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Pitching staff will likely determine the success of Mariners’ season

UPDATED: Mon., April 2, 2018

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher James Paxton throws against the San Francisco Giants during a  spring baseball game March 9 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Chris Carlson / AP)
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher James Paxton throws against the San Francisco Giants during a spring baseball game March 9 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Chris Carlson / AP)
By Tim Booth Associated Press

SEATTLE – Robinson Cano has spent enough time here now to understand the angst surrounding the Seattle Mariners.

The Mariners have the longest playoff drought in the four major sports, meaning there is an urgency to finally end the skid. They appear to be an average ballclub at a time when the American League is mostly filled with superpowers and rebuilders.

It’s an odd spot for a club with talent, but scant optimism that this is the year the playoff drought ends.

“We’ve been close a couple of times. … That’s life, that’s part of the game. But I know we have a bunch of great guys here, guys who know how to play this game,” Cano said.

The Mariners enter the 2018 season with an offense that could score a lot of runs and a pitching staff that could give up just as many. Cano and Nelson Cruz are the anchors of a batting order that with the additions of Dee Gordon and Ryon Healy could be potent enough to keep Seattle in a lot of games. But there’s mostly skepticism about the pitching staff.

James Paxton has the look of an ace but has yet to stay healthy for a full season. Felix Hernandez needs to show he has evolved as a pitcher. Mike Leake, Marco Gonzales and Ariel Miranda will likely round out the rotation, but each comes with his own set of questions.

Seattle’s bullpen may end up being solid, but can’t be overused like a year ago when usage and injuries created a revolving door of pitchers cycling through manager Scott Servais’ clubhouse.

Here are other things to watch for with the 2018 Mariners:

Flash Gordon

Much of the optimism about Seattle’s offense is because of the addition of Gordon. While his position change from second base to center field is still a question, there’s no concern about what he brings at the top of the batting order and the chance to set the table for Cano, Cruz and Kyle Seager in the middle of the order. Gordon’s addition should make things better for Jean Segura, who drops to second in the order and should get better pitches with Cano and Cruz behind him.

Stay in rotation

Seattle used a major league-record 40 pitchers last season, causing constant headaches for Servais and his staff. Seventeen of those were starters. The back end of the rotation will likely see a few arms rotate through unless Gonzales and Miranda show more consistency. This makes getting quality, regular starts from Paxton, Hernandez and Leake important. Leake may end up being the linchpin; he was terrific after arriving from St. Louis for the final month of last season.

Ichimania

The return of Ichiro Suzuki feels similar to when Ken Griffey Jr. returned at the end of his career. Is it simply a sentimental way to get a few more fans in the seats, or do the Mariners believe Ichiro can help at the bottom of their lineup? Ichiro will play four or five days a week initially, but his production over the first month will be important in determining his role after Ben Gamel returns from an oblique strain.

Best case

The concerns about Seattle’s pitching are unfounded. Paxton develops into an ace and is in the Cy Young conversation. Hernandez shows he’s willing to adapt and is a capable No. 2 starter in the rotation. Seattle’s offense reaches its potential. Cruz continues to defy age and remains one of the premier power hitters in baseball. Seager rebounds from a down 2018 and Healy is a revelation at first base. Seattle stays in the AL West hunt and claims a wild-card spot.

Worst case

The concerns about the pitching staff prove true. Hernandez doesn’t rebound, the back end of the rotation is a mess and the injury problems with pitchers that befell the Mariners a year ago return. Cruz takes a step back as age starts to catch up, Seager continues a midcareer slide and Ichiro’s return proves to be entirely sentimental. Servais is let go midseason and Seattle embarks on another managerial search.

If all, or any, of those happen, the longest playoff drought in pro sports will continue.

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