SEATTLE – Through all the various remodels over the course of too many lost seasons there have been two constants for Seattle baseball for the past decade: Felix Hernandez and missing the playoffs.
So as a new season arrives in Seattle, with another massive off-season overhaul having taken place, Hernandez is still here waiting for the chance to pitch in the postseason, the only accomplishment missing on his career resume.
“I’ve been here a long time and now I’m old. No, I’m kidding. But really I enjoy being here. I like the organization and I’m excited to still be here,” Hernandez said. “This year is a little different because there are new faces.”
After an off-season that featured one significant change after another, the Mariners will open the season Monday at Texas as one of the biggest unknowns, not just in the A.L. West, but in baseball. From the chair of new general manager Jerry Dipoto, to first-time manager Scott Servais and down to the 25th man on the bench, Seattle is essentially an entirely new team.
That brings excitement and uncertainty. It also does little to instill belief that the longest playoff drought in baseball will come to an end in 2016.
“I feel very confident that our game plan has been executed,” Dipoto said. “Now we’re going to find out as the season starts, how good the game plan was.”
Hernandez remains the center of Seattle’s core, along with Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz, coming off one of the finest seasons by a Seattle hitter since the opening of Safeco Field. But it’s the construction around those four that has changed drastically since the conclusion of last season when Seattle was expected to contend for a division title only to fall flat.
Seattle will begin the year with nearly half its 25-man roster having played elsewhere in 2015. Leonys Martin and Nori Aoki are now mainstays in the outfield. Adam Lind is at first base with Korean slugger Dae-Ho Lee spelling him against left-handed pitchers. Chris Iannetta is at catcher with a pitching rotation that includes newcomers Wade Miley and Nathan Karns.
And there is Seattle’s bullpen that was completely overhauled and could determine how successful Servais is in his first season.
“Rookie managers, and I’m in that category right now, the thing that makes you look good is a really good bullpen,” Servais said. “Those guys are going to be key for us.”
Here’s what else to watch with the 2016 Mariners:
King of the North(west)
Hernandez is entering his second decade pitching for the Mariners, which is shocking in itself. He is coming off a 2015 season in which he won 18 games, second most of his career, but saw his ERA rise to 3.53, the highest since posting a 3.92 ERA in 2007. Hernandez also had some of the more forgettable outings of his career last season, including giving up 10 earned runs in 2 1/3 innings in Boston and managing just one out and giving up eight earned runs in Houston.
Hernandez remains the ace of Seattle’s staff that includes the return of Hisashi Iwakuma, promising youngster Taijuan Walker and the additions of Miley and Karns.
If spring training is an indication, Cano is on the verge of a big season. Cano struggled the first half of the 2015 season and played through two sports hernias the second half of the year. He finished with respectable numbers at the plate, but Seattle did not pay $250 million over 10 years for Cano to hit .287 and play average second base in the prime of his career.
Bull(pen) on parade
The determining factor in Seattle’s success will likely be a revamped bullpen. Seattle is hoping that Steve Cishek can rebound from a down 2015 and return to the closer form he showed in Miami. If Cishek can be solid in the ninth inning and Joaquin Benoit holds down the eighth, then Seattle has enough arms to bridge the latter innings. If either of them struggle, the Mariners could be vulnerable in the late innings.
Part of Seattle’s makeover was to play to the strengths of its home park. That led to the acquisitions of Martin and Aoki for the outfield and Miley and Karns for the rotation. Martin and Aoki will be asked to cover ground in Seattle’s vast outfield, while Miley and Karns will likely enjoy pitching in the big stadium after playing last season in Boston and Tampa Bay.
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