The Mariners’ Mitch Haniger (center) celebrates with teammate Domingo Santana (16) at home after hitting home run during an exhibition game in March 17, 2019, at the Tokyo Dome. (AP Photo/Toru Takahashi)

The Mariners’ Mitch Haniger (center) celebrates with teammate Domingo Santana (16) at home after hitting home run during an exhibition game in March 17, 2019, at the Tokyo Dome. (AP Photo/Toru Takahashi)

Whether step back or rebuild, M’s focus is on future

Seattle begins the season with an overhauled roster and optimism for the future.

By Tim Booth / Associated Press

SEATTLE — Throughout the offseason, the decisions made about the future of the Seattle Mariners took on different catchphrases.

Whether it’s a “step-back” or a “rebuild” or a “reimagining,” the reality is that for the first time in quite a while there appears to be a plan in place to perhaps get the franchise out of the purgatory of mediocrity.

There’s optimism about what Seattle’s future could be, but getting there is going to require a few growing pains.

“We don’t think this year is a punt,” Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “We feel like we went from being stuck in the middle of the American League to being stuck in the middle of the American League with a future in front of us. That’s a better place to be.”

Seattle began the season early Wednesday morning in Tokyo with the first of a pair of games against the Oakland Athletics. They entered the contest with a roster that was overhauled from the one that finished the 2018 season with 89 wins and yet again missed out on the postseason. The Mariners extended the longest playoff drought in North America’s four major pro sports.

Seattle made nine trades in the offseason, shedding itself of heavy salaries and burdensome contracts. In exchange, the club targeted 2021 as a time when it could be more than just a team stuck in the middle of the American League. Seattle acquired a number of key prospects who could be ready to contribute in two years. It kept a handful of core players — Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales among them — who will be in their prime. And, they freed up the potential to have a significant amount of money available to spend in free agency.

It makes sense, but it’s also a risky proposition. If those prospects don’t develop, Seattle could find itself set back longer in its hope of again being a contender.

“That gives us the opportunity to look at the world in a different way than we could before. That excites us, and I think that excited ownership,” Dipoto said. “While we can’t sit here and stick a flag in the top of the mountain saying we are the world champs in 2021, that is a more realistic goal for us now than it has been in the past.”

Here’s what to watch with the 2019 Mariners:

In rotation

The top of Seattle’s rotation should be solid with Gonzales, Mike Leake, Wade LeBlanc and newcomer Yusei Kikuchi. Kikuchi’s arrival will be closely followed as Seattle tries to limit his total innings in his first season in the majors. Gonzales slumped late last season but had a stretch last summer where he was one of the best lefties in the AL and is coming off a strong spring performance.

Farewell Felix

It’s clear this will be the final season Felix Hernandez wears a Seattle uniform. He’s going to be Seattle’s No. 5 starter in the rotation, coming off a career worst 5.55 ERA in 2018, and is unhappy about his place. The bigger question is whether Hernandez has anything left to be attractive to another team, either at the trade deadline or for next season, because his time in Seattle seems to be at an end.

Trade bait

Part of the reason Seattle acquired Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion during the offseason was to have a lineup that could still be serviceable. How long they’ll be around is another story. Seattle would like both to have a big first-halves so they could be trade options by midseason and potentially land the Mariners a couple more prospects to add to their rebuild plans. For now, Bruce will split time between first base and the outfield. Encarnacion will be the primary designated hitter.

Wait and see

Two key starters will miss the opening series, with third baseman Kyle Seager out for at least a month after hand surgery and Mallex Smith slowed by a shoulder issue. Smith could be ready when the team returns from Japan, while Seager’s injury clears up a logjam at first base for the moment with Ryon Healy moving to third base.

On the farm

While the major-league club will get plenty of attention, there will be more focus on the minors than previous years. Plenty of attention will be on prospects Evan White, Braden Bishop, Justin Dunn, Kyle Lewis, Shed Long, Jared Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez to name a few. At the Triple-A level, pitcher Justus Sheffield and shortstop J.P. Crawford are likely to be up with the major-league club by the end of the season.

Said Seattle manager Scott Servais of the talent the Mariners have in the minors: “From my seat, I’ll pay more attention to it than I ever have here.”

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