MLB ’16 Comeback Candidates: Seattle Mariners

Nelson Cruz, signed as a free agent last offseason, finished second in the majors with 44 home runs in 2015.

We will begin a new segment leading up to the 2016 MLB season, the Comeback Candidate series, taking a look at non-playoff teams from the previous season who could make some noise this year. Because 11 of the past 15 World Series champions didn’t make the playoffs the previous year, hope springs eternal for teams that were left watching October baseball from their couches the season prior. Without further ado, the Seattle Mariners:

The Lowdown

The first two moves the Mariners made to officially begin their 2015 offseason were non-player-personnel moves. Jerry Dipoto was actually installed as the team’s new general manager on September 28, six days before the season finale. On October 9, manager Lloyd McClendon and most of his coaching staff were let go. Former big-league catcher Scott Servais was appointed manager two weeks later.

The Mariners now hold the distinction of owning the longest playoff drought, having not made the playoffs since the 2001 season. Last year was supposed to be the year, after finishing one game shy of a wild card berth in 2014. Instead, things went south rather quickly.

Reasons for Hope

The offense needed revamping, and for the most part was much improved in 2015. Nelson Cruz was brought in on a four-year deal after leading the majors in home runs with Baltimore in 2014, and more than did his part. He finished second in all of baseball with 44 home runs, and Seattle actually finished fifth in the majors with 198 dingers as a team.

Robinson Cano, a perennial MVP candidate, had a subpar year by his standards (.287 average, 21 HR, 87 RBI). He was reportedly suffering from an ongoing illness, which may have been a culprit. There is reason to believe he will return to being the Cano that developed into one of the game’s elite second baseman while with the New York Yankees.

Kyle Seager, inked to a seven-year, $100 million extension last offseason, showed no signs of being overwhelmed by his newfound fortune. Seager clubbed 26 home runs and led the team with 37 doubles while also driving in 74 runs. He also played in all but one of the Mariners games in 2015.

Dipoto kept busy after taking over the GM post, wheeling and dealing to fix the bullpen and add depth to the starting rotation. He traded reliever Danny Farquhar, first baseman Logan Morrison, and shortstop Brad Miller to the Tampa Bay Rays for starter Nathan Karns, reliever C.J. Riefenhauser, and minor league outfielder Boog Powell. Dipoto also scaled a couple of fellow division rivals’ rosters, trading for Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin and signing catcher Chris Iannetta from the Los Angeles Angels. He later signed outfielder Nori Aoki, formerly of the San Francisco Giants.

Then, there was the first-it-was, then-it-wasn’t departure of key pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma to Los Angeles. The deal with the Dodgers fell through, allowing the Mariners to resign their No. 2 starter, who went 9-5 with a 3.54 ERA over 20 starts and also threw his first-career no-hitter.

Iwakuma’s return could ultimately be a difference-maker for Seattle in 2016. Even in a slightly-down year for Felix Hernandez, the King went 18-9 with a 3.51 ERA and topped the 200-inning mark for the eighth consecutive year.

The rotation may have to carry the pitching staff given the bullpen’s massive struggles in 2015, but Seattle has some very promising young arms to supplement Hernandez and Iwakuma. Taijuan Walker had a promising second half, going 4-1 after the All-Star break. Left-hander James Paxton should rebound from an injury-filled campaign, and fellow southpaw Mike Montgomery got off to a terrific start before hitting a wall down the stretch.

Reasons for Doubt

The bullpen, in particular, was a disaster for the Mariners in 2015. Seattle’s pen finished 25th in the majors in ERA (4.15), and their 24 blown saves was the sixth-most in baseball. Dipoto is counting on addition by subtraction, having dealt a number of pieces from last year’s club in hopes of improving. Carson Smith, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Farquhar were all traded. He brought in a pair of former closers, signing Joaquin Benoit and Steve Cishek. However, Benoit is 38 years of age, and Cishek is coming off a down year despite finishing strong after being traded from the Marlins to the Cardinals last summer.

Offensively, although they had big power numbers last season, the M’s ranked 21st in the majors in runs scored and 23rd in batting average.

Will they or won’t they?

With the Toronto Blue Jays finally returning to the dance last October, the Mariners now have the longest absence from the playoffs, 14 years and counting since their magical, record-setting 2001 campaign. The roster has undergone a big makeover, and there are legitimate concerns about first-time manager Servais. The feeling is that the Mariners could very well break .500 in 2016, but with the Astros, Rangers, and Angels all being contenders with seemingly-superior rosters, it does not appear the M’s postseason drought will end in 2016.

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