Can Felix be the King again?
It’s likely that Felix Hernandez’s quest to regain his long-time dominant form will attract more interest than any other issue affecting the Mariners. He is coming off a disappointing year that included roughly two months on the disabled list.
Let’s concede this: There is little (if any) question that Hernandez’s performance will have a major impact on the Mariners’ attempt to reach postseason for the first time since 2001.
But club officials believe they’ve put together a rotation packed with sufficient depth, including replacement parts stashed at Triple-A Tacoma, so they only need the King to be good. Not great.
The Mariners would love for Hernandez to replicate his Cy Young-deserving 2014 season but, really, they’d be plenty satisfied with his 2015 numbers: a 3.53 ERA while logging 201 2/3 innings in 31 starts.
Is Sugar still sweet?
Edwin Diaz was the power right-hander the Mariners desperately needed for their bullpen when promoted last June directly from Double-A Jackson. A refined slider, thanks to a tip from veteran Joaquin Benoit, turned Diaz into a sensation.
Now Diaz, nicknamed Sugar, needs to prove he can do it again.
That’s no sure thing.
Diaz stumbled a bit last September. That might be because he was tired from pitching later in a season than ever before. Or it could be because he was facing (mostly) division opponents who had become increasingly familiar with him.
Club officials stuck to the MLB party line this spring in expressing support for players taking part in the World Baseball Classic, but they truly saw the tournament as a growth opportunity for Diaz because of its crucible environment.
Diaz is 23 and has the stuff to be a dominant closer for years to come. Validating that potential in his first full big-league season will be a key factor in determining whether the Mariners end their 15-year postseason drought.
Can Mike Zunino zone in?
Club officials have all but declared Mike Zunino’s career reset year in 2016 to be a success — and maybe they’re right. Although it might also conjure up the image of that “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003.
Zunino appeared to make major strides for much of last season to curb the brain-dead hacking that produced a .252 on-base percentage over the three previous years and forced his demotion to the minors for an extended remedial tour.
Then came the final six weeks when he went 13 for 89 in 29 games while compiling an all-too-familiar .248 OBP. That prompted the question: Was the earlier improvement an anomaly or was the late slide a temporary relapse.
That’s still unknown.
Zunino’s power and defensive skills are such that the Mariners can live with below-average offensive production — say an average in the .230-plus range and an OBP that ticks into the low .300 range.
But the Mariners can’t live with Zunino’s career averages of .195 and .262. No team can.
Will Segura regress
and, if so, how much?
The November trade to acquire shortstop Jean Segura from Arizona effectively represents a market correction for general manager Jerry Dipoto in his extensive roster reconstruction.
A year ago, the Mariners gambled that Ketel Marte, based on two solid months as a rookie in 2015, could handle the job on a full-time basis.
They were wrong. Marte graded out below average defensively and compiled a 68 OPS+ and a 0.3 wins above replacement rating. Terrible in other words.
Marte retains growth potential, certainly, but the Mariners, with several key players in their 30s, need more now. They went and got Segura.
So what did they get?
Segura produced a breakout year for the Diamondbacks after three-plus solid (but not spectacular) years at Milwaukee. Specifically, he had a 124 OPS+ and a 5.7 WAR rating last season at Arizona.
The expectation among many in the industry is Segura will regress; that the Mariners should expect to receive production closer to what he delivered in Milwaukee. If so, he’ll still represent a sizable upgrade over Marte.
But if last season reflects a still-young player (27) growing into his skills, Segura will provide a significant boost to a lineup that ranked third last season among American League clubs in runs scored.
Is Haniger everything
the Mariners believe?
The often-overlooked point in the trade that brought Segura from Arizona is that he wasn’t necessarily the key piece in the deal. An important piece, certainly, but … well, the Mariners really like right fielder Mitch Haniger.
And that was before he put together a strong spring; Haniger entered the spring’s final weekend batting .389 at 28 for 72 in 22 games with a .436 on-base percentage and a .653 slugging percentage.
He’s also proven to be a strong defender with plus range.
Haniger retooled his swing a few years ago by using Toronto’s Josh Donaldson as his primary model. This is not to say Haniger will turn into Donaldson — although who knows? — but the Mariners would willingly take a Donaldson Lite.
That’s not an unreasonable expectation.
Bob Dutton: email@example.com