Fade complete, Mariners see playoff drought extended

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              Empty seats are shown at Safeco Field as Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Roenis Elias throws against the Texas Rangers during the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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SEATTLE (AP) — In most years, 89 wins would have landed the Seattle Mariners in the postseason and ended the longest playoff drought of any team in the four major professional sports.

The Mariners picked the wrong year to collapse, going from being in control of a playoff berth at midseason to completely out of the race in early September. And with an expensive and aging core group, Seattle is back to asking whether it should push to be competitive with the rest of the American League powers in 2019 or take a step back and make changes this offseason in the hope of longer sustained success.

“Leaving spring training, if you had told any of us that 89 wins was our outcome this year, regardless of how we were going to get there, we would have been thrilled,” Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “We picked a unique season where 89 wins wasn’t enough.”

Seattle’s season was defined by its fade. In the middle of June, the Mariners held an 11-game lead over the A’s in the standings. By the beginning of August, Seattle was caught. By the end of September, the Mariners were eliminated.

In each of the previous four seasons, the Mariners’ 89 wins would have kept them in contention for a playoff berth. Before this season, the only team to earn one of the AL’s two wild card spots and win more than 90 games was the 2017 Yankees, who entered the postseason with 91 victories.

What happened this year with Oakland and the Yankees earning wild card spots with 97 and 100 victories, respectively, is rare. The Mariners more than did their part in contributing to a swoon that saw them finish eight games behind the A’s, but even if Seattle had played .500 baseball after building that 11-game lead, it still would not have been enough to keep pace with Oakland.

Seattle’s fade resulted from an offense that lost its punch and a pitching staff that carried the load for half the season and grew fatigued as the season progressed. Seattle’s already made one change, announcing that pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. will not return in 2019 after three seasons with the team.

“We have to figure out as we move forward what it takes to catch the front runners. We don’t want to make it to a wild-card game. We want to be a consistent playoff presence,” Dipoto said.

Here are a few key things to watch with the Mariners headed into the offseason:

SEAGER BELIEVER: No one had a more disappointing season than Kyle Seager. The former All-Star played more than half the season with a fracture in his big toe, which affected his swing at the plate. Even before the injury, Seager was on his way to a down season, but his .221 average was nearly 30 points below his previous career-low. He also made 14 errors and had a 0.8 WAR, the lowest of his career. The Mariners believe a healthy Seager will get on track at the plate in 2019.

NEXT FOR NELSON: Nelson Cruz may end up being regarded as the best free agent signing the Mariners have ever made. That’s how good Cruz has been during his four years in Seattle. Cruz, who turned 38 in July, hit .256 with 37 home runs and 97 RBIs this season. He has hit 163 homers and had 414 RBIs in his four seasons with Seattle.

But Seattle must determine its priorities at designated hitter and whether it’s possible to bring Cruz back for one or two more years. Cruz and the Mariners both say they want to continue the relationship beyond this season, but problems may arise if another team offers Cruz more money or a longer deal.

FIND A POSITION: What to do with Dee Gordon and Robinson Cano? Both believe they are second basemen. But can’t both play second base.

Seattle went into this season experimenting with Gordon in center field and was forced to move him back to his natural position at second following Cano’s suspension. When Cano returned, the Mariners moved the pair all around the field with Cano at first, second and third base and Gordon playing second base, shortstop and center field.

Cano said Sunday he’s going into the offseason believing he’s Seattle’s second baseman going forward.

WHAT ABOUT FELIX: What can the Mariners expect from Felix Hernandez anymore?

The former ace of the Mariners staff wasn’t very “Kingly” in 2018, going 8-14 with a career-worst 5.55 ERA. He was briefly demoted to the bullpen — making just one appearance in relief — and at times was lost trying to figure out how to still be an effective starting pitcher with lower velocity.

Hernandez will turn 33 early in the 2019 season and perhaps he will have additional motivation entering the final year of his current contract. Clearly there must be changes made if Hernandez is to remain an effective starter and have any chance of a significant contract — in Seattle or elsewhere — after the 2019 season.