By Bob McManaman, azcentral sports
Despite a 10-win improvement in 2016, the Mariners finished three games out of an American League wild-card spot, extending the longest current postseason drought in baseball to 15 years. Seattle last reached the postseason in 2001 when they tied the major league record with 116 wins in the regular season but lost to the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
The Mariners could point to several factors for finishing just short, including 25 blown saves by their bullpen, a 30-30 record in one-run games, and a miserable June when they went 10-18 and lost pitchers Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker and Wade Miley to injuries.
If the Mariners are going to contend, much of it will once again depend on right-handed ace Felix Hernandez, who went 11-8 with a 3.82 ERA and was limited to 25 starts after missing seven weeks with a calf strain. The injury snapped a streak of eight straight seasons with 200-plus innings pitcher for the King.
His walks were up, his strikeouts were down and there is a quiet fear Hernandez, now 30, might not be the same pitcher Mariners fans have grown to always count upon. Nonsense, says manager Scott Servais.
“We have to keep in mind how high the bar is for Felix Hernandez,” Servais told reporters. “Felix Hernandez is still really good. He’s going to be the anchor of that rotation. He will start Opening Day. He’s going to be our guy.
“It may not be at the level he always was in the past, but that level was unbelievable.”
Mitch Haniger, acquired along with middle infielder Jean Segura from the Diamondbacks in the Taijuan Walker trade, is earmarked to get the first crack at winning the starting job in right field. GM Jerry Dipoto called Haniger “the best offensive player in the minor leagues at any level” in 2016, but time will tell if Haniger can live up to those expectations.
Though he crushed the ball at Double-A and Triple-A, he hit .229 with five home runs in 109 at-bats for the Diamondbacks. If that trend continues in Seattle, the Mariners may regret having dealt outfielder Seth Smith to the Orioles in exchange for pitcher Yovani Gallardo.
The Mariners’ corner-outfield depth includes Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia. At some point, they could also turn to top prospect Tyler O’Neill, 21, who won Southern League MVP honors and appears close to being major-league ready.
The starting rotation is set with Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton being backed up by trade acquisitions Drew Smyly and Gallardo. But keep your eyes on young right-hander Andrew Moore, who was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year after going 12-4 with a 2.65 ERA between Class-A Advanced Bakersfield and Double-A Jackson.
Moore, at 6-foot, 185 pounds, isn’t an overwhelming physical specimen. He doesn’t possess an electrifying fastball, either. What he has, scouts say, is excellent command and above-average off-speed secondary pitches. The Mariners also love his competitiveness, which Moore will need just to knock down a starting role at the Triple A level.
Seattle used 13 starting pitchers a year ago and it probably won’t be a surprise if Moore gets an opportunity to shine at some point in 2017.
Manager: Scott Servais.
Last season’s record: 86-76.
Big changes: Dipoto has made nearly 40 trades since joining the Mariners and this year, some of those included deals to bring in starting pitchers such as Smyly and Gallardo, in addition to Haniger, fellow outfielder Jarrod Dyson, corner infielder Danny Valencia and Segura, who will start at shortstop and be a double-play partner with his good friend, second baseman Robinson Cano.