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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.

Lucas Giolito earns second shutout of season

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The Twins have arguably baseball’s scariest offense. Their average of 5.87 runs per game is second only to the Yankees (5.90) while leading the league in slugging percentage (.501), OPS (.840), and home runs (244). White Sox starter Lucas Giolito made their offense look impotent on Wednesday, blanking them over nine innings for his second shutout of the season. The White Sox won 4-0.

Giolito allowed just three hits and walked none while fanning 12 batters over his nine innings of work. He’s now 14-6 with a 3.20 ERA and a 194/51 K/BB ratio in 151 2/3 innings on the season. Giolito is very much in the AL Cy Young Award picture. The Astros’ Justin Verlander leads the league in ERA at 2.81. A strong finish to the season for Giolito could certainly see his ERA dip below 3.00.

As mentioned, Wednesday’s shutout was Giolito’s second of the season. He and the Indians’ Shane Bieber are the only pitchers with multiple shutouts this season. They are two of only 21 pitchers with a shutout.