Seattle Mariners: 5 questions for spring training

As the Seattle Mariners prepare for spring training, we ask five questions which will determine their success in 2018.

A sense of anticipation is in the air around the Majors, as pitchers and catchers report this week. For the Seattle Mariners specifically, pitchers and catchers will hold their first workout on Feb. 15, followed by the full-squad on Feb. 20.

There is a lot to wonder about the 2018 version of the Mariners. With this in mind, here are five questions we have for you to consider during spring training:

1) Is this Nelson Cruz’s last season in Seattle?

It’s an understatement to say Nelson Cruz has been fantastic during his time in Seattle. In fact, he’s actually been better than anticipated.

During his three years with the Mariners, Cruz has set single-season career highs for home runs, RBI, hits and walks. From a team perspective, he led the M’s in homers, RBI and OBP during 2018 alone.

However, despite all this success, it’s entirely possible 2018 will be the 37-year-old’s final year in the Pacific Northwest. He is set to become a free agent at the conclusion of this season.

While it’s entirely conceivable Cruz will have another extremely productive campaign, he’s not getting any younger. Teams will be weary of a player his age, with an increased risk of a decline in form at any moment.

Perhaps anticipating the pending scenario, the five-time All-Star hired a new agent last month. From a fan perspective, make sure you take the time to savor him this season, as it may be his last in Seattle.

2) Will Dee Gordon make a successful transition?

When the Seattle Mariners traded for Dee Gordon in December, it took many by surprise. However, it was also an exciting addition to the roster.

Gordon’s resume includes a Golden Glove, one Silver Slugger award and two All-Star appearances, while also leading the Majors three times in stolen bases. In 2015, he became the first NL player to lead the league in both stolen bases and batting average since a certain Jackie Robinson.

However, there will still be one major question mark surrounding the 29-year-old in 2018. Will he be able to make a successful transition from second base to center field?

It helps that Gordon has exceptional speed and has been able to gain counsel from the great Ken Griffey Jr. about playing the position. Gordon gave an intriguing insight into how he needs to adapt, as reported by Ryan Divish of The Seattle Times:

“The funny thing is that it’s not about the ball in the air or the ball on the ground or the routes, right now. I know I’m going to mess a few of them up, which is totally fine for spring training. But the big thing for me is learning how to crow hop (on my throws). I know it seems elementary, but learning how to crow hop is hard when you’ve been shuffling your feet your whole life.”

3) Will Felix Hernandez bounce back?

It turns out even the King is not invincible Last year was an extremely challenging season for Felix Hernandez.

Hernandez started just 16 games during 2017, which were his fewest since becoming a regular part of the rotation back in 2006. He battled injuries throughout the year, specifically related to his right shoulder.

Unsurprisingly, this impacted the six-time All-Star’s effectiveness. Among other things, he had the worst FIP of his professional career, along with his highest ERA since his second year in the Majors (2006).

Taking everything into account, the Mariners are going to do what they can to help Hernandez bounce back, including lightening his workload. General Manger Jerry Dipoto has indicated this could involve giving him an extra day of rest between starts, or skipping him in the rotation altogether.

We’re not going to see Hernandez return to the form which saw him regularly challenge for the Cy Young award. However, if managed properly — along with him showing more dedication and discipline — he can still be an effective part of the rotation.

4) What should we expect from the rotation?

In many ways, Hernandez’s issues during 2017 epitomized the starting pitching’s struggles in general. The rotation was beset by injuries and inconsistency all season.

For a variety of reasons — some I agree with, others I don’t — James Paxton won’t be the opening day starter, but he’s now the team ace. We know he has the talent but he needs to stay healthy; in that respect, while his 24 starts in 2018 where a career-high, he still had stints on the DL.

Mike Leake has been described as the most reliable member of the rotation, and the M’s will be hoping he can continue the production he displayed after he joined the team in August last year. Erasmo Ramirez and Marco Gonzales are projected to fill out the rotation and it’s anyone’s guess what Seattle will get from them.

Dipoto believes the M’s have the best rotation in the AL West, but I can’t agree with this assessment unless Hisashi Iwakuma turns back time. However, they can still be effective.

Overall, the rotation is the key to the Mariners’ ambitions of challenging. If the starting five can find their form, the postseason becomes a realistic proposition.

5) Is 2018 the year the M’s finally return to the postseason?

It’s bad enough the Seattle Mariners have only qualified for the postseason four times during their 41 years of existence. What’s worse is they haven’t been there since 2001.

As most M’s fans painfully acknowledge, this is the longest current drought in the Majors. And now, thanks to the Buffalo Bills’ appearance in the 2017 NFL playoffs, it’s also the longest drought in all four major North American sports leagues.

Heading into 2018, the overriding sentiment is the Mariners will once again miss the postseason. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, or even outside the realm of possibility.

The lineup is strong and if the rotation can remain healthy, you just never know. For what it’s worth, the oddsmakers have them as eighth-favorite among AL teams to win the World Series.

Given the strength of the competition in the AL West, the Mariners aren’t going to win their division. However, there is every chance they will put together a realistic challenge for a wild card spot.

Now it’s your turn to give your take on the five questions posed. In addition, pose any other question you believe merit serious consideration. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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