Seattle Mariners 2019 season preview: Off to a great start, but expect a season of transition

The Mariners won 89 games last season, but that wasn't even good enough for the best non-playoff record in the AL, as they saw the A's steamroll past them and finished one game worse than the Rays. Surely in looking at the way things unfolded and some underlying factors like run differential, general manager Jerry Dipoto realized something radical was needed here.

What came next was trading the likes of Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, James Paxton, Jean Segura and more while seeing Nelson Cruz depart via free agency. Gone is the core of the team, for the most part, though holdovers like Mitch Haniger and some other newcomers mean this team will not be one of those dreadful rebuilding squads. They don't look good, but we aren't talking anything like a 100-loss team. 

  • 2018 record: 89-73 (negative-34 run differential)
  • 2019 depth chart: Click here 
  • 2019 schedule: Click here

Probable lineup

  1. Dee Gordon, 2B
  2. Mitch Haniger, CF
  3. Jay Bruce, 1B
  4. Edwin Encarnacion, DH
  5. Domingo Santana, LF
  6. Omar Narvaez, C
  7. Ryon Healy, 3B
  8. Tim Beckham, SS
  9. Mallex Smith, RF

Bench: C David Freitas, 1B/DH Daniel Vogelbach, OF Dylan Moore

Kyle Seager is out for at least the first month with a wrist injury. 

Probable rotation

  1. Marco Gonzales, LHP
  2. Yusei Kikuchi, LHP
  3. Mike Leake, RHP
  4. Wade LeBlanc, LHP
  5. Felix Hernandez, RHP

Roenis Elias could grab some starts here, but the name to watch is top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield

Probable bullpen

Closer: Hunter Strickland, RHP
Setup: Cory Gearrin, RHP; Dan Altavilla, RHP; Zac Rosscup, RHP
Middle: Brandon Brennan, RHP; Chasen Bradford, RHP; Matt Festa, RHP
Long: Elias, LHP

Righty Nick Rumblelow also saw action in Japan. 

2-0!

While it doesn't seem totally real since now the clubs return to spring training, we've had two actual baseball games so far this season and the Mariners won both of them. That's a nice head start and hopefully those games outlined what I mentioned above about this rebuilding team not being dreadful. It's only two games of 162, which is a meager 1.2 percent of the schedule.

Small samples skew things all the time, and if a bad team won two games in the middle of June, no one would bat an eye ... BUT! Those two games still count. The Mariners are off to a good start. 

The Felix Problem

King Felix is a Mariners legend who won a Cy Young, arguably had a Hall of Fame peak and is due almost $28 million this season. He's also completely worn down now at age 33. His ERA the last three seasons has gone from 3.82 to 4.36 to 5.55. There isn't really any silver lining here. Everything is trending toward disaster. All his peripherals are bad, his velocity has been tumbling for years and he's allowed 13 earned runs in 7 1/3 spring innings, which is good for a 15.95 ERA. 

Quite simply: He's cooked. 

There aren't easy answers here at all. Can you really put a franchise icon out to the proverbial pasture while paying him almost $30 million in a rebuilding year? Will he swallow his pride and try his hand in the bullpen? Would his stuff these days even play in the bullpen? 

I know this much: The odds of him pitching well enough to justify a season in the rotation are astronomical. 

Punch from the newcomers

We know when Gordon gets on base he can run. We know Haniger is a great hitter, albeit a nationally underrated one. After those two, we see three newcomers who can provide some pretty fun power this season in Seattle. 

Bruce isn't likely to ever play at an All-Star level again, but he had 36 homers in 2017 and 33 in 2016. He's still only 32 years old, so it's not like he's at an age that says he's done. 

The only reason Encarnacion is even here is due to Indians' ownership and its pathetic penny-pinching offseason. He's 36 and not prime Edwin, but he hit 32 homers with 107 RBI and a 115 OPS+ last season. He hasn't had lower than 32 homers in a season since 2011. 

Santana lost playing time last season in Milwaukee due to them acquiring Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich while also seeing Jesus Aguilar break out. Santana did have a rough go early, which is what paved the way for Aguilar, but he hit .409/.458/.909 in his 24 plate appearances in September. In a full 2017, he had 30 homers with a 126 OPS+. And he's already got a grand slam on his 2019 stat line. 

More wheeling and dealing? 

We know this about Dipoto: He's not bashful when it comes to making trades. We also know the Mariners are in a transition and not really planning to contend this season. It's possible to envision a scenario where the Mariners are not contending, but pieces like Encarnacion, Bruce, Leake, Strickland and maybe even a few others bring back decent prospect returns in July in front of the trade deadline. 

In transitions like these, the season can be a success without making the playoffs. That's achieved through the organization taking meaningful steps forward. That can happen at the big-league level with players like Santana (who is 26), Healy (27), Gonzales (27), Kikuchi (27) and more proving they are part of the next contending nucleus. More importantly, it's about the kids ... 

The next wave

Shortstop J.P. Crawford could be a post-hype guy. Once a top-10 prospect, things fell apart for him with the Phillies organization. In 49 games last season, he hit .214/.319/.393. In 2017 in Triple-A, he hit .243/.351/.405. Any scout you talk to will say he has a high level of talent, but the results have been lacking the past few years. Maybe a change of scenery and fresh chance helps. 

First baseman Evan White is a fringe top-100 prospect who hit .303/.375/.458 in high Class A last year. He'll hit the upper levels of the minors this year and look to make an organizational impact. 

Outfielder Kyle Lewis is a former first rounder who has fallen out of all the top-100 lists. He hit .220/.309/.371 in 37 games in Double-A last season, so he'll look to restore some of his luster this season. 

Jarred Kelenic, a center fielder, was last season's Mets' first-rounder out of high school. He hit .286/.371/.468 with 10 doubles, six triples, six homers and 15 steals in 56 rookie ball games. Baseball America pegs him at No. 68 among all prospects. He bears watching. 

Lefty starter Justus Sheffield was the main piece back in the Paxton trade. Baseball America has him as the No. 27 prospect in baseball. In 88 Triple-A innings last season, he had a 2.56 ERA with 84 strikeouts. He needs to trim the walks and there's some concern about his ability to start instead of be moved to the bullpen, but, again, he bears watching. 

Erik Swanson also came over in the Paxton trade. He had a 2.66 ERA in 121 2/3 innings with 139 strikeouts across Class A, Double-A and Triple-A last season. 

MLB.com ranks righty starter Justin Dunn as the 91st-best prospect in baseball. He came over in the Cano/Diaz trade from the Mets. In 24 starts across high Class A and Double-A, he pitched to a 3.59 ERA with 156 strikeouts in 135 1/3 innings. He, too, needs to trim the walks, but he has good stuff. 

This wasn't an exhaustive exercise. There will be other prospects who make an impact and provide good hope for the future and there will, as noted above, likely be additional players thrown into the mix via trades this coming summer. 

The bottom line is that while the Mariners almost certainly won't make the playoffs this season, 2019 can still be fun and successful. These players showing hope for the future are some of the ways in which the season could be a success.

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Snyder has been a baseball writer with CBS Sports since 2011. A member of the BBWAA, he's now covered every World Series since 2010. The former Indiana University baseball player now lives on the... Full Bio

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