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Cruz, Paxton step up in injury-riddled year

Rookie outfielders also make their presence known
December 16, 2017

SEATTLE -- Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais are big believers in analytics. They crunch the numbers as much as any front office in baseball. But a couple numbers wound up crunching the Mariners in 2017.As in 40 pitchers used, tying the Major League record. And 61

SEATTLE -- Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais are big believers in analytics. They crunch the numbers as much as any front office in baseball. But a couple numbers wound up crunching the Mariners in 2017.
As in 40 pitchers used, tying the Major League record. And 61 overall players employed during the season, the second-most in MLB history. Not to mention the 17 starting pitchers, which tied a club record set in Seattle's expansion season in 1977.
It's impossible to look back at the past year and not acknowledge how much injuries impacted the hopes of a team that rightfully expected to improve on the previous season's 86 wins and snap a 15-year playoff dry spell.
Instead, the injury bug bit early and often and as much as nobody likes hearing -- or making -- excuses, no team can absorb the loss of its four best starting pitchers for the majority of the year and realistically expect to contend.
"Using 40 different pitchers was a challenge and, unfortunately, kind of became the story of our season," Servais said. "We just couldn't overcome it. I thought we did a lot of good things throughout the season to hang in there."
So before we turn the calendar, here are the Mariners' five top storylines from the year:
Stepping it up
Two of the biggest positives were the emergence of James Paxton and catcher Mike Zunino as impact players who should be huge parts of the future. Both began the season in Triple-A just a year earlier, and Zunino was sent down to Tacoma again this past season after struggling once more out of the gate. But Zunino came back and played so well in June (.304 with 10 homers and 31 RBIs) that his teammates and coaches dubbed it "Junino," as the catcher wound up posting by far the strongest offensive season of his career at .251/.331/.509 with 25 homers, exactly the kind of production Seattle has long hoped for from the 26-year-old.
Paxton had his own spectacular midseason month, going 6-0 with a 1.37 ERA in July. Despite two stints on the disabled list that cost him two months of the season, Paxton established himself as a legitimate top-of-the-rotation ace at 12-5 with a 2.97 ERA when he was healthy.

Cruz keeps crunching
Dipoto takes great pride in quietly having turned the roster into a much younger group since taking over in 2016, with only two position starters being older than 30 going into 2018. But the old guy in the bunch -- 37-year-young Nelson Cruz -- continues carrying a lion's share of the offensive load. Cruz won the American League Silver Slugger and Edgar Martinez Designated Hitter of the Year awards by hitting .288 with 39 home runs and an AL-leading 119 RBIs. The big man has hit 166 home runs over the past four years, 13 more than anybody else in the Majors in that span.

An All-Star moment (or two)
Robinson Cano and Cruz were Seattle's two All-Star representatives in Miami and the dynamic duo made a definite imprint on the Midsummer Classic. Cano was named the game's MVP after hitting the go-ahead home run in the top of the 10th in the AL's 2-1 victory. Meanwhile, Cruz served up one of the best impromptu moments in All-Star history when he pulled his cellphone out of his back pocket upon approaching home plate for his first at-bat in the sixth and asked National League catcher Yadier Molina to snap a photo of him and home-plate umpire Joe West, which he then texted to West and later posted himself on social media. All in all, a picture-perfect night for the Mariners' dynamic duo.

Rookies in the outfield
Dipoto set about looking to make his team younger and more athletic in '17 and that ploy was certainly a success in the outfield, where rookies Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia all played well in their first full Major League seasons. Haniger, acquired from the D-backs in the offseason, hit .282 with 16 home runs in 96 games despite missing considerable time with a strained oblique and then facial injuries after getting hit with a Jacob deGrom fastball.
Gamel was called up from Tacoma in late April after Haniger hurt his oblique and played so well he kept a starting spot even when Haniger returned. And Heredia likewise stepped into the void when Jarrod Dyson was injured and wound up playing in 123 games despite dealing with a shoulder issue that required surgery at season's end. Seattle became the first MLB team since 1969 -- and just the third since 1913 -- to have three rookie outfielders play 80-plus games each.

Who's on first (or the mound)?
It truly is impossible to recap the season without talking about injuries. Newly acquired starter Drew Smyly injured his elbow while pitching in the World Baseball Classic for Team USA in the spring, Hisashi Iwakuma made just six starts before his year was derailed, Felix Hernandez wound up missing nearly four months and Paxton was sidelined by his two injuries for two months. All told, those four pitchers combined to miss 438 games. And even their replacements dealt with injuries of their own, eventually leading Dipoto to acquire midseason reinforcements in Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez and Marco Gonzales via trades. The bullpen and position players also had plenty of injury issues of their own, with 16 different players ultimately spending 1,121 games on the DL.

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