Mariners hope next rebuild step leads to becoming contenders

SEATTLE (AP) — This was supposed to be a quiet offseason for Seattle.

The Mariners weren’t expected to get noisy until after this season, making the necessary moves to go from rebuilding franchise to hopeful contenders.

That changed in February when comments in an online video from the team’s former team president called into question numerous aspects of the organization, from current cornerstones to potential timeline manipulation for the next wave of prospects, led by outfielder Jarred Kelenic.

For their part, the Mariners quickly disassociated themselves from former executive Kevin Mather and his opinions that led to his abrupt resignation. And they seem to be using Mather’s divisive comments as a rallying point with the idea that maybe Seattle’s arrival as a contender in the AL West could come a year earlier than expected.

“We’ve built a culture in which the players are beginning to run and guide the direction of this team,” pitcher Marco Gonzales said. “This is something that we will move on from, our group will come together on. And although it’s been a distraction, I think it’s something that shows us how strong our culture is.”

While culture is important, it’s the talent the Mariners have amassed that will determine if this is the season the club makes the major jump. They have the reigning AL rookie of the year in center fielder Kyle Lewis. They have a pair of young Gold Glove winners in shortstop J.P. Crawford and first baseman Evan White. Their emotional leader is Gonzales, who seems determined to lift the Mariners into contention on his own.

But the questions facing the team are significant, including worries about the bullpen, the back end of the starting rotation and uncertainties about how last year’s 60-game performance by some of their promising young players will translate to a full season.

“We got a lot to prove on the field,” manager Scott Servais said. “We have a lot of opportunity for young players. We have an exciting team to watch. And it’s a team that our fan base is going to be really excited about as they watch these young players continue to grow and add more to the mix.”

NEW LOOK

Seattle’s additions are in many cases familiar faces. The Mariners will welcome back catcher Tom Murphy and right fielder Mitch Haniger following injuries that kept them out during the last season. Lefty James Paxton is back following two seasons with the New York Yankees. The majority of the truly new additions are on the pitching staff, with starter Chris Flexen, reliever Keynan Middleton and projected closer Rafael Montero all expected to have major roles.

ARMS RACE

Seattle’s rotation has the potential to become one of the best in the AL West. Gonzales is the anchor at the top and Justus Sheffield flashed the latter half of last season as the best young arm of the group. Paxton returning to past form could be important both for Seattle’s success and for the possibility of moving the lefty for another young prospect around the trade deadline.

The wildcards are Flexen and Yusei Kikuchi. Flexen found a successful pitch mix last year throwing in South Korea, while it’s a contract year for Kikuchi, who must prove he’s worth a club option that would lock him up with Seattle through 2025.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

The overriding question for Seattle is when the next wave of prospects make their debuts. There’s a strong chance Kelenic, pitcher Logan Gilbert and catcher Cal Raleigh will arrive at some point during the first half of the season.

Kelenic is projected as one of the top five prospects in all baseball and should be a starting corner outfielder for the Mariners for years to come. Gilbert proving he can be part of the rotation could be critical to Seattle’s plans.

BACK HOME

After playing last season without fans, the Mariners will have a capacity of 9,000 at T-Mobile Park for the April 1 season opener against San Francisco. Seattle doesn’t generally draw big crowds early in the season but those in attendance will find an appreciative team ready to see them again.

“They’re fired up, they really are,” Servais said. “It means a lot to them and I think they were all anticipating and hoping it would happen when you started to see some of the announcements from some of the other areas of the country that we’re gonna allow fans into the ballpark.”

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