2018 Preview: Seattle Mariners

James Paxton

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 2018 season. Next up: The Seattle Mariners.

Here’s an absurd question to kick off the season: Will the Mariners reach the World Series this year? It’s been 16 years since they made the playoffs and 40 years (and counting) without a World Series appearance, let alone a championship title. We’re contractually obligated to ask this question every spring, just in case this ends up being the year the drought ends. It’s always more fun to be able to look back and say you were the one who called the Mariners’ first World Series win some six months in advance.

But no, to answer your question, the Mariners are probably not headed to the World Series this time around. This probably won’t be the season that their pitching staff pulls a 180, having already lost Hisashi Iwakuma to shoulder issues and David Phelps to Tommy John surgery and blowing through an MLB-worst 40 pitchers in 2017 and not adding many arms at all except for Juan Nicasio (two years, $17 million). They’ll continue to benefit from proven contributors like Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and Mike Zunino and hope they can piece together the rest of a 12th-best offense with the likes of newly-acquired talent Dee Gordon, Jean Segura and a still-spry Ichiro Suzuki.

General manager and master trader Jerry Dipoto took a measured approach to roster configurations this offseason, an odd choice given his customary trigger-happy strategy when it comes to trades and acquisitions. He pulled off a relatively significant trade in December, however, exchanging minor leaguers Robert Dugger, Nick Neidert and Christopher Torres for Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon and international slot money. (It’s also worth pointing out that this would have been a much bigger offseason for the Mariners had Dipoto successfully worked out a deal for two-way star Shohei Ohtani, who eventually decided to sign with the rival Angels.) Dipoto made a few minor moves as well, acquiring Athletics’ third baseman Ryon Healy for reliever Emilio Pagan and minor leaguer Alexander Campos, signing reliever Juan Nicasio to a two-year contract and picking up a now-44-year-old Ichiro Suzuki on a one-year, $750,000 deal.

The pitching staff is the big question mark here. Felix Hernandez survived another health scare after getting stung by a comebacker on his forearm during a Cactus League start. He’s still projected to kick off Opening Day for the Mariners, however, and will attempt to bounce back from a career-worst performance in 2017 – one in which he was limited to just 86 2/3 innings after sustaining multiple shoulder issues and finished the year with a 6-5 record in 16 starts with a 4.36 ERA and 3.00 SO/BB rate. This isn’t the King Felix that dominated the league with his sub-3.00 ERAs and 200+ strikeout totals several years ago, but he should have something left in the tank this year barring any unforeseen injuries and setbacks (knock on wood).

The uncontested ace of the Mariners’ staff, of course, is still 29-year-old left-hander James Paxton. Paxton is also coming off a career year, albeit one in which he peaked with a 12-5 record in 24 starts and a 2.98 ERA, 2.4 BB/9, 10.3 SO/9 and 4.6 fWAR in 136 innings. Even he didn’t escape the injury bug, though, and lost over two months to the disabled list after straining his forearm and pectoral muscle. This spring, he’ll be followed in the rotation by right-hander Mike Leake and fellow lefty Marco Gonzales, who combined for a slight 1.6 fWAR in part-time gigs with the Mariners last year. The fifth rotation spot will likely go to lefty Ariel Miranda, as Erasmo Ramirez is still working his way back from a lat strain and won’t be available when the team is ready to utilize a fifth starter on April 11. (Iwakuma, likewise, isn’t expected to return to the rotation until the end of spring.)

Over in the bullpen, Edwin Diaz will be tabbed to close games for the Mariners. He was worth around one win in 2017 and didn’t hit the sub-2.00 ERA and FIP of his 2016 rookie campaign, but racked up a career-best 34 saves and maintained a remarkable 12.1 SO/9 across 66 innings. Without setup man David Phelps, the club will turn to veteran righty Nick Vincent, whose velocity issues and arm soreness currently obscure the 3.20 ERA and 1.8 fWAR he produced in 2017. Some combination of right-handers Juan Nicasio and Dan Altavilla and left-handers Marc Rzepczynski, James Pazos and Wade LeBlanc are expected to flesh out the remainder of the ‘pen. Left-hander Dario Alvarez was a last-minute waiver claim from the Cubs and will take some reps in Triple-A Tacoma until he’s needed in the big leagues.

Should the Mariners successfully avoid running through 17+ starting pitchers this season and 23+ relievers, they should be in decent shape to contend for a no. 2 or 3 spot in the division. Cano, Cruz and Seager will once again comprise the heart of the lineup, a trio that accumulated a combined 89 home runs and 10.5 fWAR last season. Filling out the remainder of the infield is Ryon Healy and Jean Segura, with the hot-hitting Dan Vogelbach positioned as a first base backup behind Healy. Zunino is penciled in as the starting catcher again and will look to replicate some of the tremendous 25-homer, 3.6-fWAR mojo he brought to the table in 2017. Catcher Mike Marjama, 28, earned a backup role out of camp, but has just five major league appearances to his name and has yet to prove his staying power in the big leagues.

More intriguing still is the outfield, where Dee Gordon will attempt a full conversion from second base to center field. He earned some early praise from manager Scott Servais after executing a handful of sharp plays in camp, and figures to bring his Gold Glove-winning speed and defense to the position once the regular season kicks off. It doesn’t hurt that he’s coming off of a strong offensive season, too, one in which he slashed .308/.341/.375 with a jaw-dropping 60 stolen bases in 695 plate appearances for the Marlins.

Holding down the outfield corners are Guillermo Heredia and Mitch Haniger, with both Ichiro and Ben Gamel still on the mend with calf soreness and an oblique strain, respectively. Ichiro’s addition to the roster felt like more of a sentimental signing than anything else, but Servais expects him to contribute in a meaningful way this season as he shares time with Heredia in left field. The 44-year-old outfielder capped a three-year run with the Marlins in 2017, batting a cumulative .256/.315/.325 with five home runs and 22 stolen bases in 1,018 PA – a far cry from his best career totals in the early 2000s, but if any Mariners’ player has earned some slack here, it’s Ichiro.

In a nutshell: The Mariners aren’t going to win the World Series this year. (Then again, you already knew that.) This isn’t a team that’s going to give the no. 1 Astros a run for their money, but still one that could conceivably overtake the Angels for second place in the AL West. Assuming their pitching staff stays healthy, Zunino keeps raking, Gordon settles into center field, Ichiro brings back some vintage .300-average, 5.0-fWAR production, and Dipoto acquires some depth at the deadline, they may be able to claim a Wild Card berth as well. From there, the World Series is only a hop, skip and a jump away from… well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At best, the Mariners will turn a lackluster offseason into a smart, calculated run at the postseason. At worst, they’ll drift to the bottom of the division alongside the Rangers and, hopefully, enter the 2018 offseason with a more aggressive plan to rebuild or contend again.

Prediction: 3rd place, AL West