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AL West preview: pitching troubles keep Seattle home for fall

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Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez (34) walks off the field after the fifth inning as the Seattle Mariners face the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, May 4, 2016.

There was a time when Félix Hernández was a dominant enough starter that he could single-handedly carry the Mariners pitching staff.

If Seattle could find a way to combine its current offense with the 2009-14 vintage of Hernández it would truly have something. Alas, they cannot and the 30-plus model Hernández is one oft injured, rarely flashing the excellence of his prime form. Still, the Mariners (78-84 in 2017), who boasted a middle-of-the-pack offense — 15th ranked in MLB scoring 4.63 runs per game — last season, will continue to score enough to remain relevant. But little more.

Key Additions: CF Dee Gordon, 1B Ryon Healy, LF Ichiro Suzuki

Key Losses: 1B Danny Valencia, RP Emilio Pagan, CF Jarrod Dyson

The Mariners, who have not qualified for the playoffs since 2001, beefed up their offense, which took a step back from 2016 to 2017. In Gordon, they added a legitimate lead-off man — a career .293 hitter who averages 63 stolen bases per 162 games played. In Healy, they added more punch to the middle of their already powerful lineup.

Healy homered 25 times in 2017, his first full MLB season, and will slot nicely into a lineup alongside Robinson Canó (23 homers in 2017), Nelson Cruz (39) and Kyle Seager (27). Put that thump behind Gordon and Jean Segura (.283/.324/.402 career slash, 32 steals per 162 games) and it’s not out of bounds to think that Seattle could score a half- to three-quarter-run more per game this year.

No amount of runs will be enough if the pitching staff can’t make them hold up, though.

James Paxton was the duct tape that held things together last year, going 12-5 with a 2.98 ERA and 1.103 WHIP. That’s the good news. The bad news is, in four previous seasons Paxton had never appeared in more than 20 games (just 24 in 2017) and never won more than six games. He doesn’t exactly come with an awe-inspiring resume.

In fact, before hitting the disabled list with a strained forearm in May last year he had allowed just six earned runs in 37-2/3 innings (1.43 ERA) spanning six starts. In 18 starts after the DL stint, the lefty surrendered 39 runs in 98-1/3 innings (3.57 ERA) — still quality, but not enough to be an ace. And he made another visit to the DL in August, going 1-3 with a 4.41 ERA upon his return from that trip.

Seattle’s 4.46 team ERA last season was good enough for a respectable eighth-best in the AL a season ago. But Paxton cannot be expected to carry the weight he did, Hernández is dealing with a forearm issue that may land him on the DL to start the season and young up-and-comer Ariel Miranda (2-0, 3.60 ERA in four outings last season) appears likely to open the year in the minors. That spells trouble.

Seattle is also faced with a division that, besides the eventual champion Astros, was chocked full of teams within one good run from a .500 record, each of which (save for the Ranger) return improved in 2018.

Their own injury-plagues inconsistency, particularly in the pitching staff, and invigorated competition means a 17th-straight baseball-less October for the “Emerald City.”

Projected record: 76-86


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.

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