John McGrath

John McGrath: ‘Whatever it takes’ could get Mariners to playoffs

jmcgrath@thenewstribune.com

The Mariners are building their 2017 season around the three-word motto, “Whatever It Takes.”

The battle cry is snappy but vague: Whatever it takes to … what? Qualify for a wild-card berth? Finish first in the division? Clinch the AL pennant? Win the World Series?

There’s a vast gap between the bookends of those scenarios. The wild-card is a one-game, sudden-elimination event in early October. The World Series might extend into early November.

You know how last season’s Fall Classic turned out, with the Cubs beating the Indians in the 10th inning of Game Seven. Do you recall the result of the AL wild-card? The Blue Jays got past the Orioles, 5-2, on Edwin Encarnacion’s three-run homer in the bottom of the 11th. Terrific theater, notable for Baltimore manager Buck Showalter’s disinclination to put Cy Young candidate Zach Britton on the mound, but because the World Series packed so much drama, the wild-card game soon was reduced to a footnote.

“Whatever It Takes,” I believe, can be quantified with a number. If the Mariners win 92 games, wild-card qualification is all but certain, and a division title, along with the assurance of a best-of-five series, is likely.

Setting the bar at 92 sounds a tad high for a team that hasn’t won more than 88 games since 2003, but think of it this way: The Mariners finished 86-76 last season. One additional victory per month improves their record to 92-70.

Given how general manager Jerry Dipoto has retooled the roster with speedy athletes fit to chase down liners at Safeco Field, while solidifying the starting rotation and upgrading bullpen depth, one more victory a month seems feasible.

This is not about reaching the summit of Mount Rainier in croc sandals. This is about those stretches where going 5-4 over nine games represents a pennant-race pace (a record of 92-70) and a crazy difference from going 4-5 over nine games (a record of 70-92).

Early momentum is essential. Should the Mariners start slow — should they labor through April with, say, a 10-16 mark — they’re probably not flirting with .500 until the middle of the summer, if they’re flirting at all. A winning streak can repair the damage, but beware of the too-little, too-late factor.

Seattle’s longest streak last season was an eight-game September roll that cut their deficit in the A.L. West from 12 1/2 games behind the Rangers to 8 1/2. Too little, too late.

(The ultimate example of the pitfalls of TLTL Syndrome would be the New York Giants, who in September of 1916 played 26 consecutive games without losing. They finished in fourth place.)

As for the 2017 Mariners, the schedule will test their ability to break fast: Four on the road against the Astros, three more against the Angels. After a nine-game homestand with the Astros, Rangers and Marlins, the Mariners travel to Oakland for four, to Detroit for three, and then to Cleveland for three.

April is daunting, but the cruelest month will be August. Six home games sandwiched between trips to Texas, Kansas City, Oakland, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, New York and Baltimore.

Oakland can be pleasant in August, and there’s air conditioning under the roof at Tampa Bay, but otherwise, the forecast is calling for 16 days of suffocating humidity.

Unlike former manager Lloyd McClendon, Scott Servais is not one to bemoan the difficulties of a schedule that looks like a survival-of-the-fittest endurance test. Nor is Servais uncomfortable with expectations.

The advanced-stat formula known as PECOTA — it stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm, whatever the heck that means — projects the Mariners to win 87 games, enough to secure the home-park advantage in the wild card. PECOTA also foresees a Seattle lineup, bolstered by the addition of Jean Segura, producing the second-most runs in the league.

Such positive speculation would have unnerved McClendon. Servais’ attitude is to bring it on.

“Pressure’s a privilege,” he said the other day. “Expectations are great. They should be. That’s what we’re shooting for. That’s what Jerry spent all offseason working on, to get our team a little bit better.”

A little bit better translates into one more victory a month, or six more victories over six months. The 2016 Mariners won 86, keeping hopes alive until the final weekend, when they were, ahem, 86’d from the postseason derby.

A little bit better delivers the team to 92 victories, a number that unlocks the bank vault to a month of magic. It’s aggressively optimistic ambition, granted, so let’s reduce it. On that first home-stand, go 5-4 instead of 4-5.

Then go 5-4 every nine games, over and over again.

Whatever it takes.

John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath

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