“Now is the winter of our discontent,” observed Richard III from Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Thankfully, with the arrival of spring training, many fans will find a way to end their ire at the might-have-beens or should-have-signed that has dotted social media, the blogs and even the local papers. Lets get down to brass tacks and see what happens as players prepare for the season that opens a scant seven weeks from now.
We’ve heard GM Jerry Dipoto’s defense for not signing another arm for the rotation. It’s hard to imagine the Mariners would not be better without an Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn. But unless their market crashes, one has to take Dipoto at his word. There won’t be another addition to the rotation. The pitchers will be James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez, and likely Marco Gonzalez.
The only contest for jobs will likely be the utility infield position, with chief rivals being Taylor Motter and Andrew Romine. There is going to be the barest of competitions for back-up catcher between Mike Marjama and David Freitas. And there will be some competition for the last bullpen spot-which will be owned by Gonzalez if he is out-pitched for the rotation by Ariel Miranda or Andrew Moore.
The lineup welcomes Dee Gordon, likely to the lead-off spot with Segura hitting behind him, leading to the core of Cano, Cruz and Seager. Ryon Healy will take a turn at first base unless he is completely upstaged in the spring by Rule 5 draftee Mike Ford. Gordon upgrades the lineup with on-base skill and speed, otherwise it is the same. It has the potential of being more fun to watch, with some additional speed on the bases from Gordon and Segura. It could be a lot better if we’re just beginning to see the best of Mike Zunino, Mitch Haniger and Ben Gamel. Healy’s arsenal of dingers and strikeouts could get old in a hurry. Assuming health, this team should score more than the 750 runs than the 2017 team did.
But realistically, how good is this team? I’ve seen the projections, you’ve seen the projections, all god’s children have looked at Steamer, ZIP’s, Pecota, FAN and whatever else is out there. The projections are all an interesting mathematical exercise, and at the end of the day they may be correct. But in the end all the projection services tend to be conservative in the assumptions based on previous years. Though injuries play a role in the projections, injuries and health, improvement or regression aren’t foreseeable so it’s hard to know how much stock to put in them. That’s why they play the games.
I believe the M’s have three potential bands of success or failure.
The first band is the 2018 Mariners of broken bodies. If there is significant injury to the projected rotation–whether it is Paxton and Felix, or Leake and Ramirez, the Mariners will finish below .500. If they repeat last year’s rotation devastation, it is hard to see how they win 75 games. If there are significant injuries to the line-up as well, or if Cano and Cruz meet the off-stated assumption that old guys at some point fall off a cliff, it will be less than 75 games. It could be less than 70. This band has a low floor
The second band is in accord with most of the projections, about a .500 ballclub. It’s easy to envision the Mariners here if injuries to the rotation are moderate. Some missed starts and a possible trip to the DL by starters, but not for an extended period of time. No catastrophic injuries to the line-up, though some players don’t play up to expectations. This would be a foreseeable but unsatisfying outcome.
The third band is more encouraging, but requires good health, continued improvement by young players, and some luck. If the rotation is healthy, Paxton takes the next step, and Felix is at least some level of nobility, the wolfpack pitches effectively in the role Dipoto envisions, it will be a step forward. If Cano and Seager approach their 2016 production, and/or the younger players continue to improve it will lead to a more formidable offense. This third band, my prediction, begins at 84 wins. I’ve always been an optimist. However, breakout seasons by Paxton or the other pitchers, a shut-down bullpen, and elevated performances in the lineup could raise it all to 88 wins. I can’t imagine the ceiling much higher with lots of games against an other-worldly Astros team and the improved Angels.
There is a road to the playoffs. It’s foreseeable, at the very top of this team’s ceiling. It’s also unlikely. If the Mariners play well and the Angels and Twins stumble, it could happen. I think the M’s will be decent, just not good enough. And if they aren’t good enough to make the playoffs, and with Kyle Lewis, Evan White and Sam Carlson still years away from the majors, what is the path forward?