The Mariners seem to have a younger and more athletic roster than in 2016. But the top three starters — Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton — supply more questions than answers.
Gotta say that Jerry Dipoto relieved the baseball souls of numerous Mariners fans when he cleared the air Thursday at the club’s annual “this might be our year” luncheon at Safeco Field.
Referring to his 16 months of roster convulsions, he said, “We have not done this with pandemonium in mind.”
Whew. Since pandemonium has swept through numerous aspects of our civic lives, it’s good to know the local baseball outfit knows what it is doing.
But minutes later, after he left the interview room and before lunch was served, he cut a minor league relief pitcher to make room for a waiver-wire catcher named Tuffy.
So much for proclamations.
Dipoto also said only nine players remain from the 40-man roster he inherited from former GM Jack Zduriencik. But that became wrong later in the day when C Jesus Sucre was released.
Dipoto, I believe, is Italian for whoosh.
Then again, we’ve seen this sort of churn before around here. In their first two seasons together, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider went through more than 1,000 player transactions before the bewilderment settled to reveal a Super Bowl champion.
New University of Washington coach Chris Petersen booted 10 players off the team he inherited from Steve Sarkisian, and by his third season the Huskies were in the College Football Playoffs.
In mid-season, the Sounders fired their successful longtime coach, who made the playoffs every year, his assistant was hired as a temp and they won their first MLS Cup.
So employing a 52-card pickup methodology is not necessarily a guarantee of failure.
As Dipoto pointed out, his many moves — 36 trades, 12 this winter, including one Thursday during dessert — helped build a team that went from 76 to 86 wins and just missed the playoffs.
But one deal went too far.
By trading versatile starter/reliever Mike Montgomery to Chicago, where he helped the Cubs win their first championship since the Great Permian Extinction, for minor-league 1B Ben Vogelbach (1-for-12 with six K’s in a September call-up), Dipoto probably induced the rotational instability that kept the Mariners from the post-season.
The Mariners went through a club-record 31 pitchers (remember Donn Roach, Joe Wieland, Adrian Sampson and SS Luis Sardinas?) as injuries and poor performances made a hash of the staff. Staying with Montgomery (2.34 ERA, 1.086 WHIP in 32 games) had to have been worth two wins, just by keeping the truck drivers and insurance salesmen off the mound.
But making the playoffs would have been merely symbolic, ending the 15-year drought but with no meaningful chance to advance. Dipoto said the 25-man roster, including the oldest group of position players in MLB, was full of one-year-contract vets such as Nori Aoki, Adam Lind, Dae-Ho Lee, Franklin Gutierrez, Chris Iannetta and Seth Smith. They were mostly bridges to 2017. The rallies, the late wins, the home runs were entertaining, not substantive.
For 2017, they’re all gone, replaced by mostly younger players whose best days are ahead, such as the 24-year-old Vogelbach. A 6-1, 250-pound kitchen appliance, he’s booked for platooning at first with newcomer and seven-year vet Danny Valencia.
Dipoto’s idea for 2017 is to get closer to his stated 2016 desire of preferring defense, youth and appearing on the basepaths a little less like a sack of potatoes tumbling down stairs.
“Last year, we were third in the American League in runs scored (4.74) and third in the league in earned run average (4.00),” he said. “We were a poor defensive club and we weren’t very good on bases.
“We don’t think we robbed the first two elements. We feel like a team that can still score runs. Now we feel like we are a team that can better prevent runs and we can be exciting on the bases. This is a team that is built to win and win now.”
Adding athletic outfielders such as Mitch Haniger and Jarrod Dyson buttresses Dipoto’s point. But the roster’s one big vulnerability, at least as seen from late January, is the three key pitching holdovers from last year — Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton.
The presumptive top three starters marbled flashes of brilliance and mediocrity with injuries to suggest some degree of vulnerability for 2017.
Iwakuma, 36 in April, managed to get to 199 innings, but with a 4.12 ERA and a staff-high 1.327 WHIP. Paxton, 28, had just 20 games, 121 innings and fingernails made of papier mache. And Hernandez, the subject of a passionate defense Thursday by Dipoto, missed seven weeks with a calf injury. He had his worst season since 2007 and will be 31 in April with more than 2,400 MLB innings on his right arm.
“You have to keep in mind how high the bar is for Felix,’’ said manager Scott Servais Thursday. “He’s still really good. He’s going to be the anchor of that rotation. He will start opening day. He’s going to be our guy.
“It may not be at the level he was always at in the past. But that level was unbelievable.”
Was it unbelievable? Every substantial playoff team seems to have an “unbelievable” ace. When Hernandez was at his apex, most of the rest of the roster was not, constituting a great squandering. As with many once consistently great players, he’s capable of the feat occasionally. But that’s not the definition of a No. 1.
Hernandez was said to be in intense training. Dipoto said the many stories written of his career expiration will only add fuel. That may be true. And if it isn’t quite true, Dipoto insisted the team surrounding him is better.
“We’ve built a team that could better support a winning core,” he said, referring to Hernandez, 2B Robinson Cano, OF/DH Nelson Cruz and 3B Kyle Seager. “We feel like we’ve done that. We won 86 games a year ago. I feel like this team has every chance to be that good and better.”
Could be. But, to risk another football analogy, the top of the Mariners’ rotation feels at the moment a little like the Seahawks’ offensive line. When it doesn’t work, the rest of the team seems forced to play perpetual catch-up.