Second Opening Day
March 27, 2019
The Mariners have already played their first games of the season, having defeated the Oakland A's in two contests in Tokyo, but tomorrow they resume action when the other 28 Major League teams open their seasons. The home opener begins a four-game series with the Boston Red Sox, the only visit of the year for the defending World Series champs.
2019 is a low-pressure year for the M's. Nobody expects them to contend and playing .500 ball is about as lofty a goal that can be reasonably set. But this is baseball, and as an old slogan put it, anything can happen. (Except winning more games than Houston this year. That won't happen.) Who will the fans at Griffínezuki Field/The NieHaus/the Ballpark by Elliott Bay be cheering on this season, though? With all the turnover from last year, a lot of names may be unfamiliar, and those names are bound to change as the season goes on. But to start things off, here's what the Mariners look like as they take the field at home this week.
With our favorite Canadian southpaw now toeing the rubber for the hated New York Yankees, we bid adieu to the days of the Maple Grove in left field. The role of staff ace now belongs to another lefty, Marco Gonzales, who had a terrific season last year with Seattle and already has a win to his credit in 2019. He's joined by former Seibu Lions star Yusei Kikuchi, who impressed in his debut last week and will be on a unique schedule for the duration of the year, with one of every four or five starts being limited to an inning or two; reliable innings-eater Mike Leake; Wade LeBlanc, who became something of an overnight sensation last year at the age of 33; and the King himself, Felix Hernández, who hopes to somehow bounce back this year from a brutal 2018 campaign.
This should be an area of relative stability for the club, though truthfully nobody knows what to expect out of Felix and those who think they do think he'll be ... less than good. Marco and Yusei will be fun to watch regardless, and the other two should keep the M's in the game most nights.
The relief corps, on the other hand, might not scream "stable." Free-agent signee Hunter Strickland got his season off to a good start with two saves in Tokyo and looks like he's got the stuff to close regularly. Setup man Cory Gearrin likewise looked good against the A's in Japan, showing nice movement on his pitches in his single inning there. After that, though, it gets murky. Righty Matt Festa had a good spring and a good couple of innings in Tokyo, but is inexperienced with only nine Major League appearances to date and no time at all at Triple-A; Nick Rumbelow is still on the roster despite being truly awful in his Tokyo outing, but that probably won't last long—he's only still here because Dan Altavilla was worse and got optioned down as the final cut—and Brandon Brennan is getting his first taste of the big leagues after a decidedly unspectacular minor-league season in 2018. Lefties Zac Rosscup and Roenis Elias round things out, with Elias figuring to get his work in when multiple innings are required from a reliever and Rosscup still in search of any kind of success in the Majors after stints with the Cubs, Rockies, and Dodgers. Expect a lot of activity on the Tacoma Shuttle with these guys.
The past few years, we waited for slick-fielding Mike Zunino to learn some plate discipline and become a valuable player with the bat. Now we shift gears and wait for patient hitter Omar Narváez to learn to be a decent catcher behind the dish. Narváez had a brutal first game defensively, but seemed fine in Game 2 in Japan; it's feared that the Game 1 performance is more indicative of his skillset. But he does get on base, something Zunino did not do well, and with luck he'll make up for his defensive deficiencies that way. David Freitas is the backup once more, offering a decent glove once or twice a week.
Nobody from last year's opening day infield is back where they were. Dee Gordon is back at his preferred second base position, the center field experiment over and done with, and is no longer playing on a broken toe. Ryon Healy is still in the mix, but over at third base instead of first, filling in for the injured Kyle Seager. Shortstop of the future J.P. Crawford opens the year in Tacoma, so the starting gig there goes to Tim Beckham, who had an outstanding to games against the A's in Tokyo (5-for-7, one loud home run). And first base is, for now, a timeshare between veteran slugger Edwin Encarnación and young slugger Daniel Vogelbach, with outfielder Jay Bruce getting some time there now and again as well. Those three also figure to rotate through at Designated Hitter, with Bruce also getting platoon starts in left field. Rookie Dylan Moore provides backup depth around the infield and can also play the outfield in a pinch.
Mitch Haniger returns in right field, hoping to replicate or exceed his All-Star performance of last season. He's off to a good start, having clubbed a home run in Tokyo. He's joined by newcomers Mallex Smith, a fleet-footed defensive whiz with good on-base skills and base-stealing prowess, and Domingo Santana, a power threat that got his year started with a grand slam in the opener in Tokyo. Bruce will see time here as well, splitting time with Santana.
On the shelf
In addition to Seager, who will likely be out of action until June, relievers Anthony Swarzak and Shawn Armstrong also begin the year on the injured list (we're apparently not calling it the disabled list anymore). Armstrong figures to be back sooner than later, but his trouble is a strained oblique and those are tricky to predict recovery time for. Swarzak just recently started throwing activity, having missed spring training proper with shoulder inflammation, and is probably a few weeks away from joining the club.
Is this group good enough to defy very modest expectations? Probably not, but hey, that's why they play the games. If noting else, this promises to be a different and interesting group to watch—Gordon and Smith could inject a running game not seen here in ages, and Gonzales and Kikuchi could surprise as a solid one-two rotation punch. As for the rest, who knows, but it'll be fun to see how it plays out!
Most Exciting New Mariner
With all the new faces coming to the M's for 2019, who are you most excited to see?