Craig Calcaterra

Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais watches batting practice during spring training baseball practice Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Peoria, Ariz. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Associated Press

2016 Preview: Seattle Mariners

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2016 season. Next up: The Seattle Mariners.

There was certainly a lot of activity at Mariners HQ this offseason. New GM Jerry Dipoto added a new manager in Scott Servais and all sorts of new players including Adam Lind, Nori Aoki, Wade Miley, Joaquin Benoit, Steve Cishek, Leonys Martin, Luis Sardinas, Chris Iannetta, Steve Clevenger and Nate Karns. In a shocking turn he also brought back Hisashi Iwakuma after he was presumed lost to the Dodgers.

Does it amount to a better team than the 2015 model which went 76-84 despite some high(ish) expectations? Possibly. First base has been improved with Lind. Chris Iannetta is a major improvement behind the plate. Aoki is a solid add but Franklin Gutierrez will probably not be as good as he was in limited play last year. Robinson Cano was hampered by injuries last year and seems healthy now but second baseman of his age and caliber have had a somewhat disturbing history of rapid decline, so Mariners fans will understandably hold their breath a bit in the early going. Meanwhile, it’d be unreasonable to expect anything other than at least some decline from Nelson Cruz who was astoundingly good last year. Indeed, people have been predicting a decline from him for a few years now. Leonys Martin was a disaster at the plate last year but his defense is excellent and will allow Cruz to play his natural position of DH this season. In all, it’s a good offense with the chance to be a very good offense, but there is risk.

The rotation starts off wonderfully, at least if you believe that Felix Hernandez‘s second half last year (4.48 ERA in 13 starts) was an aberration. Iwakuma has been a solid number two for a good while now, but the issue between him and the Dodgers regarding his physical sticks in one’s mind. Assuming that was all in the Dodgers’ heads that leaves a rather uncertain back end of the rotation, solidified somewhat by Wade Miley and boosted to the extent you believe that Taijuan Walker will finally emerge as the star he is expected to be. But it’s also full of a lot of question marks from the four and five slots (as well as the three or four guys who may rotate through them via a drive up from Tacoma). The bullpen, meanwhile, has trended sharply downward over the past couple of years and there isn’t a lot of confidence to be had that it’ll be a good crew this year.

Overall, I have a bad feeling here. I worry about the mileage on Cano and Hernandez and I think it’s time for Cruz to fall back a bit. That puts a lot of pressure on the guys who should be the core of the Mariners for some time — Kyle Seager, Walker, and shortstop Ketel Marte. Seager is legit, but if Cano and Cruz fall back, he may need to find another gear to be the offensive star on a playoff-caliber team. Marte is excellent — a candidate to be the new “best guy you haven’t heard of” — but he’s painfully young and may need a bit more time to fully emerge. Maybe Walker makes the leap. But even if that happens there’s that mess of a bullpen and a tough division.

Prediction: I could see them surprising some people and, finishing third. I could more easily see them passing the Athletics into fourth. But I also could see a couple of not-shocking bad things happen and have them wind up in Fifth Place, AL West. Which is the prediction I’m the most uneasy about making of all of the ones I’ve done, but I’m gonna make anyway.

The Washington Nationals create a “gathering spot for Millennials”

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Condescending to Millennials is a very popular pastime these days. There are tens of millions of them in this country, coming from every single race, ethnicity, religion and socioeconomic background imaginable, and they hold any manner of social, political and ethical views you can think of. But in the minds of the Business and Marketing Industrial Complex, they’re all basically the same group of white upper middle class kids holding iPhones and being narcissistic in some way.

This is understandable. High-Minded ThinkPieces about Millennials are very popular lately. They’re hard enough to write as it is, but they’d be nearly impossible to write if you had to see the subjects you’re trying to describe as a diverse blob of millions of different people as opposed to one easily pigeonholed group of cliches. Much better to just ignorantly generalize.

Which brings us to the Nationals. Who are doing this:

I don’t know how they’re going to ensure that Millennials will hang out there given that, according to the ThinkPieces, they only drink obscure craft beer and hate baseball. Odds are that that deck is gonna be filled with the same white New Balance-wearing Baby Boomers who think they’re being fancy by ordering a Blue Moon that hang out all over the rest of the ballpark. Maybe some of my aging fellow Gen-Xers and I will show up our flannel shirts, channeling Chandler Bing by saying things like “could Jayson Werth BE any more useless?!” But Millennials? Pfft! They’re probably gonna be off in their safe spaces someplace, not watching a baseball game.

Wait! That’s it! They should call it “The Washington Nationals Budweiser Millennial Safe Place.” It’ll be perfect! And they can rename the level right above it the “Helicopter Deck” for their parents. With whom they live and who take them to the game because every single 18-35-year-old in the country lives with their parents as they’re too entitled to bother paying their own way.

See? This stuff is easy.

Jeff Francoeur made the Braves roster

Jeff
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The most hilarious thing in Braves Country over the past few days has been reporters who cover the team acting as if it was a big mystery as to whether or not Jeff Francoeur would make the roster. Today was the deadline for the Braves to decide what to do with him — he was due a roster bonus at noon that they would not have wanted to pay if they planned to cut him — and as late as 9am there was some “will he or won’t he” afoot in the Atlanta media. Then, a few minutes ago, the Braves announced that he was going to be on the Opening Day roster. Congratulations, Frenchy.

In reality this was never in doubt. Barring injury, Francoeur was going to make this team. He’s popular in Atlanta and he’s one of the few guys casual Braves fans might actually be able to pick out of a lineup. And hey, he’s a nice guy and a good clubhouse presence who, unlike the Jeff Francoeur of a decade ago, knows where he stands in the universe. As I said when he made the Phillies last year, a team going nowhere is well-served to have dudes like Francoeur around. Limited rewards but no risk and, heck, he’ll throw an inning of relief for you. Better him than some injury prone dude or a two-year commitment to a guy who, while a bit better, wouldn’t be significantly better.

Last year I vowed to buy a Jeff Francoeur Phillies shirsey if he made their team. He did and I did. Now I have to buy a Braves Francoeur shirsey. I’m going to wait until Opening Day because there’s a slight chance his number changes between now and then, but it’ll be in-transit to me soon.

Whhheeeeee!