HOUSTON — The Seattle Mariners enter the season eyeing a return to the postseason.
Seattle last reached the playoffs in 2001, MLB's longest stretch without a trip to the postseason.
The Mariners open the regular season on the road Monday when they send 30-year-old ace Felix Hernandez to the mound against the Houston Astros on opening day.
Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros
5:10 p.m., Root Sports NW
The Mariners are expecting to see a new and improved Hernandez. The 2010 AL Cy Young winner reported to camp in better shape after dealing with injuries and seeing his velocity dip last year when he went 11-8 with a 3.82 ERA.
"(I feel) a little different," he said. "I feel ... stronger. I feel much better with my legs and my mechanics."
Hernandez is itching to help the Mariners end their playoff drought and make his first postseason appearance. All around Seattle's spring training complex were signs that read: "Whatever it takes." And Hernandez said the team needs to take that mindset into Houston and throughout the season.
"Whatever it takes to be in the playoffs and have a great year for us," he said.
To make that happen, the Mariners also need others to perform well. They'll look to Robinson Cano to build on last year, when he hit a career-high 39 home runs after two down seasons. Nelson Cruz hit 43 homers in his second season with the Mariners, a year after hitting 44.
Seattle hopes for a boost from newcomers Jean Segura, Jarrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger.
After opening with four games at the Astros, Seattle goes to the Los Angeles Angels for three games, then opens at home against the Astros on April 10.
10 things we learned about the Mariners in spring training
10. Danny Valencia might have a short leash
Depending on how the first months go for the Mariners, a change at first base could come sooner than later. I was a bit surprised when the M’s sent prospect Dan Vogelbach back to AAA even with an underwhelming slash line of .228/.313/.338. Valencia to this point has only seen seven more at-bats, but has almost identical numbers across the board with a similar slash line of .234/.319/.344. Vogelbach needs to work on his defense, yes, and maybe that was the difference here. I thought Valencia would have been best served as bench guy who can play 1st/3rd/DH and serve as a veteran presence – similar to a Wes Helms-like player. Valencia better start hot – for his case.
9. Yovanni Gallardo worries me
I don’t think at any part of his career have I ever felt comfortable on the behalf of whatever team he was pitching for, but in his defense, he was good at one point in Milwaukee. Prince Fielder was, too though…so there’s that. Anyways, I hope for his sake he succeeds in Seattle, but not many No. 5 starters starting the season on April 1 end up still being the No. 5 starter on June 1.
8. Drew Smyly’s elbow is never a precaution
I really thought he was over this elbow situation, then just before the season starts he get put on the shelf for a little bit after two very suspect starts in a row. I hate to say it, but the way he ended his spring training overshadowed the way it began with his stellar World Baseball Classic effort. He’s supposed to be ready for his first start – penciled in as the Mariner’s No. 4 guy.
7. Jean Segura is as-advertised
Honestly, I was a little nervous about this guy coming over in the offseason. I was afraid they overpaid for a guy coming off a once-in-a-career type of season. From what he showed us in spring, he looks like the real deal. Effortless hitting, smart base running and solid defense now that he’s back to his natural position – shortstop.
6. Are the roles in the bullpen defined?
It may very well be just me who is confused, but I’m not quite sure who is supposed to be pitching when for this group. I know when we will see Eddy Diaz – at the end to get a save and hopefully be the best closer in baseball this year. Steve Cishek is injured. Dan Altavilla has probably impressed me the most so far with a 2.79 ERA in nine appearances (9.2 IP). A triumvirate of arms are tied in appearances so far with 10 each, but two of them have an ERA over 6.00 – Jonathan Aro and James Pazos. Lefty veteran Marc Rzepcynski is going to have a roll somewhere, but struggled this spring (9.82 ERA). Others expected to have spots guaranteed are Casey Fien and Nick Vincent, but their numbers aren’t great either. Not to say they haven’t pitched well, but I am super confused. Nick Hagadone has pitched stellar in limited innings, and I know there are others in the mix. Moving on.
5. King Felix is back-ish
I know – he didn’t really go anywhere to begin with, but his numbers have been dipping a little bit and his right arm is logging a lot of innings. The former Cy Young is undoubtedly the ace of this staff and a leader of this team. He showed that this spring – not only when he was on the mound, but when he was in the clubhouse and around his teammates. He pitched well in the WBC and did what he needed to in order to be ready for Opening Day.
4. Nelson Cruz is a class act
What a great guy and teammate Nelson Cruz seems like. I don’t know him at all, really, but if I did I would want to be friends with him. He makes those around him better players and better people. Cruz had excellent numbers this spring and seems really locked in at the plate right now. Even when he makes an out or strikes out, he takes a few pitches, maybe fouls some off first, makes good contact, whatever. He is locked in and ready to lead this team.
3. Who is this unicorn-maned super utility player? (Taylor Motter)
I’m not even sure if Taylor Motter expected to make the Mariners at the beginning of training camp. I think technically, he still could not (editor's note: he did), but I have learned he can play every position – literally. He would be listed as the emergency, back-up catcher, where he played some in AA. He’s got speed, hits for contact pretty well and is a manager’s dream for a utility bench player. Scott Servais can now carry one fewer hitter and an extra bullpen arm mainly because Motter can play anywhere. That’s such a great advantage that can easily get overlooked. His spring numbers by the way to date? In 59 at bats, he hit three home runs, 11 RBI has a .288 average and five steals.
2. Please stay healthy, but if not…what’s Plan B?
Everything always look cute and pretty on the surface, until injuries pile up, or the wrong guy goes 0-20 in a week. What if some of that happens? Well let’s say Robinson Cano gets hurt, and Hisashi Iwakuma starts struggling with a 5.00-plus ERA – much better chance of that happening than a Cano injury. If some of that type of stuff happens though, AAA Tacoma will have plenty of arms and bats (Tyler O’Neil) available. Motter can become an everyday player at short, Segura can play second again. If the Mariners have to call up Andrew Moore early or have Vogelbach fill in for Cruz at DH – it can happen. That is an ultimate crap-storm for it to all happen at once, but they are prepared. Lots of players had plenty of success in Arizona this spring and plenty of at-bats with regulars off to the WBC.
1) Mitch Haniger is a monster
My favorite thing and the most important thing that I took away from the 2017 spring training for the Mariners was the success of 26-year old outfielder, Mitch Haniger. In 72 at-bats through Wednesday, he is hitting .389 with 2 home runs, 11 RBI and three stolen bases. He’s played a solid right field and will look really good hitting hopefully between Cruz and Valencia in the fifth spot.