After another offseason filled with a plethora of roster moves, including a growing total of 12 trades, the Mariners head into the 2017 season with a real optimism and belief that they can snap the longest postseason drought in Major League Baseball.
It was evident on Thursday afternoon when the organization held its annual pre-spring luncheon.
Like most years, there was the usual sense of hopefulness from the group of speakers available to the media about the upcoming season. Of course, it’s easy to believe before a pitch has been thrown.
But is that optimism justified?
In the minds of general manager Jerry Dipoto, manager Scott Servais and pitcher James Paxton, it’s easy to believe that the latest incarnation of the Mariners can do something no previous team has done since 2001 — play a meaningful game after the regular season has ended.
A year ago, the Mariners finished an unexpected 86-76 and were eliminated from the postseason on the second-to-last day of the season. It will take a similar, if not better, effort this season to push beyond.
“I’d like to make the playoffs,” Dipoto said. “And ‘win now’ is always my sentiment.”
The Mariners have a window of time with their core quartet of Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager for the next two years.
“When you’ve committed roughly $75 million annually to that group of players, you are in a win now mode,” Dipoto said. “You don’t get those players to rebuild, you get those players to go win. Our job is to build a roster around that quartet of players that will allow them to perform to the best of their abilities. We did that last year. I know you’ve heard me say before: we intended last year to raise the floor. And I think we raised the floor.”
Dipoto followed up his massive roster overhaul last offseason with a myriad of offseason moves. He made his 12th trade since October on Thursday afternoon after the luncheon and also tossed in a waiver claim for a catcher as well during the luncheon.
But really, it is the additions of Jean Segura at shortstop, established pitchers Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo to the rotation and improving the outfield defense with the acquisitions of Jarrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger that has reshaped the roster, providing speed, athleticism, versatility and lofty expectations.
“We have not done this with pandemonium in mind,” he said. “We’ve did it to build a team that could better support a winning core. We feel like we’ve done that. We won 86 games a year ago. I feel like this team has every chance to be that good and better.”
The Mariners were an abysmal team defensively in 2016, particularly in the outfield where Nori Aoki made every fly ball an adventure and the aging platoon of Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez simply couldn’t get to fly balls outside of their limited range.
Young shortstop Ketel Marte also graded as one of the worst defensive shortstops in the American League. All four players are gone and replaced by what the M’s believe as upgrades.
“Last year, we were third in the American League in runs scored (4.74) and third in the league in earned run average (4.00), we were a poor defensive club and we weren’t very good on bases,” Dipoto said. “We don’t think we robbed the first two elements. We feel like a team that can still score runs. Now we feel like we are a team that can better prevent runs and we can be exciting on the bases. This is a team that is built to win and win now.”
Servais was limited with the platoons of Smith and Gutierrez, and the frighteningly un-athletic duo of Dae-Ho Lee and Adam Lind at first base last season. He will have a vastly more athletic roster that will allow him to rest Leonys Martin in center field on occasions by using Dyson there. The lineup also won’t be so susceptible to struggle against left-handed pitchers with the addition of Danny Valencia and Haniger.
“We’ve got guys that can do more things,” Servais said. “What’s the value of being more athletic? It just allows you to win games in different ways. We won’t be so reliant on the home run. It helps in run prevention. It helps in creating more havoc on the bases. And helps in making you a little less comfortable to play against. And we want to be uncomfortable to play against for other teams. That’s the goal.”
Paxton would’ve started game started Game No. 163 — either the wild card or a play-in game — if the Mariners hadn’t fallen just short of the postseason in 2016. He’s monitored another offseason of moves and is excited about the changes. As a pitcher, better defense is never a bad thing.
“I feel really good about it,” Paxton said. “I think where we’ve ended up is a really good place. I feel really good about the speed in our outfield. That’s going to be great with the big outfield here. Also our starting rotation is going to be really strong, there’s a lot of experience there. It’s going to be a good year.”