As the 2017 Major League Baseball season begins, USA TODAY Sports' baseball staff lays out its bold predictions for the six months ahead:

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You might be surprised to learn that baseball’s longest postseason drought belongs to the Seattle Mariners, who haven’t reached the playoffs since their 116-win season in 2001.

In some ways, 2001 feels like an eternity ago. That was Ichiro Suzuki’s rookie year and Seattle’s first season without Alex Rodriguez, who had just signed a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers.

The Mariners came close last season, finishing 86-76, three games out of a wild-card spot. With some significant improvements to the team for 2017, this will be the year Seattle makes its return to the postseason.

There’s a case to be made that there’s no better stretch of three hitters than the Mariners’ row of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. The trio combined for 112 home runs and 307 RBI last season, and Seager continues to get better.

Seattle landed shortstop Jean Segura in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, ridding itself of disappointing youngster Ketel Marte. Segura had a career year in 2016, and while it’s difficult to imagine him matching those numbers this season, anything remotely close could be what puts the Mariners over the top, paired with his expected 30-plus steals.

The offense was the story, but the Mariners finished third in the American League in ERA last season. Seattle added Drew Smyly in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays during the offseason, and the left-hander is the kind of middle-of-the rotation presence who can turn a contender into a postseason team.

Felix Hernandez should be healthy this season, and there’s plenty of depth in the rotation with Ariel Miranda, Chris Heston and Rob Whalen all on the outside looking in.

The Mariners have question marks offensively, across the outfield and at first base. Danny Valencia will be starting at first base, and he performed admirably full time with the Oakland Athletics last season. Slugger Dan Vogelbach is waiting in the wings to start the season, and he can be paired with Valencia to form a productive platoon.

Mitch Haniger has potential in right field, and outfielder Jarrod Dyson gets his first shot at being an everyday player after seven years with the Kansas City Royals. With Dyson and Segura stealing bases at the top of the order, the Mariners’ big bats are going to get plenty of opportunities to drive in runs this season.

While the two-time defending AL West champion Texas Rangers and the young Houston Astros might be more popular picks in the division, Seattle has the pitching to separate it from its rivals.

The Mariners have come close to the playoffs on several occasions since that remarkable 2001 season, but this will be the year postseason baseball returns to Seattle.