Seattle Mariners’ Mitch Haniger hits a single against the San Diego Padres during the fourth inning of a spring training game March 11 in Peoria. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Seattle Mariners’ Mitch Haniger hits a single against the San Diego Padres during the fourth inning of a spring training game March 11 in Peoria. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Why the Mariners could win the AL West, and what could hold them back

Starting pitching, a renovated offense and regression in the AL West are in Seattle’s favor, but injury issues, bullpen concerns and the Houston Astros could be a problem.

PEORIA, Ariz. — Should the goal be returning to the postseason, or winning the division? In seasons past, those two achievements were the delineation between failure and success.

When the Mariners were mired in the longest postseason drought in professional sports, playing in the postseason was a simple, but largely unattainable accomplishment.

After the team ended a 21-year absence by returning to the playoffs in 2022, the definition of a successful season increased to winning the American League West.

The snarkiest of Mariners fans would probably say the goal for 2024 is to win 54% of their games, making sure the tired joke — that lost its humor about 24 hours after it was regrettably said by Jerry Dipoto — continues to live on.

The disappointment of being eliminated from the postseason following the penultimate regular season game is not something they want to feel again. Making the postseason is a requirement for any semblance of success. But winning the division, well, that’s another goal that is still mentioned, though not quite as frequently or as publicly.

“This group is just hungry,” Mitch Haniger said. “The guys in here want to win. Ultimately, being a loser is not fun. It’s really motivating just to try to get back into the playoffs and win a World Series — the No. 1 goal. It’s win the division first and get in the playoffs and then make a run and win that last game of the season.”

Why the Mariners win the AL West

The best rotation in the AL?

There’s a reason that the Mariners’ starting rotation is on the cover of The Times’ special section and the focal point of this season preview. Luis Castillo, George Kirby, Logan Gilbert, Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo are a formidable quintet of power arms that can shut down an opposing lineup for six-plus innings.

However, Woo will start the season the injured list with elbow inflammation. General Manger Justin Hollander said Monday there is no structural damage in the pitching elbow and the hope is the inflammation will subside in about seven to 10 days and allow Woo to start throwing again. Emerson Hancock will begin the season in the rotation in Woo’s place.

Is it the best? Given that the No. 1 starters for the Astros and Yankees are out with arm injuries, the Guardians could have a formidable rotation by the end of the season if Shane Bieber can bounce back. But it’s difficult to find a better rotation in the AL.

So let’s move on …

A productive offense. Wait, what?

Yes, the Mariners, at least on paper and recently in spring training, have looked like they will have an offense that is something more than competent. There have been times over the past few seasons when competent would have been a welcomed improvement.

With the return of Mitch Haniger, the additions of Mitch Garver and Jorge Polanco, the offseason changes made by Dominic Canzone and Ty France, the continued improvement of J.P. Crawford and Cal Raleigh and the intense desire from Julio Rodriguez for a more consistent season has manager Scott Servais confidently optimistic about the team’s ability to score runs.

“It’s the deepest lineup we’ve had since I’ve been here,” he said.

While Rodriguez’s production can be the determining factor for Seattle’s success, the offense won’t be so reliant on him to deliver in every situation. Haniger was in that position along with France and Kyle Seager in 2021.

“We should be really good,” Haniger said. “I’ve said that from the get-go. We’ll have to prove that on a nightly basis, but we’re looking forward to the challenge. I don’t really think we have any holes in the lineup.”

Opponent regression

The Astros and Rangers will still be good. They return largely the same rosters that carried them into the American League Championship Series last season.

But Houston will enter the season with two members of its rotation — Justin Verlander and Jose Urquidy — on the injured list. They’ll be inexperienced at catcher, finally moving on from Martin Maldonado. While they added Josh Hader to the bullpen, they also lost key setup relievers Hector Neris and Ryne Stanek.

The Rangers will be without Corey Seager (sports hernia surgery Jan. 30) and Nathaniel Lowe (oblique strain) when the season starts. Their timetable to return is uncertain. Starting pitchers Jacob deGrom (Tommy John surgery) and Max Scherzer (back surgery) are still recovering from their respective surgeries and won’t be ready until midseason.

Due to payroll issues stemming from uncertainty with their regional sports network (sound familiar?), the Rangers couldn’t capitalize on their World Series title and use free agency to address the needs in the rotation and bullpen. Their pitching problems allowed the Mariners and Astros to catch them last season and haven’t really been solved.

Three reasons why the Mariners won’t win the AL West

Injury issues

The Mariners are already dealing with injuries to key relievers Matt Brash (elbow inflammation) and Gregory Santos (lat strain), neither will be ready when the season starts, and Woo. Seattle won’t have Santos or Brash in the bullpen until mid-May. The obvious injury concerns surround the three big offseason additions — Haniger, Polanco and Garver.

None of those three has played more than 110 games in the past two seasons. Polanco was limited by a hamstring issue last season. Haniger played in only 57 games in 2022 with the Mariners and 61 in 2023 with the Giants. His bad luck with fluke injuries has been well documented.

Garver has played in 100 games or more only once in his career. His injuries are position specific, or as he said plainly, “When I catch, I get hurt.”

But it’s also long-term injuries to the players with no history of getting hurt that could be devastating for the Mariners. Rodriguez, Crawford and Raleigh are critical to everything the Mariners do and are largely irreplaceable in what they bring to the field. Losing any of the big three starting pitchers for an extended period would also be detrimental.

Bullpen regression

In 2021, it was Paul Sewald and Drew Steckenrider. In 2022, it was Matt Brash, Erik Swanson and Andres Munoz. In 2023, it was Justin Topa, Gabe Speier and Tayler Saucedo. Each of the past three seasons, the Mariners have had pitchers of varying levels of talent and pedigree emerge as valuable relievers to their bullpen.

Their “pitching lab” has been outstanding in finding pitchers hovering around the edges of MLB rosters and helping them find consistent success.

Who will it be this year?

Is it Cody Bolton or Collin Snider? Will nonroster invitee Tyson Miller, who pitches strikingly similar to Sewald, be added to the 40-man roster? Perhaps Ty Buttrey or Joey Krehbiel will emerge from Tacoma’s bullpen to help.

None of those pitchers can replicate the overpowering stuff of Brash and Santos. They might not be able to be the next Topa. The magic doesn’t always work on everyone. Early in the season, the Mariners will need to rely on unproven relievers to pitch important innings.

The wild, wild West

It took 90 victories and a tiebreaker to win the division last season with the Astros, Rangers and Mariners cannibalizing each other, while the Angels were moderately competitive for three months. Could you imagine any of those top three teams playing in the lackluster AL Central?

Even with all their injury and roster issues heading into the season, would you bet your paycheck against the Astros or the Rangers vying for a division title?

Though an eventual decline has been predicted seemingly for the past five years, Houston keeps finding ways to win. The Astros have won six of the last seven division titles, played in the last seven ALCS series, made the World Series four times and won it twice. The nucleus of players — Verlander, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker and reliever Ryan Pressly — have experienced more overall team success than any current group in MLB.

The Rangers’ offense is good enough — even without Seager and Lowe initially — to offset their pitching woes. Evan Carter, the hard-hitting prospect darling from the 2023 postseason, has now been replaced in popularity by Wyatt Langford, who looks as physically imposing as teammate Adolis Garcia, and might be a better hitter. When they get Seager and Lowe back to full strength, it’s the best offense in baseball.

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