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Mariners took positive step this season

Felix Hernandez will remain the focal point of the pitching staff for the Mariners. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
By Bob Dutton Tacoma News Tribune

SEATTLE – The postseason begins Tuesday and, for a 15th straight year, the Mariners aren’t involved. That’s the longest current drought in Major League Baseball and, really, what else ultimately matters in evaluating their 2016 season?

Asked to sum up the season after Sunday’s finale, second baseman Robinson Cano paused, glanced up and away in thought. Finally, he said: “Sadness. We fought to the end, but this is life, and that’s baseball.”

By any measure, the Mariners made strides this season in the wake of last winter’s organizational overhaul under new general manager Jerry Dipoto. Their 86-76 record represented a 10-game improvement.

They finished second (albeit a distant second) in the American League West Division for the first time since 2007, and they stayed in the hunt for a wild-card berth until an extra-inning loss in the season’s next-to-last game.

“There are so many days you could point to through a season,” Dipoto said, “for any club that does make the postseason or, ultimately, win the World Series. That’s the day that cost us. That’s convenient and easy to do…

“What that would do is just torment you through the offseason and not allow you to focus on the positives of building a roster in a good way.”

And the Mariners are already looking ahead.

“There will be some change,” Dipoto promised. “We do have pending free agents, we do have some roster decisions to make and, obviously, as the offseason begins we’re going to have some holes to fill.

“But I think we have fewer critical holes to fill.”

There is optimism among club officials that things are moving in the right direction, that this year marked a step toward shedding the franchise’s legacy of longstanding malaise.

They point to the success of a farm system viewed as threadbare prior to the season. All seven affiliates reached postseason. They see a major-league roster, while still relying on an aging core, reshaping itself with youth and athleticism.

“You hear it all the time,” manager Scott Servais said. “ ‘It’s the same old Mariners.’ We’re not the same old Mariners. We’re not. I think if people watched us closely this year they’d realize that this is a different group.

“Did we get to where it ultimately needed to be? No. And I get it (but) we made a lot of good steps in the right direction. We laid a foundation and we’ll build upon that, but it is not the same old Mariners.”

OK, let’s start there by looking back at what went right and what went wrong this season before identifying the top offseason priorities in preparation for 2017.

What went right?

1. Robinson Cano returned to All-Star form. A year ago, Cano was headed toward surgery for a double sports hernia after a disappointing season that raised all sorts of questions regarding the eight years remaining on his contract.

Cano set a career high this season with 39 homers while batting .298 and driving in 103 runs. His range returned at second base and, after committing just three errors, he ranks as a strong candidate to win a third Gold Glove.

“Personally, it means a lot,” he said. “I was wondering how it was going to be for me. I’d never had surgery before. To be able to bounce back and have this kind of year, that tells me that the harder you work, the better you can get.”

2. Center fielder Leonys Martin solidified the Mariners’ outfield defense. Not all of Dipoto’s trades worked out, but getting Martin from the Rangers marked a significant defensive upgrade and changed the club’s personality.

“I think he can go a long ways from here,” Servais said. “I think he’s just scratched the surface.”

Martin’s impact goes beyond the numbers. As much as anyone, he is the club’s heart … its never-silent heart. As designated hitter Nelson Cruz noted: “Leonys never shuts up.”

Servais said: “I wish I could have put a tape recorder on him. The fans would have loved it … the chirping with the umpires and then yelling at his teammates in the box or on the bases. It’s contagious.”

3. Rookies Edwin Diaz and Dan Altavilla jumped to the majors straight from Double-A Jackson and added power to the bullpen. Both were starting pitchers prior to this season. Diaz didn’t make the switch until May.

By August, Diaz was the closer. Altavilla didn’t arrive until late August but, by season’s end, was getting the call in high-leverage situations.

“Our bullpen had a much different look by the end of the year,” Servais said, “because of those two guys.”

What went wrong?

1. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton had maddeningly inconsistent years. Let’s face it, the Mariners’ success over the last two years and over the next few seasons hinges largely on the ability of Walker and Paxton to harness their potential.

Walker put together the sort of April that had many believing the baton as staff ace had passed to him from Felix Hernandez. Then Walker regressed, battled a foot injury, spent time on the disabled list and then overhauled his delivery.

By season’s end, Walker was again showing encouraging signs, but he’s headed for surgery this offseason on his foot and still has much to prove.

Paxton pitched so poorly in spring training that he opened the season in the minors. When he returned in late May, he showed increased velocity and, for lack of a better term, better body language on the mound.

But Paxton also remains tormented by injuries. He missed time when hit in the elbow by a line drive and, late in the season, encountered renewed problems with a troublesome fingernail.

For all that, club officials appeared convinced that Paxton has turned the corner.

“The game-planning with him,” Servais said, “he’s able to execute. You see it. He’s just attacking the hitters. He’s trusting his stuff. And when you have that kind of stuff, it’s easy to trust.”

2. Shortstop Ketel Marte regressed in all areas. The Mariners remained convinced Marte is a long-term answer at shortstop despite sharp declines in offensive production and an alarming number of errors.

Even so, this is a tough evaluation. Marte missed 13 games in May/June because of a sprained left thumb and 17 games in July/August because of mononucleosis. He lost 22 pounds and considerable strength in recovering from mono.

3. Mark Trumbo led the majors with 47 homers after being traded to Baltimore with reliever C.J. Riefenhauser for backup catcher Steve Clevenger. This trade was a disaster even before Clevenger landed in trouble over racially-insensitive tweets.

It’s easy to forget how limited the interest was last winter in Trumbo. The Mariners had to throw in a reliever just to convince the Orioles to make the deal. The only other club to show even limited interest was Colorado.

Also, trading Trumbo freed up payroll for other moves, and he didn’t fit the Mariners’ preferred profile for proficiency in on-base percentage. Note, too, that Trumbo batted .214 after the All-Star break with a .284 OBP.

All true…but Trumbo led the majors in homers.

What needs to happen?

1. Felix Hernandez must follow through on his pledge to get into better shape. Opposing scouts all year pointed to a sharp dip in his fastball velocity, which Hernandez could address by improving his leg strength.

The simple fact is the King turns 31 next April and has logged significant innings on his arm. Most players in their 30s – Cano and Cruz are examples – stress the need for rigorous offseason routines to maintain their performance.

“He’s going to have to make a few adjustments in the offseason,” Servais said, “and come into spring training in better shape and with more urgency.”

2. Look for the Mariners to make a hard push to acquire a veteran shortstop. While club officials still see Marte as a long-term solution, they don’t necessarily see him as a short-term fit.

The Mariners nearly acquired Zack Cozart from Cincinnati prior to the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline in a deal centered around left-handed pitching prospect Luiz Gohara.

Those inquiries will resume. If they again fail, the Mariners will look elsewhere.

3. The bullpen needs a power left-hander. The Mariners (imperfectly) filled this need by using Mike Montgomery before trading him in July to the Chicago Cubs for first baseman Dan Vogelbach and pitcher Paul Blackburn.

Montgomery provided a power middle-relief option but lacked the consistent command required for any reliever in high-leverage situations.

What the Mariners want/need is someone like Charlie Furbush before he got injured.