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Dave Sheinin: Even without Robinson Cano, the Mariners look like baseball’s most fascinating team

UPDATED: Tue., June 26, 2018, 11:47 p.m.

Seattle Mariners’ Nelson Cruz, left, fist-bumps teammate Mitch Haniger after Haniger drove in Dee Gordon, back center, for a run on a sacrifice fly ball in the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Monday, June 25, 2018, in Baltimore. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners’ Nelson Cruz, left, fist-bumps teammate Mitch Haniger after Haniger drove in Dee Gordon, back center, for a run on a sacrifice fly ball in the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Monday, June 25, 2018, in Baltimore. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

BALTIMORE – There might be better teams in baseball than the Seattle Mariners, including one notable, highly decorated example looming atop their own division. There are sexier teams, including the two American League East behemoths who just finished beating up on them last week. And there are more rigorously analytical teams, including, oh, just about everyone.

But it is quite possible there is no team in baseball more endlessly fascinating than the overachieving, small-balling, one-run-game-winning, 98-win-pacing Mariners. Among the categories in which they lead their league: sacrifice bunts, one-run wins, superstar drug-suspensions and expectations exceeded.

This is a perfect vantage point from which to consider the Mariners (49-31), who are in line to secure the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 17 years, because Monday, which concluded with a 5-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards, marked the midpoint of second baseman Robinson Cano’s 80-game absence for a positive drug test – the event that has defined their season to this point and will continue to do so for many weeks to come, as his mid-August return draws nearer.

On May 14, the date of that tumultuous jolt, the Mariners were 22-17 and in third place in the A.L. West. But upon losing their best all-around player and $240 million franchise cornerstone, rather than fall into an aimless funk, they resolved themselves to not only survive the loss, but to embrace it. That day, manager Scott Servais gathered the team, but didn’t make a long, fiery speech.

“He just said, ‘We’re a good team. We can still do this,’” recalled left-hander James Paxton, whose May 8 no-hitter was a high point in the pre-Cano-suspension portion of the season. “Losing Robbie was a blow to the team. But we knew at the time everyone would have to step up to fill the void. No one guy could replace Robinson Cano.”

From the outside at least, the transition appeared seamless. Center fielder Dee Gordon was shifted to second base, his natural position. General manager Jerry Dipoto, perhaps the most aggressive trader in the game, used some of the savings from Cano’s unpaid suspension to acquire reliever Alex Colome and outfielder Denard Span from the Tampa Bay Rays.

And the Mariners kept on winning, going 22-7 in the first five weeks without Cano and seizing first place in the A.L. West from the defending World Series champion Houston Astros. They kept winning, in fact, right up until June 14, when they entered a stretch of 10 straight games against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees – games that were viewed around the majors as a measuring stick for the Mariners’ legitimacy as a contender in the top-heavy American League.

The result was not what the Mariners wanted. They went 3-7 during that stretch, losing six of the last seven and blowing two five-run leads in the span of three games. With many critics already skeptical of the Mariners – owing to their remarkable (and typically unsustainable) 24-11 record in one-run games and their unremarkable run differential (which now sits at plus-13), the poor showing against the A.L. East titans only confirmed the suspicion.

“We’re 16 games over .500 – that bad stretch didn’t do anything to our confidence,” Gordon said Monday, before the Mariners improved to 17 games over .500. “It’s just – sometimes you lose. Every team goes through a low stretch. We’ll be fine.”

Paxton, who lost in a showdown with Yankees ace Luis Severino in the middle of that stretch, went even further: “It didn’t do anything to damage our confidence,” he said. “We had a couple of bad innings that ended up biting us. But we’re still pretty confident in what we can accomplish. We have a really good team, and I think we’re postseason-bound.”

The numbers back up that assertion. The Mariners have a seven-game lead over the Oakland Athletics and an eight-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels for the second A.L. wild card, and the simulated projections at FanGraphs give them a 71.6 percent chance of making the playoffs (though only a 1.6 percent chance of beating out Houston, whom they trail by only 3 1/2 games, for the division title).

But the Mariners have at least one more major question to confront this summer: how to integrate Cano back into the clubhouse, the lineup and the defense when the time comes. The question is complicated by the fact Cano will be eligible for the final six weeks of the regular season, but ineligible for the postseason, thanks to the suspension.

“When we get Robbie back, I know I’ll be excited to get him back,” Gordon said. “I’m pretty sure everybody in here feels the same way.”

But should the Mariners plug Cano back into his regular spots on Aug. 14, as if he were simply returning from an injury, then revamp their team yet again for the postseason? Or should they keep going the way they did in his absence, with Gordon seeing the bulk of the time at second base – a position that, even if he were to cede it to Cano for the stretch run, he would need to get comfortable with again in October?

The answer, naturally, will depend largely upon the Mariners’ needs and playoff positioning in August and September. They could lean one way if their playoff spot is already secured, but a different way if they are fighting for survival. Either way, the team has already announced it will keep Gordon as the primary second baseman – meaning Cano, who has never started a game in the majors at any other position, could have to see some time at first base and/or designated hitter.

“It’s hard to predict those things,” Servais said when asked about Cano’s return. “Quite frankly, I couldn’t have predicted we’d go on the run we did without having your three-hole, All-Star second baseman. We don’t know what’s going to happen. I do know when he gets back, he’s very anxious to help the ballclub, and help it win. He feels that with the suspension thing, he let some people down. My thing is, I don’t want Robbie to come back and try too hard. Just come back and be Robbie. He’s a really talented player. He’ll be a welcome addition when he comes back.”

Win or lose, surge or implode, catch the Astros or get caught by the Angels, fall short of October for an 17th straight year or win it all for the first time in franchise history – no matter what happens to the Mariners from here on out, it will be fascinating to watch.


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