The sun finally peeked through the gray sky Tuesday. It was a cameo appearance in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock walking past a storefront in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, and rain did its best to prevail for the 1,283rd consecutive day, but I saw what I saw.
What I saw filled me with hope, and got me thinking about baseball in general and the Seattle Mariners in particular.
Five reasons to be optimistic:
1. When the team opens against Cleveland on March 29, manager Scott Servais will put together the best Seattle lineup since the 2001 Mariners, when nine players produced at least 100 hits. It’s a club record that could be challenged. The acquisitions of Dee Gordon and Ryon Healy means the Mariners have eight players returning from 100-hit seasons, and it’s not far-fetched to suspect catcher Mike Zunino, who finished with 97 hits in 2017, will join them.
Between Gordon and Jean Segura, there’s speed at the top. Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager provide heart-of-the-order power in a lineup with no holes. Zunino, a candidate to bat eighth, hit 25 homers last season. Ben Gamel, likely to bat ninth, hit .275 with 59 RBIs.
The mark of a fearsome lineup is its strength at the bottom. A lineup with Zunino at No. 8 and Gamel at No. 9 will give the Mariners a chance to score 1,000 runs for the first time in franchise history. The club record is 993, set in 1996, when catcher Dan Wilson batted eighth on opening night, followed by some rookie named Alex Rodriguez.
2. If the Mariners are leading after the sixth inning, they’re probably winning, thanks to the depth of a bullpen that has been upgraded from good to superior. Edwin Diaz remains the closer, but it’s the set-up crew that will give the Mariners a stable bridge between the sixth and ninth innings.
Although signing free agent Juan Nicasio to a two-year, $17 million deal on Dec. 20 went under the radar, Nicasio has radar-gun stuff. He’s a 6-foot-4, 240-pound pillar of durability whose 76 appearances last season were the most in the National League.
Nicasio is 31, and doesn’t need to be making 76 appearances again. Surrounded by the likes of fellow right-handers Nick Vincent and David Phelps, and lefties Marc Rzepczynski and James Pazos, he won’t have to.
3. The success of the rotation hinges on James Paxton and Felix Hernandez staying healthy enough to make, say, 30 starts apiece. It’s asking a lot from a duo that combined for only 40 starts last season, but we’re not talking about expectations of miracles. If Paxton and Hernandez are merely reliable, the rotation (to borrow Mark Twain’s classic critique of the music of composer Richard Wagner) is not as bad as it sounds.
Mike Leake is a dependable No. 3 starter, and Erasmo Ramirez pitched well during a late-summer stretch in which he worked at least six innings in seven of eight starts. Marco Gonzales is the wild card, a former first-round draft choice once regarded as the top pitching prospect in a Cardinals farm system known for its abundance of pitching prospects.
Gonzales, a change-up craftsman who turns 26 next month, has reached the make-or-phase of a career that brings to mind Jamie Moyer. When Moyer was 26, he had a 32-43 lifetime record and a very uncertain future.
He retired with 269 victories.
4. The Houston Astros, the 2017 World Series champions, are the best team in baseball, young and talented, poised for a decade-long domination of a division the Mariners haven’t won since 2001.
Every plaudit given to the Astros also was given to the Chicago Cubs, young and talented and poised for domination. The Cubs returned to the playoffs after their 2016 World Series championship, and they got past the Nationals in the first round, but the fuel tank was empty. A kind of emotional hangover awaits the defending champions of any sport.
The last baseball team to repeat as World Series winners? The 2000 New York Yankees. That’s not a small sample size. That’s a 17-year sample size. Houston has the look of a dynasty, but the odds they’ll repeat in 2018 are long.
The Astros beat the Mariners in 14 of 19 games last year, and there was nothing subtle about the big-valley gap between the winners and the losers. The Astros ruled. The Mariners hoped to survive without a starting pitcher suffering a season-ending elbow injury. It wasn’t a fair fight.
There will be more of a fight in 2018, as the Astros will be dealing with a heavy-duty hangover.
5. The late-season schedule is favorable, with 15 September dates at Safeco Field. Seattle wraps up with a seven-game home stand against Oakland and Texas. If the Mariners can stay in the hunt, a furious dash to the finish line is conceivable.
If you don’t share my optimism, I get it. But something happened on Tuesday that made me irrationally hopeful, which is to say crazy and bonkers and totally sold on the possibility Marco Gonzales will retire with 269 victories.
I saw the sun.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath