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Sports >  Seattle Mariners

Out of Right Field: Mariners relying on hope to bring end to postseason drought

Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez walks onto the field for a practice on the team's home field Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in Seattle. The team opens play Thursday against the Cleveland Indians, with Hernandez the starting Mariners pitcher. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez walks onto the field for a practice on the team's home field Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in Seattle. The team opens play Thursday against the Cleveland Indians, with Hernandez the starting Mariners pitcher. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

Hope springs eternal.

But should it?

The Seattle Mariners embark on the 2018 season in an effort to bring to a halt the longest postseason drought in the four major sports.

That’s right. The M’s are now the MLB equivalent of Mr. Irrelevant.

The Mariners have missed the playoffs for 16 consecutive seasons, longer than other punchlines, including the Cleveland Browns (15 seasons), the Miami Marlins (14) and the Minnesota Timberwolves (13).

It’s a shame, of course, but it’s of their own making.

Should self-professed Mariners fans get their hopes up once again only to have them cruelly dashed at some point over the next six months?

Throughout the 16 dry seasons – and seven managers and three general managers – the M’s have relied on hope, rather than a concrete plan, more often than not.

This season is no different.

The M’s hope Mitch Haniger takes another step toward MLB all-star, rather than one-season wonder.

They hope Dee Gordon can make a seamless transition from second base to the second most demanding defensive position on the field.

Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki smiles as he jogs with teammates during a practice on their home field Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in Seattle. The team opens play Thursday against the Cleveland Indians. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki smiles as he jogs with teammates during a practice on their home field Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in Seattle. The team opens play Thursday against the Cleveland Indians. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
They hope 44-year-old Ichiro can hold down the fort in left until Ben Gamel is healthy. That’s right, Ben Gamel is who the M’s are waiting on.

They hope James Paxton remains healthy and provides 34 ace-value starts.

They hope quickly-aging Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager retain their season-average production.

They hope to remain relevant late enough in the season to make folks forget or ignore a minor league system absolutely bereft of top-quality prospects.

Perhaps the M’s biggest hope is that opening day starter Felix Hernandez stays healthy and can be effective as a soft-tossing, ground-ball generating control specialist.

Félix is making his 11th career opening day start on Thursday, and 10th consecutive. His 11 opening day starts will tie CC Sabathia for the most among active pitchers and Félix’s streak of 10 consecutive starts in openers is the longest among active pitchers and extends his Mariners club record.

Félix becomes the seventh pitcher in Major League history to make at least 10 consecutive Opening Day starts, joining Steve Carlton (10), Roy Halladay (10), Walter Johnson (10), Robin Roberts (12), Tom Seaver (12) and Jack Morris (14).

All are the above Hall of Famers, with the exception of Halladay, who is not eligible yet.

Injuries limited Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez to 16 starts last year. He finished 6-5 with an ERA of 4.36. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Injuries limited Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez to 16 starts last year. He finished 6-5 with an ERA of 4.36. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Félix is 6-2 with a 1.64 ERA (13 ER, 71.1 IP) with 74 strikeouts in 10 career opening day starts. His six wins are tied for seventh-most all-time in Major League history since 1914.

Nobody is arguing his resume. The concern is what he has left.

The 32-year-old led the league in starts in 2014 with 34, but he’s made progressively fewer each season since, including 16 in an injury-filled season last year. He sacrificed command for control last year – allowing fewer walks (2.7 per nine) but more hits (8.9, up almost a full hit per game).

That showed up in his runs allowed.

His ERA was a career-worst 4.36. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, measures a pitcher’s effectiveness preventing balls not fielded) was a career-worst 5.02. He gave up home runs at a rate higher than ever in his career and for the first time ever was below Major League average as a starting pitcher.

The M’s as constructed are a roughly .500 team, and in the AL that might be good enough to qualify for the playoffs. They’ll probably hit enough, but starting pitching is the biggest question mark.

Simply, Felix Hernandez is the key to the Mariners success this season.

If he can make 20-24 starts and be MLB average, giving the M’s a chance on most nights, they could find a way to sneak into a wildcard game. Not that the accomplishment would mean all that much in the big picture, but it would provide a measure of, you know, hope.

But if Hernandez duplicates last season – or worse – the M’s are sunk.

In the process of rebuilding the team’s major league roster, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has gutted the Mariners’ farm system. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
In the process of rebuilding the team’s major league roster, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has gutted the Mariners’ farm system. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Jerry Dipoto is trying to have it both ways – pretending to “go for it” while paying lip service to the minor league structure. It’s hard to have it both ways and the M’s have been suffering from it.

The minor leagues are in a shambles, but that’s a topic for another day.

This was the offseason to find a couple of quality starting pitchers (and a bat for left field) on the cheap to bolster the rotation to have a somewhat reasonable expectation to make a play for the postseason.

Instead, the M’s will rely on the injury-plagued Paxton, Hernandez and a bunch of No. 5 starters. And there’s no help on the farm.

(By the way, if the M’s really wanted to say ‘We’re going for it,’ why not make a play for Jose Bautista or Melky Cabrera, both still unsigned and presumably available for pennies on the dollar now, to play left rather than bring in Ichiro or make an emergency signing of the breaking down Jayson Werth.)

Look what the Minnesota Twins did this offseason in a similar situation.

They picked up opening day starter Jake Odorizzi on a one-year, $6.3 million deal and during spring training (!) grabbed Lance Lynn for one year and $12 million.

Neither affects their long-term plans as one-year signings but if the Twins are playing in a wildcard game and the M’s are at home watching like usual, we can point to these pair of transactions as a big reason why.

Shoot, the Baltimore Orioles – another club the M’s are contending with for a wildcard spot – signed Alex Cobb LAST WEEK for an extremely reasonable four-year, $14,25 million deal.

Any of those three would have been a solid No. 2 starter for the M’s.

Now that’s a plan, not just hope.

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