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Postseason dreams palpable in Mariners' camp

MLB.com @gregjohnsmlb

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Felix Hernandez has never been to the postseason. Nor has Kyle Seager, whose little brother Corey has already enjoyed a World Series with the Dodgers. Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, postseason regulars before signing with Seattle, have yet to return to the dance wearing Mariners colors. Ichiro Suzuki spent his first 11 1/2 seasons with Seattle, but only went to the playoffs in his rookie year.

As the Mariners prepare for the 2018 campaign, this is the underlying current. It's time to end the 16-year dry spell that started before any of the current core settled in Seattle, but which hangs over their heads now like a dark cloud on a rainy day in the Pacific Northwest.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Felix Hernandez has never been to the postseason. Nor has Kyle Seager, whose little brother Corey has already enjoyed a World Series with the Dodgers. Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, postseason regulars before signing with Seattle, have yet to return to the dance wearing Mariners colors. Ichiro Suzuki spent his first 11 1/2 seasons with Seattle, but only went to the playoffs in his rookie year.

As the Mariners prepare for the 2018 campaign, this is the underlying current. It's time to end the 16-year dry spell that started before any of the current core settled in Seattle, but which hangs over their heads now like a dark cloud on a rainy day in the Pacific Northwest.

There was no shortage of storylines in Mariners camp this spring. With MLB Network visiting Mariners camp Thursday as part of their "30 clubs in 30 Days" tour, they found no shortage of stories to pursue. New speedster Dee Gordon and his transition to center field was a hot topic. The return of Ichiro, James Paxton's potential, Hernandez's health, Cruz's continued denial of the aging process, the developing younger core led by Jean Segura, Mike Zunino, Mitch Haniger and Edwin Diaz.

But the big story for this season will be whether all those things add up to the Mariners' first postseason berth since 2001.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Manager Scott Servais says his nucleus of veterans is driven by the desire to take this club to the next level and define their careers in Seattle as more than just good individual performers.

"The separator for me is, can we take the next step?" Servais said. "What will define their legacy with the Mariners is, 'Can we get to the playoffs? Can we get deep and take that next step?' They know it. They talk about it internally.

"You can go ask them questions, and they probably won't address it a lot, but it's important to them. From those guys, it goes out. They are the core. They are the center and the rest of the team feeds off that."

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Cano on health, '18 expectations

What's the goal?
The Mariners know it's going to be tough to win the American League West. Crazy things happen every year in Major League Baseball, but unless something goes drastically wrong with the defending World Series champion Astros, the division race will be tough to claim.

Houston won 101 games last year, finishing 21 games ahead of the second-place Angels and 23 up on the Mariners. The Astros appear loaded again, leaving Seattle and the rest of the division likely fighting for the two AL Wild Card spots.

But for a franchise that has made the postseason just four times in its 42-year history and never advanced past the AL Championship Series, getting into the dance is the first order of business and the Mariners would love to see what they could do if given that opportunity.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Cruz's guide to aging gracefully

What's the plan?
Jerry Dipoto made more moves than any general manager in MLB his first two years, but this offseason, he looked more to keep some continuity. And he is counting on his club to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2017, when the top four starters were injured for much of the season.

Adding Gordon was another step in the "more athletic" formula, and Dipoto believes his bullpen depth -- bolstered by free-agent signee Juan Nicasio -- will be a strength. The Mariners have gotten considerably younger around their core since Dipoto's arrival, and the growth of players like Paxton, Zunino, Segura and Haniger will loom large in their postseason pursuit.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Felix on injury, King's Court

What could go wrong?
The rotation was already a question even before Hernandez got hit in his pitching arm with a line drive in his Cactus League debut and Erasmo Ramirez was shut down the entire camp with a strained lat muscle prior to throwing in a game. The Mariners need Mike Leake to provide stability, Marco Gonzales to live up to their hopes and Ariel Miranda to step up when needed. And none of that might matter if they can't keep Paxton and Hernandez healthy and productive.

Who might surprise?
Gonzales struggled after being acquired from the Cardinals in July, but he is now a second year removed from Tommy John surgery and looked very good all spring He could be a big piece of the puzzle if he can return to the potential he showed as a fast-rising prospect in St. Louis. Young reliever Dan Altavilla also had a great camp and will be needed to help out a bullpen that took some injury hits this spring. First base prospect Daniel Vogelbach surprised everyone with a monster offensive spring and the Mariners have some talented younger players like Zunino, Haniger and Diaz who could be poised to push into the elite level at their positions.

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.

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