April signals the start of the major league baseball season, a welcome addition for sports fans who need to fill the void left by the end of March Madness and the bland weeks leading up to the NBA playoffs. Expectations cannot be higher for the Seattle Mariners, who look to play October baseball for the first time in 16 years.
The Mariners traded away what many thought would be their long-term in Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte for the immediate offensive injection of short stop and speedy on-base machine Jean Segura and promising prospect outfielder Mitch Haniger. With power and hitting coming from the untraditional middle of the infield, the Mariners hitched their wagon to speed and glove prowess in the outfield, with Leonys Martin joined by Jarrod "What Speed Do" Dyson for one of the rangiest defensive outfields in major league baseball.
As general manager Jerry Dipoto tried to restructure his roster’s depth and strengths, his wheeling and dealings landed him in a precarious situation with his rotation. Dipoto traded his way into Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo; the latter was seen as a low-risk, back-of-the-rotation option who would be replaceable in the worst-case scenario. Smyly was looked at as an innings-eater and a reliable backup for the often injured front/middle options of James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma.
Smyly looked phenomenal in the World Baseball Classic, to the point that he seemed like the center of the rotation, rather than a reinvigorated Felix Hernandez. But Smyly suffered a flexor strain in his pitching arm at the end of March and is now on the disabled list for the next eight weeks — and possibly shelved until as late as July.
With much baseball to be played, the M’s are staring down an 1-3 start, all four games against their biggest division opponent, the Houston Astros. The bats have been ice-cold: newcomer Segura is the only hitter with an average (.300) above the Mendoza line; he and Haniger have hit the only home runs. Centerpieces Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz have yet to tally an RBI or run, and the team is 3 for 36 with runners in scoring position through the first four games.
Paxton looked great in his start on Wednesday night, giving up two hits in six innings of shutout baseball. Hernandez looked back in form early in the season opener, before being pulled with groin tightness. The fear is that the Mariners will have a solid front of the rotation that will have nothing to play for by the time Smyly returns. Dipoto has been trying his best with minor league options to try and patch the glaring holes that this team faces so early in the season.
Even when the bats in the middle of the lineup get right, and the rotation rounds into shape as a known quality, that still doesn’t answer the bullpen concerns looming in the innings before manager Scott Servais can hand the ball off to Edwin Diaz, the M's closer and arguably their most exciting player to watch. The Mariners will be relying on unknown qualities and a rehabilitated Steve Cishek as a bridge to Diaz for the foreseeable future.
Mariners bats will need to step up to not only survive the next couple of months, but all season, with low expectations for the back of rotation and stretch innings. Much of the excitement for this season was due to the additions that Dipoto and company made, with the expectation that Cruz, Cano and Kyle Seager would continue their All-Star-caliber performances. If the heart of the lineup doesn't meet expectations, the additions of Segura, Dyson and Haniger won’t mean a whole lot, and neither will games in August and September.
But if the Mariners can right their rotation and survive the early loss of Smyly, they could be a wild-card sleeper, and maybe even keep their fans interested into the fall.