to Sheffield’s arrival in Seattle.

TRADES!

If you’re a baseball fan, you have to be a fan of baseball trades, too. And in that case, this should be a exciting year.

The Mariners have a number of veterans they will gladly send to a contending team in exchange for top prospects or young players with years of club control left. All it will take is some good performances by the veterans to get the market going.

Jay Bruce, a former All-Star coming off an injury-plagued year with the Mets, has been penciled in as Seattle’s No. 3 hitter and looked good all spring. If he’s got 15 homers by the All-Star break, he’ll look plenty attractive to teams in the playoff race.

Same with slugger Edwin Encarnación, about as consistent a DH in the game this side of Nelson Cruz.

Leake and LeBlanc would fit well in a potential playoff team’s rotation or as a late-season bullpen addition.

And then there’s Kyle Seager. You have to feel for the longest tenured Mariner besides Félix, as he came to Peoria trimmed down thanks to an offseason workout plan that greatly improved his flexibility, only for a hand injury to sideline him for at least the first month of the season. Once he returns, the one-time Gold Glove winner and All-Star third baseman will be another proven player the Mariners could shop, as teams can always use strong defense at the hot corner or a lefty bat with some pop.

Notebook: Mallex Smith finally gets on field with his Mariners teammates