SHANNON DRAYER

Drayer: Mariners should score runs, but pitching and defense will be question marks

Mar 27, 2019, 11:34 AM

Domingo Santana and Dee Gordon are a pair of Mariners looking for bounce-back seasons. (Getty)...

Domingo Santana and Dee Gordon are a pair of Mariners looking for bounce-back seasons. (Getty)

(Getty)

Spring training is over for the Mariners, and the Padres have been sent on their way back to San Diego.

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The extra lockers in the home clubhouse have been emptied and the 11 players brought in for the exhibition games are off to join their assigned minor league teams. The Mariners have two games that count under their belt, the roster is at 25 and it is time to re-start the 2019 Mariners season. So what have we got?

Every year at this time, reporters, broadcasters, talk show hosts, you name it are asked for predictions of how many games the Mariners will win and lose. I never give an answer. I think predictions in baseball are useless as far too much can happen in a season of 162 games played by 25-plus human beings. In particular, there is little point in assigning win totals for the 2019 team because the record is completely beyond the point of the present season, one in which the Mariners are not expected to compete for the postseason.

Now don’t tell that to the uber-competitive Marco Gonzales or the ‘been there, done that’ veteran Jay Bruce, who said in spring training that with all due respect to the talent they have developing in the the minors, the approach of the big leaguers is certainly not to wait for 2021. Players simply are not wired that way. They expect to go out each night and get their hits, get their outs and help their team win, and if they don’t do it that night they’ll try again the next day. One game at a time. But the bigger picture, again, what have we got?

The on-field product

Honestly, what we have got is just about what you should expect at this point if you had been paying attention this winter. Stage 1 of the Mariners’ ‘re-imagining’ jumps from the paper to the field. While we were teased a bit perhaps during spring training by getting a look at some of the younger players the Mariners are banking on for the future, they are not on the Opening Day roster – nor should they be. The look we got was mostly encouraging, but for the most part it will not help significantly in 2019 – although help will be waiting in the wings for the starting rotation in the form of Justus Sheffield.

The team that will run down the red carpet before Thursday afternoon’s game against the World Series champion Red Sox at T-Mobile Park should be able to score some runs, and it should do so in different ways with speed at the top and bottom of the lineup and a little bit of thump in the middle. We shouldn’t see four players in the starting nine post sub-.300 on base percentages once again, and from what we have seen early it appears they should run the bases better.

Of course the numerous question marks that could go either way will ultimately determine how potent an offense this is. How much of a bounce back will we see from Dee Gordon? A healthy Jay Bruce looked good in spring training; will that translate to the regular season? Tim Beckham won’t continue to hit .700 but does he take a step forward? Does Mitch Haniger repeat, build on or perhaps fall back a bit after his breakout season? Will Edwin Encarnación’s bat wake up? Does Mallex Smith continue to develop at the plate? What can Domingo Santana do with regular playing time once again?

On the pitching side of things, it would appear some nights the Mariners could be fun to watch, other nights not so much. What is Marco Gonzales’ ceiling? How does he react to being ‘the guy,’ something that he says he wants to put on himself after being given the ball for not one but two Opening Day starts. What is Yusei Kikuchi on the hill and does he continue to develop? Has Wade LeBlanc truly figured things out and can he repeat his better than steady performance in 2018? Can Mike Leake flip the switch after a shaky spring? Can Félix survive on the hill in 2019? And who do they hand the ball to if somebody goes down?

Mariner manager Scott Servais has admitted that aside from Hunter Strickland being in the closer/leverage role, it will take time for the bullpen to sort itself out. It would be impossible to replicate what we saw at the back-end of the bullpen in 2018, not only with Edwin Díaz but with Alex Colomé as well. That said, everything leading to those two last year was not exactly the picture of consistency. Ultimately if you want to allow for a surprise on this team, what better place than in the bullpen where nothing is reliably predictable?

The Mariners never had a reliable lefty/righty combo in the pen in 2018 to get to Colomé and Díaz, and a healthy Zac Rosscup and Cory Gearrin are a pair of veterans that could fit that bill. Shawn Armstrong, who is not expected to be out long with a minor oblique strain, and Matt Festa are young relievers with promise. Before suffering a pectoral injury, Gerson Bautista showed a better than expected slider and appeared to have taken steps forward in commanding his blistering fastball. When it is all sorted out, the pen could turn out to be interesting – a good interesting.

A huge area of concern early, however, will be the defense. Regardless of his numbers in 2018, it was a blow to lose third baseman Kyle Seager to hand surgery. If nothing else, and I suspect we would have seen some sort of bounce back at the plate this year, Seager was the anchor for the infield defense. With him out, you have a first baseman at third (Ryon Healy), and you’re getting little help from a DH (Encarnación or Daniel Vogelbach) or outfielder (Bruce) at first. You also have an offense-first catcher behind the plate (Omar Narváez) and a guy who has never played left field in left (Santana). It is what it is and at times it could be hard to watch.

All of this is what the Mariners will start with. What they finish with is what will truly matter with the 2019 team. In the second half of the season we could see some of the newer acquisitions in Seattle as they become Major League-ready, and we could see a number of veterans traded if they establish value. While it may not translate into wins, you hope to see progress with players who will be part of the Mariners’ future. Most importantly, after a year of transition the Mariners need to finish with a clear picture of where they are, who they are, and what they need to add heading into what should be a more competitive stage of the re-imagining in 2020.

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

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Drayer: Mariners should score runs, but pitching and defense will be question marks