We’ve made it. The offseason is a thing of the past and here we are jumping into the annual two month joyride of optimism. The time of year when every ball club and fan base feel “this could be the year.”
The time of year Seattle Mariners fans “Believe Big” in their “True to the Blue” hearts that the Seattle Mariners are poised to end the ugliest post season drought in all of professional sports. Yes baseball fans, we’ve made it to Spring Training!
I will admit the optimism meter across the league this year has dipped a bit. There’s a widespread belief several Major League clubs are rolling into the season less concerned with winning than the Cleveland Browns. Yet, somewhere in every major league city there’s at least one fan who still believes in his or her team. Hope fills their spirit creating the belief this year will be different. And to find that someone in Seattle you must look no further, my friends… 2018 is the Mariners year!
Yes, I am guilty of making that proclamation each spring over the past 16 years. And yes, I have been let down by every one of those Mariners teams. But this season I can’t help myself. I head into a new year once again believing in my team. And here are five reasons all Mariners fans should be climbing aboard the optimistic train.
1. IMPROVED OFFENSIVE LINE-UP
On paper the expectations should be very high. All-Stars Jean Segura, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager are all back. The proverbial turnstile that has been the lead off position since Ichiro was traded away to the Yankees in 2012 has finally found its permanent resident in newly acquired Dee Gordon. Ryon Healy, brought over from Oakland in a trade last November, adds depth to an already solid core of young talent made up of Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel, and Mike Zunino. Added speed, power from 2 to 8 in the line-up, and a mix of savvy veterans and hungry youngsters should provide any fan with an upbeat outlook heading into 2018.
2. BULLPEN IMPROVEMENT
Believe it or not, despite the lack of transactions bringing in new arms, the bullpen has improved. After finishing the 2016 season with the third best ERA in the A.L. the Mariners staff dropped down to the eighth best in 2017. Expect that ranking to jump back into the top five. The signing of Juan Nicasio immediately improves the ‘pen while youngsters like Edwin Diaz, Dan Altavilla, and James Pazos will build on the experience gained last season.
The two lefties, Pazos and Marc Rzepczynski provide a nice left/right balance. And with the likes of Nick Vincent, David Phelps, Tony Zych, Nicasio, and Diaz lighting up the gun in the mid to upper 90’s, the Mariners won’t be hurting for power pitching. At face value, there is no reason this staff can’t get back to the top of the league, so get excited for innings 6 through 9.
3. James Paxton has Arrived
In 2017, “Big Maple” found himself. Yes, James Paxton once again dealt with injuries, but he did make 24 starts (the most in his career), and when healthy the big man was dominant. The velocity was there with his fastball averaging just over 95 MPH over his 24 starts. He finished with a 4/1 K/BB ratio. And from July 2 to August 4, Paxton ran off seven straight wins in as many appearances, tying a club record. 2017 was this kid’s coming out year and going into 2018 the Mariners are finally going to have that Ace they drafted in June of 2010.
4. Surrounded by Tanks
As mentioned earlier, several teams are thought to be heading into the new season “tanking it”. Rosters are being torn down, the next generation of players are being given their shot, the free agent market has been seemingly shut down through one of the slowest winters I can remember, and fewer teams seem to be “going for it” than ever before. This puts the M’s in a unique position, right on the cusp of competing at what could be just the right time.
Yes, the defending World Series Champion, Houston Astros, have no intention of going away… and they won’t. The New York Yankees have built a muscle-bound MLB2K17 line-up. However, neither of those teams stand in the way of the two Wild Card spots. And with fewer teams seemingly interested in the playoffs this season, why not make a run at the post season.
5. STARTING ROTATION
The glaring need heading into the offseason was adding depth to the starting rotation. With names like Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn, Jason Vargas, among others available the hope amongst Mariners fans was Jerry Dipoto would find a way to lure one of those arms to the PNW. Instead, Jerry made it clear what we see is what we get. Frustrating? A little. But, the Mariners have their Ace in Paxton.
Felix has slid into the #2 role, which if we’re honest with ourselves, suits him well these days. Mike Leake seems to be the forgotten arm, but we can’t forget the impressive sample size he gave us last year, as small as it may have been (5 G, 4 quality starts, 3-1 record, 2.53 ERA, 1.06 WHIP). And this spring Hisashi Iwakuma, Erasmo Ramirez, Ariel Miranda, Marco Gonzales, and Andrew Moore are set to battle it out for the final two spots. All five of these guys have seen some variation of success at the Major League level, so if you ask me the cupboard isn’t as bare as some are making it out to be.
So there you have it. Sure, the majority opinion of the game’s experts is this team is barely a .500 club. Hard to believe when you see the makeup of the team, but I get it. Since 2002 the Mariners have finished above .500 just six times. They haven’t reached 90 wins since 2003. In 13 of the last 16 seasons they have finished in the bottom half of the A.L. West Division. So yes, I really do get it. But as I pointed out, there are more than a few reasons to think this year will be different. So, climb aboard the optimistic train… I’ll save a seat for ya!