Can Steve Cishek regain his closing form?
There might be no bigger question facing the Mariners than whether free-agent signee Steve Cishek can regain the form that saw him save 73 games for the Marlins in 2013-14 and compile a 2.70 ERA in 249 games from 2011-14.
Cishek endured two miserable months at the start of last season, which cost him his job as the Marlins’ closer, resulted in a demotion to the minor leagues and, eventually, a trade to St. Louis.
While he pitched well for the Cardinals (a 2.31 ERA in 27 games), that came while pitching in a setup role. Being the closer is different matter. (No analytics arguments; Cishek says he believes it’s different, which is all that matters.)
If Cishek clicks, the rest of the bullpen has a reasonable chance of sliding into comfortable roles. If not, the Mariners could have a real mess on their hands.
What about the rest of the bullpen?
Even if Cishek provides the Mariners with a reliable closer, the rest of the bullpen is chock full of questions.
Their primary setup reliever, newcomer Joaquin Benoit, has a 2.35 ERA in 388 games over the last six years. But he turns 39 in July. And Benoit is the closest thing the Mariners have to a reliable reliever.
Right-hander Tony Zych has stuff, but just 18 1/3 innings of big league experience. Joel Peralta, at 40, pitched his way onto the club this spring after drawing no big league offers last winter on the free-agent market.
Nick Vincent is the fifth right-hander in the seven-man mix. He arrived Wednesday from San Diego in a trade for a player to be named later.
With Charlie Furbush still battling shoulder issues and not likely to return for months, former swingman Vidal Nuno will be asked to get the key late-inning outs against left-handed hitters.
The other bullpen lefty is former starter Mike Montgomery, who is still growing into the role.
Is Robinson Cano back to being Robinson Cano?
You don’t have to buy into the bizarre November rant by former coach Andy Van Slyke in a radio interview to acknowledge that Cano performed last year below his traditional standards.
He had a miserable start while beset by stomach issues — batting .238 with two homers and 19 RBIs in 58 games through June 11. His bat then returned to normal production, but a double sports hernia in late July robbed him of his quickness.
This spring, Cano looked like the old Cano. That said, as he is quick to point out, spring numbers don’t mean squat. But the first-step quickness was back. So was the lightning wrist snap on his swing. Those things matter.
Because a healthy Cano operating at full capacity energizes the entire lineup.
How healthy is the rotation?
While longtime ace Felix Hernandez steadfastly denies that he’s battling a partially torn elbow ligament — another Van Slyke charge — there were times last season when the King alarmingly resembled a commoner.
Here are some hard facts: Hernandez turns 30 in a few days (April 8) and has pitched 2,178 innings over the last 10 years. That’s more than any other pitcher in that span. At some point, that workload takes a toll.
Hisashi Iwakuma had a tentative three-year, free-agent deal in place last December with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who backed off when they examined the results of his standard physical examination.
Iwakuma then returned to the Mariners, who know him better than anyone and saw no new reason for caution.
Even so, Iwakuma spent time on the disabled list in each of the last two seasons and has worked 180 innings only once in the four seasons since he arrived from Japan.
Hernandez and Iwakuma are the top two starters in the Mariners’ rotation.
Can Scott Servais make the transition?
This is Servais’ first on-field assignment since his 11-year playing career ended in 2001. While he has an impressive front-office résumé, he has never been a coach, let alone a manager, in the major or minor leagues until now.
Servais says he believes (and general manager Jerry Dipoto concurs) that his communication skills in managing scouting and player-development staffs, along with the player-evaluation skills required in those jobs, are transferable to the field.
He might be right. We’re about to find out.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners