When the Mariners open their season Thursday night at Safeco Field, center fielder Dee Gordon will occupy the role of leadoff man. Gordon stole 60 bases for Miami last season. If he improves on that total by one, he’ll set a Seattle franchise record.
Catcher Mike Zunino, returning from his 25 home-run breakout year, figures to bat eighth.
Between Gordon and Zunino are the bats of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and Ryon Healy (a fearsome foursome that combined to average 28 homers in 2017), along with the versatile duo of Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger
With such a balance of speed and power, arranging a batting order will not be the ordeal it once was for skipper Scott Servais. When he made his managerial debut in 2016, Servais’ opening night lineup had Norichika Aoki and Katel Marte at the top, with Chris Ianetta and Leonys Martin at the bottom.
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The 2016 Mariners missed a wild-card berth by one game.
A team needs more than hitting to contend, of course. It needs a capable pitching rotation augmented by a sturdy bullpen. It also needs fielders who are rangy and base-runners who are smart and, most of all, a little bit of luck – which is to say, avoiding a whole lot of tough luck.
The injury-ravaged 2017 Mariners couldn’t, and finished six games under .500.
Despite concerns about the durability of the starting rotation, I will be disappointed if the Mariners don’t reverse their 78-84 record to a respectable 84-78. I will be disappointed because Servais’ typical lineup has the potential to produce multiple-run innings in a variety of ways.
It all starts with Gordon, Seattle’s first legitimate leadoff hitter since Ichiro Suzuki was in his prime. After the trade that sent Ichiro to the Yankees midway through the 2011 season, the Mariners’ list of opening day leadoff hitters reads like this:
▪ Chone Figgins, 2012. Manager Eric Wedge assigned Figgins to the spot in spring training, anticipating it would jump-start a very dead battery. Figgins lost the job on May 4. He ended up hitting .181 in 66 games, and was released after the season.
▪ Franklin Gutierrez, 2013. The talented but famously brittle center field was limited to 40 games. He hit .260.
▪ Abraham Almonte, 2014. Manager Lloyd McClendon compared Almonte with former Tigers’ star Ron LeFlore. Almonte went on to hit .198, and was optioned to Tacoma in May.
▪ Austin Jackson, 2015. Like Almonte, Jackson struggled to put the ball in play – 107 strikeouts in 107 games – before he was traded to the Cubs.
▪ Nori Aoki, 2016. He hit a respectable .283, impressing the Mariners so much that the team put him on waivers following the season.
▪ Jean Segura, 2017. The shortstop delivered on the high hopes general manager Jerry Dipoto had for him, hitting .300 while stealing 22 bases. A good lead-off man, he figures in thrive at No. 2, especially when Gordon is on base and Cano is on deck.
Gordon, Segura, Cano, Cruz, Seager, Haniger, Healy, Zunino: It’s a formidable opening night batting order requiring a ninth hitter. Ichiro will own it on a temporary basis, until outfielder Ben Gamel recovers from an oblique strain, and then Dipoto will have to make some roster adjustments best described in the form of a question: Can we cross that bridge when we come to it?
Speaking of bridges yet to be crossed, the opposing batting order the Mariners will face Thursday is similarly loaded. A recent MLB.com evaluation of Top 10 big-league lineups ranked Cleveland at No. 5, behind the Astros, Yankees, Nationals, and Red Sox.
Other AL teams MLB.com regards as elite include the Twins (No. 8) and the Athletics (No. 10). The Mariners didn’t make the cut, a slight that shouldn’t cost Dipoto and Servais any sleep.
They know what they’ve got: Speed at the top, power in the middle, power pretty much wherever you look.
Did I mention Zunino, poised to slug 30 homers with a go-with-the-pitch, right-handed swing that sends rocket shots to right-center, likely will bat eighth?
He’s a cleanup hitter, in what amounts to a second cleanup slot.
Let the good times roll.