The world was a much different place in October 2001, the last time the Seattle Mariners were in the postseason.
Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule were dominating the Billboard Top 100 with “I’m Real,” though they wouldn’t be able to transfer the song to an iPod until Oct. 23, when the iconic portable player was first released. Meanwhile, Seattle had just dropped the American League Championship Series in five games to Joe Torre’s dynastic New York Yankees.
Seattle hasn’t reached the playoffs since, but while it’s been a trying new millennium for the Mariners, the 2017 season may finally see them reach baseball’s promised land once again.
Here’s why the longest current MLB postseason drought is poised to end at 15 consecutive seasons:
AL West up for grabs
On paper, the Houston Astros look to be the favorites to overtake the Texas Rangers in the AL West after adding Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Josh Reddick, though that projected success still comes with a lot of question marks. The biggest one is which version of Dallas Keuchel – the 2015 Cy Young winner, or the 9-12 starter with a 4.55 ERA in 2016 – will emerge next season.
The Rangers, meanwhile, have a shallow outfield, and the quality of their rotation drops off dramatically past Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. With all due respect to the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels, the two teams haven’t done enough to thrust themselves into contention just yet, even though the latter boasts superstar Mike Trout.
Seattle, on the other hand, has forced its way into that conversation. Thanks to an array of underrated acquisitions like Jarrod Dyson, Mitch Haniger, and Danny Valencia, the Mariners now have the depth and positional flexibility needed to survive the marathon season and the pieces to complement their star core.
Revamped top of the order
Nori Aoki, now with the Astros, seemed to be Seattle’s favored leadoff choice last season, batting first for the Mariners in 90 games. But despite a .349 on-base percentage, he wasn’t much of a threat on the basepaths – he scored just 63 runs all season and was caught stealing more often than not, successfully nabbing just 7 bases in 16 attempts.
That’s why the significance of adding Dyson and Jean Segura can’t be overstated – especially the latter.
Acquired in a blockbuster five-player trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Segura is a nearly perfect leadoff hitter, but the Mariners have the luxury of having him hit second thanks to Dyson’s pace. Segura slashed .319/.368/.499 with 20 home runs in 637 at-bats in 2016, but that’s only half of what makes the 26-year-old so dangerous near the top of the lineup. He continued to torture pitchers without a bat in his hands, racking up 33 steals in 43 attempts and scoring 102 runs for Arizona.
With Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano, and Nelson Cruz immediately following Dyson and Segura in the heart of the Mariners’ lineup, the lightning-quick duo will revitalize the offense and help send Seattle into the playoffs again.
A vindictive King and his staff
Nobody wants a bounce-back season more than Felix Hernandez.
After experiencing one of the worst seasons of his illustrious career in 2016, posting a 3.84 ERA in just 25 starts – his lowest total since his 2005 rookie campaign – it didn’t take long for King Felix to show he means business in 2017. The Mariners’ right-handed ace has already drawn plenty of notice for his new physique in camp, temporarily calming concerns of a decline by adding 17 pounds of muscle this offseason.
But it’s the rest of his staff that will make the biggest difference in the Mariners’ pitching this season.
Thanks to Taijuan Walker’s dramatic inconsistencies – he failed to pitch six innings in 15 of his 25 starts last season – and Hernandez’s unexpected shortcomings, Seattle’s rotation didn’t live up to expectations in 2016. But with a refreshed 2017 starting corps backed by the experienced Hisashi Iwakuma, veteran Drew Smyly should easily adjust to his projected role behind James Paxton.
Manager Scott Servais will be able to choose from a handful of options for a fifth starter, but Yovani Gallardo, Ariel Miranda, Chris Heston, and Rob Whalen are also quality candidates should any other starter (specifically Hernandez) need a rest day.