“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” -George Will
Speaking of holes, the projections don’t favor the Mariners winning a spot in the postseason. Hell, half the fans don’t either. It’s been a long time since we’ve played in October, but I’m not going to get into that. Like the legendary pitcher, Bob Feller said, that every day is a new day, and the same goes for baseball, every year is a new year. As that’s the case, I’m going to focus instead on what’s ahead and ignore the numbers against the Mariners’ chances or scour my murky historical memory for the time when we were better. I believe in chance.
The key to this season is quite simple: all of our players have to play well and stay healthy. We as fans have to remember that this is what they want, too. Offensively, our line-up has the makings to be one of the most exciting in baseball. The one-two punch that is Dee Gordon leading off and Jean Segura doubling him home, alone makes this lineup something different than before. Cano and Cruz will put up numbers close to last year’s, and Seager, by all indications, will bounce back from last year’s malaise.
Going out on a limb here, I believe that we have an All-Star caliber catcher this year in Mike Zunino. He’s put in the work, ran the gauntlet, and has come out the other side as a leader and quite possibly the Mariners’ next “grandma’s favorite” franchise catcher. He’ll share the bottom half of the batting order with several young men poised to be the most consistent and productive they’ve ever been. Mitch Haniger tops this list, but not far below is Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia, and Ryon Healy, who have all shown tremendous upside. These guys have the Big League experience and the hunger to catch a spark and feed off each other’s successes and maneuver as a deadly unit in the 6-9 holes.
Lest I forget to mention, that we have at our magnetic poles, Ichiro Suzuki, a 44-year-old future Hall of Famer and arguably one the top five best hitters to ever play the game, and Daniel Vogelbach, a 24-year-old keg of ballplayer who’s hitting with the confidence of a savant rather than a kid on a lucky streak. Both of these men, one at the twilight of his career, and the other at his dawn, will contribute and be the difference maker when it means the most to the club. So it is written and shall be.
Defensively, the Mariners are faster and more athletic now than at any other moment in the past decade. Gordon’s seamless transfer from second base to center field leaves little room to doubt that he is a fielder of prodigious skill. Gamel and Heredia are also both Gold Glove level performers in the outfield, and Haniger isn’t too bad himself.
The infield will be stable, but they need to synch up the slack and slash their tendency to bobble ground balls. The hope is, an everyday 6’4” first basemen with a proven ability to dig out throws in the dirt will at least help limit miscues to the bag and increase infield put-outs.
Lastly, expect Zunino to have an uptick in his defensive play this year and come close to his 2014 form as a superhuman behind the dish.
But, I’ll shut up about Zunino now because I know, it’s not our line-up or defense that’s the big worry, but our pitching.
This is the tricky part because I can’t tell how Felix is going to do this year, but what I do think is that the impact of his performance will be padded, if not bolstered by a consistent year from Mike Leake, a break-out year from Marco Gonzales, and an electric year from Paxton. If Felix, at his worst performs as an average third starter, the consistency of the other starters and the better inning management of Ariel Miranda and return of Hisashi Iwakuma will combine for a rotation far more formidable than originally predicted. (Did I just write this?)
However, the strength of our starters will also rely on our bullpen. Our relief pitching has to come through this year and the loss of David Phelps to Tommy John surgery was a big blow. What was touted as the strongest aspect of the team now makes me nervous, but nervous in the way relievers always make me nervous, and that’s just part of the game.
The one pitcher in the bullpen I’m not worried about at all this season is Edwin Diaz who looked very sharp this Spring Training. I’d not be surprised to see him top the American League in saves. If he can find his slots, focus his location, and keep his composure, he’ll be elite.
Relievers, Nick Vincent and Juan Nicasio have the tall task to lead the Mariners’ late-inning assault, and will surely find their jobs all the easier if Dan Altavilla and James Pazos stand out early in the campaign to give them adequate opportunities to rest without worry. Veterans Wade Le Blanc and Marc Rzepczynski will need to find a way to become consistent early in the season too, to balance out the bullpen’s collective innings. In the end, I would not be at all surprised to see the addition of a new arm by May or June.
I know I sound overly optimistic, possibly speaking in tongues of denial, but I don’t think the above is impossible. In fact, I think it’s quite possible. A lot has to go right for any team to make it to the postseason. I’ve just laid down a theory of how we can plausibly get there. It’s not perfect, and neither is the team, but that’ll make it all the sweeter when we grab a Wild Card spot. They’ll probably do it because baseball predictably hates predictability.
Long story short, we’re going to win on Thursday no matter what they say.
See you there.
(Feature image credit to The Seattle Times)