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Inbox: What's different about 2017 Mariners?

Beat reporter Greg Johns answers fans' questions
March 28, 2017

With Opening Day approaching fast, now is the perfect time to answer some fan questions in another edition of the Mariners Inbox.How is this year's speed experiment different from the Chone Figgins experiment from a few years ago? -- David F., Knoxville, Tenn.Figgins actually stole 42 bases his first season

With Opening Day approaching fast, now is the perfect time to answer some fan questions in another edition of the Mariners Inbox.
How is this year's speed experiment different from the Chone Figgins experiment from a few years ago?
-- David F., Knoxville, Tenn.

Figgins actually stole 42 bases his first season in Seattle in 2010, tying Ichiro Suzuki for the team lead. So speed wasn't an issue that year. The problem was the lineup was supposed to provide a good on-base percentage, but Figgins and others fell far short of their career norms and the team wound up going 61-101.
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What's different about this year's Mariners? I think the heart of the matter is the heart of the order. This year's 3-4-5 hitters are Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. The 3-4-5 hitters to start 2010 were Casey Kotchman, Milton Bradley Jr. and a 40-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. This year's lineup is better, top to bottom, and speed from Jarrod Dyson, Jean Segura and Leonys Martin will only be a part of that equation.
Does sending Ariel Miranda [to the Minors] mean the Mariners are more worried than before about Yovani Gallardo, needing more starting pitching depth?
-- David P., Irvine, Calif.

I don't think it's a reflection on Gallardo specifically, but rather an acknowledgment that Miranda's value is highest as a quality rotation replacement, while there are others who can fill the role of second lefty in the bullpen. Few teams get by with five starters for a whole season, so it's a safe bet Miranda will be back soon. It's hard to build a reliever back up to a starting role, so they'll keep him stretched out and ready to step in.
How likely is an eight-man 'pen? Or do Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel both make the team?
-- Bradley E., Grove City, Penn.

An eight-man bullpen to start the year is very likely and makes sense, given starters don't normally go as deep right out of the gate and the club opens the year with 10 games before an off-day to rest the arms. So I don't see Heredia and Gamel both making the team when it breaks camp, though I suspect both will be up and down with the big club at various points of the season.
How do the players feel about the unbalanced schedule of home/away games? April has only nine home games.
-- Mike V., Seattle

It's not a big topic of discussion at this point, and I don't think management wants to make a big issue of the schedule, knowing it's out of their control. But I do know there are some eyebrows raised over the August schedule when Seattle plays 20 of its 27 games on the road in the heat of the summer.
Should fans expect a breakout season from James Paxton?
-- Anthony E., Seattle

Paxton is certainly capable of big things, and I'd list him as one of the Mariners with the highest upside, for sure. He looked dynamic at times late last season after figuring out the right arm slot to unlock his impressive ability to maintain upper-90s velocity deep into games. This could be a big year for the Canadian lefty.
What have the Mariners worked on that makes them stronger this season than last?
-- Abe T., Moses Lake, Wash.

I believe the biggest difference this season will be the outfield defense, which will help the pitching staff significantly both with their ability to cover ground and also some of the best throwing arms in baseball. Run prevention is a big thing for a team with a pretty potent offense. If the Mariners just win more close games, that would be significant since they had the most one-run games in MLB last year and went 30-30.
How many games do you think Nelson Cruz will get in right field, and do you think less time there will affect his at-bats?
-- Kami B., Longview, Wash.

I expect the big man to play significantly less outfield than he did last year, when he started 48 games in right. He actually hit much better when just DHing last year than in the field, reversing his earlier career results. With Danny Valencia holding the full-time first base job now, the Mariners don't have any other real DH option and the outfield defense is much better with Mitch Haniger and Dyson at the corners. Plus, keeping Cruz healthy and having his bat in the lineup is priority No. 1.
Will any non-roster invites make the Opening Day roster?
-- Pete S., Darrington, Wash.

Lefty Dean Kiekhefer and right-hander Jonathan Aro are two bullpen candidates still in the running who aren't on the 40-man roster. At this point, one of them is in line to make it, but I keep thinking GM Jerry Dipoto could pull a last-minute deal to add a more experienced arm.
Who do you think will be the rookie sensation for the Mariners in 2017?
--George G., Seattle

Haniger gets my vote. He looks like a guy who could make a significant impact as the everyday right fielder. On the pitching side, Dan Altavilla could wind up being a very important factor out of the bullpen.

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

@GregJohnsMLB]() and listen to his podcast.