Mariners expect to graduate out of rebuild into contention

SEATTLE (AP) — After three years of tearing down, waiting for prospects to develop and an unexpected season of contention, the Seattle Mariners are poised to escape the narrative that has hung over the franchise for two decades.

Playoffs? Yes, they’re a real possibility — and maybe even an expectation — for this group of Mariners.

Coming off a 90-win season that had Seattle contending for a wild-card spot to the final day, the stakes have been raised. The rebuild undertaken by president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto following the 2018 season seems to be on the cusp of fruition as Seattle begins the season with a solid rotation, potentially an exceptional bullpen and an everyday lineup that doesn’t leave many unanswered questions.

In other words, just being a contender likely isn’t enough for a starved fan base that’s now going on 21 years since the Mariners’ last playoff game.

“We’ve put ourselves in a good position based on what we’ve done the last couple years. Certainly last year helps a lot,” manager Scott Servais said. “I’m just so excited. I thought we built a lot of momentum last year.”

Dipoto’s offseason moves highlighted his belief Seattle is on the cusp of something beyond a one-year run. He landed a top-of-the-rotation arm in reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray. A spring training trade brought help for the batting order as the Mariners acquired All-Star Jesse Winker and third baseman Eugenio Suárez from Cincinnati.

The Mariners will still be relying on a handful of unproven players to make those playoff hopes real. Jarred Kelenic must learn from his struggles last season and show he is one of the top prospects in baseball. Chris Flexen must show his 14 wins last season weren’t a fluke. Mitch Haniger has to stay healthy and be the anchor at the middle of the order. And whenever Julio Rodriguez arrives — either on opening day or shortly thereafter — the 21-year-old must show he’s ready to be in the majors.

That’s still a lot of questions. But if they’re answered the way Seattle expects, the Mariners could push Houston in the AL West.

“With the excitement we have surrounding our team and the guys we have here and the momentum off of last year, I mean, how can you not be hungry and ready to go?” starter Marco Gonzales said.

RAY DAY

Seattle’s biggest offseason addition came before the lockout when the Mariners signed Ray for the next five years at $115 million. Ray was dominant last season with Toronto, going 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA and 248 strikeouts.

“There’s a ton of presence, very clear idea on who he is,” Servais said.

Ray’s arrival lengthens Seattle’s rotation, with Gonzales, Chris Flexen and Logan Gilbert rounding out the top four spots.

NEW LOOK

While Ray was Seattle’s only big free agent signing, the Mariners appeared to improve their lineup via trades.

The first was the addition of Adam Frazier from Pittsburgh, likely to be the regular second baseman and hit at the top of the order. The deal to land Winker and Suárez from Cincinnati solved Seattle’s two remaining issues to the lineup even if both come with questions. Winker’s strength is at the plate more than in the field and he will likely take plenty of turns as the designated hitter. Suárez has not been the same player since having shoulder surgery in 2020 and is also a step back defensively from what Kyle Seager provided the Mariners for 11 seasons at third base.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

All eyes will be on Rodríguez. All indications through the spring are that Rodríguez is ready for the majors. Last season, Rodríguez dominated at every level he played in the minors, and he shined for the Dominican Republic during the Olympics.

“He’s going to come in with high energy and his potential to impact sooner than later is extremely high,” Dipoto said.

The No. 5 spot in the rotation is likely to fall into the hands of rookie Matt Brash with fellow rookie George Kirby as another option.

ARMS RACE

Seattle had one of the best bullpens in the league last season with the emergence of Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider and others.

It could be even better this season with the additions of veteran Ken Giles and hard-throwing youngster Andres Munoz, both healthy following Tommy John surgery. Seattle also added Sergio Romo after Casey Sadler was lost for the season due to shoulder surgery.

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