After near miss, Mariners' challenge is avoiding a slide
SEATTLE (AP) Two years ago, the Seattle Mariners went into the final weekend of the regular season with a chance at the playoffs.
They missed the postseason but winning 87 games under a first-year manager provided optimism and the expectation that the Mariners were a club on the rise. They tanked the following year, losing 86 games and forcing an overhaul of the entire front office, coaching staff and a majority of the roster.
This brings the Mariners to the end of the 2016 season. Once again, Seattle was in contention for the playoffs heading into the final weekend, only to fall short. Once again, there is a buzz and optimism that Seattle could be on the cusp of being a breakout team next season.
Why would this be any different than the last time Seattle was in this place two years ago?
''We're not the same old Mariners. We're not,'' Seattle manager Scott Servais said. ''I think if people watched us closely this year, and the personalities of the team, got to see the team, they'd realize that this is a different group. ... We laid a foundation and we'll build upon that, but it is not the same old Mariners.''
Seattle heads into the offseason still with the longest playoff drought in baseball - now at 15 years - but the belief it will be ending soon. Seattle was equal parts entertaining and infuriating in posting an 86-76 record that put them on the outside of the AL playoff picture.
It was a roller coaster of a season. Consider that between April 24 and the end of the season, Seattle spent only one day under .500. But it took until game No. 160 for Seattle to get any better than 10 games over .500.
The Mariners lived in the space between contender and average. But the late surge that put Seattle into contention validated for Servais the processes he put in place and the changes that were made from the previous regime.
''I wish it was easy as just putting it all on paper,'' Servais said. ''It's not. Players change, seasons change, and you just have to wait and see, but I feel great about our team, I really do.''
Other things to know as the team looks toward 2017:
MEN IN THE MIDDLE: Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager combined to post three of the better seasons for any position players in the American League. Cano showed the injuries he played through last year truly were impacting his performance at the plate, rebounding to hit .298 with a career-high 39 home runs and 103 RBIs. Cruz posted his third straight 40-homer season with 43 homers and 105 RBIs. And Seager reached 30 homers for the first time in his career and finished with 99 RBIs.
RECLAIM THE THRONE: Felix Hernandez was far from kingly in 2016. Hernandez's most inconsistent season ended at 11-9 with a 3.82 ERA, his highest since 2007. He was slowed by a calf injury that cost him two months and Seattle's rotation never fully recovered. Servais was blunt on the final day that Hernandez needs to be in better shape for 2017 and continue his evolution as pitcher. He's not a high-90s strikeout machine anymore but Seattle needs him to return to being the ace of its staff.
YOUNG STARS: Young closer Edwin Diaz emerged this season as a minor-league call-up who ended up becoming crucial to Seattle's run. Who will it be next year? Maybe outfielders Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia, who give Seattle the athleticism it wants defensively in the outfield but need to be better at the plate to become regulars in the lineup. Perhaps it's time for minor-league slugger Tyler O'Neill to finally get his chance in the majors.
One name to watch: first baseman Daniel Vogelbach. Acquired from the Cubs, Vogelbach could be primed for a major role in Seattle's lineup going into next season.
WIN THE WEST: Servais was thrilled to be in the race in his first season. He was bothered it was for the wild card and not the AL West. The Mariners led the division into late May and by the end of June, the wild card was the only option left. With the talent that Texas and Houston have, the Mariners have quite the task if they're going to reach the top.
''Everyone has the feeling that we can make it,'' Cano said. ''I hope everyone goes and prepares themselves not to play just 162 games.''