As part of the general SB Nation MLB season preview, this year all site managers selected a “key player”: the one player who will mean more to the club than anyone else, the one player whose success or failure will define the fortunes of the team, or maybe just the one player who will get fans into the ballpark every homestand. You can read about who I (Kate) selected here, but with a wealth of options to choose from, I wanted to poll the staff about whom they would select.
Grant - Black Holes of the Depth Chart
It’s too easy to say Felix Hernandez. The King obviously needs to regain his regal form if the Mariners are going to claim the divisional throne (heck, even the wild card throne). So that’s why I’m going with a couple players who are a bit off the beaten path: Ryon Healy and Ben Gamel. Right now, per Fangraphs, the Mariners are projected for the 30th-most fWAR at first base, and the 28th-most fWAR in left field. One black hole might be enough to overcome; two, however, seems damning for a team that already has a slim margin for error. If either Healy or Gamel (or someone further back in the depth chart, like Daniel Vogelbach or Guillermo Heredia) can excel and thrive in 2018, then the M’s have a puncher’s chance at something special. Otherwise...it’s not looking good.
Zach - Moderately Speedy Gonzales
A licensed mental health professional would probably advise things like “stepping back”, “taking a deep breath”, or maybe even “not getting too invested in things you can’t control”. Sounds healthy and boring! I’m all-in on the Marco Gonzales hype train, and what with the rumblings that the Cardinals might not even recognize Marco after his recent adjustments coupled with his consistently dominant Spring Training performances, there’s nothing you can say to change my mind. Marco has legitimately exciting upside, and even though he hasn’t done a lot in an actual MLB game to prove it, he could be a game-changer for a shallow Mariners rotation this year.
Tim - Grand Slam Off Johan Santana Or We Are Screwed
Screw you, Grant. But heck, I’m going with King Felix. We’ve all been over the pitching situation: the only people in baseball who think the Mariners have enough starters are the ones working at 1250 1st Ave S. So in that sense, aren’t all our pitchers the key? Looking at staff construction of past playoff teams, though, this team can certainly muddle through with what they have if health is a given. For THAT to be true, though, we just need a pretty damn good Felix. There’s no way around it. Sure, Paxton has supplanted him as an ace, and Mike Leake is a pretty darn good middle-rotation guy. Cobble together a few hundred innings from Arielrasmo Gonzwhalen for the back of the rotation, a decent enough bullpen, and voila! We can hit our way to the second wild card. But there’s that one thing missing: a #2 or #3 guy to fit between Paxton and Leake and churn through a lot of innings at pretty high quality, say 3 fWAR or so. Where can we get that guy…? So yes--I think a bad Felix is, ultimately, the one thing that will sink this team more than anything else. The club is saying lots of very positive things about his spring--they’d better be right.
John - The other former Diamondback
[Kate: John will pick Mitch Haniger change my mind
Me, through tears: you can’t always pick Mitch Haniger as the key to the season!
John, pointing at Mitch: the key to the season.]
Surprise, it’s Jean Segura. Mitch Haniger will be great, I think it’s important everyone understands that. But with every indication that the Mariners are putting their two historically best baserunners at the top of the order, Jean Segura gets the nod for impact. We’ve seen the impact that Dee Gordon/Jean Segura can have as the leadoff tandem this spring. Gordon’s ability to turn nearly every single or walk into a double with his basestealing puts a premium on Segura’s ability to knock him in.
Moreover, the depth behind Jean is a grouping of late 20s-to-early-30s utility men with nary a wRC+ above 90 between them. The 28 year-old Segura should be more mobile this year with his hamstrings restored to health, but that has to remain the case for Seattle to prosper. On a roster rife with depth issues, there is perhaps nobody more difficult to replace than Applebottom Jean.
Eric - James Paxton Needs to be Nastier Than the Inside of an Old Hockey Glove
I will go with another fairly obvious choice. If the Mariners are to have any chance in hell of competing in the AL West, they will need something close to a full season of James Paxton, Certified Ace. We’re talking like peak Felix 2009-2012 kind of stuff. Every fifth day of the season, Paxton will need to get on that mound and strike out 7-10 batters, give up 2 runs or less, and go at least 6 innings. If he stays healthy, (kills chicken, buries in yard, dumps 5 pound bag of salt on carcass, throws trident hat on top, covers in soil from a Safeco Field giveaway, drizzles maple syrup on top) and the team’s offense performs as projected (or slightly better, fingers crossed), that will equal a solid chunk of wins and give the team’s playoff odds a huge boost. Obviously, a billion other things will need to go right, as well, but Paxton being The Ace That Was Promised over the course of a full season has arguably the biggest impact on the team’s contending chances in 2018.
Connor - Pour Some Sugar on those Playoff Woes
While Edwin Díaz took a step back from his otherworldly 2016 and had a few tightrope acts, he was still quite good last year, striking out nearly a third of all batters he faced. His command came and went, but he finished the year strong with a K/BB ratio of over 6-to-1 in September. The Mariners’ bullpen looks to be an underrated strength, despite losing David Phelps to Tommy John surgery, but there’s no one that I would definitively take over Díaz should he get injured or struggle. As with any team in ostensible contention, the M’s bullpen needs to pitch well this season - especially with a shaky rotation - but Díaz is an especially large part of that equation, and him tapping back into his 2016 self would be a huge boon.
Isabelle- A Flash of Hope
If you’ve read anything I’ve written this offseason, it should come as no surprise that Dee Gordon is my pick. Been there, done that, literally got the t shirt. Dipoto, in the latest Wheelhouse podcast, was effusive in his praise of Gordon’s transition to the outfield thus far, and in the energy Dee has brought to the clubhouse. He was a late convert to baseball, but is thriving now; he worked hard at shortstop, but transitioned to become an award winning second baseman; why should a little extra grass change a prolonged pattern of successfully overcoming change and adversity? He may not rack up fWAR like a full season of healthy James Paxton, but Gordon has the skills and personality to light a fire under this team.