SEATTLE - Jerry Dipoto saw up close last year during the regular season and again in October where the differences lie if the Seattle Mariners expect to close the gap on Houston in the AL West.
While this winter lacked any significant splashes in free agency, Dipoto said the Mariners are confident they're an improved team from the one that last season ended the longest playoff drought in baseball.
"The goal every year is to win the division, get into the postseason and try to do some damage. We've never been more convinced of this team's ability to do those things than we were at the end of last season," said Dipoto, Seattle's president of baseball operations. "I think that goes for all the players in the clubhouse because for us in the front office, our staff, we do feel like we got meaningfully better this offseason and we are a deeper, more complete team than we were at the end of last season."
There is a buzz and excitement about the Mariners in the Pacific Northwest that's been missing for the better part of two decades. Last season's run to a wild-card berth and playoff series win over Toronto - and all the dramatics that surrounded it - reinvigorated the slumbering baseball region.
But capitalizing on that - in a season that also includes Seattle hosting the All-Star Game - means closing ground on the World Series champion Astros both when it comes to the regular season but also in the playoffs. It was Houston that won the AL West by 16 games and then swept second-place Seattle out of the Division Series on the strength of a few big swings.
So the question remains whether the Mariners did enough this offseason to be a threat to the Astros. Seattle's foundation will continue to be its starting pitching and the everyday players back from last year like AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodriguez, Ty France, J.P. Crawford and others.
The Mariners added second baseman Kolten Wong, outfielders Teoscar Hernandez and AJ Pollock, and infielder Tommy La Stella. And while those additions should give Seattle a deeper and more versatile roster, they were not viewed from the outside as being impactful enough to make up the difference.
"It was a struggle for us offensively last year, certainly early in the season, getting consistent offense up and down the lineup," Seattle manager Scott Servais said. "So with more experience, guys going through things late in the season, in the playoffs, hopefully will really help us getting off to a little bit better start. And we've added some pieces."
Seattle is expected to lose several players to the World Baseball Classic during spring training. Rodriguez, Hernandez and reliever Diego Castillo are all expected to play for the Dominican Republic; third baseman Eugenio Suarez with Venezuela; reliever Matt Festa with Italy; reliever Matt Brash with Canada and top prospect Harry Ford with Great Britain.
One name notably missing from the list is starting pitcher Luis Castillo, who was expected to be part of the formidable Dominican staff. Dipoto said Castillo has opted not to pitch in the event.
"It's something that we are pleased with that he'll be (at spring training)," Dipoto said. "It's a choice that we made together and I'm excited to see him from beginning to end."
Seattle is notably antsy about the WBC after losing pitcher Drew Smyly to Tommy John surgery after pitching in the tournament in 2017. Felix Hernandez also pitched in the WBC that year and ended up with two lengthy stints on the injured list due to shoulder troubles.
"It's early in the season and these guys are playing at such a high intensity level when they haven't been doing that for a number of months, so you're always worried about injury," Servais said. "You want those guys to be healthy. These are certainly key contributors for us going into the season."
The Mariners expect to be mostly healthy when spring training begins. Seattle catcher Cal Raleigh is fully recovered from offseason thumb surgery. Sam Haggerty had surgery to repair a groin injury sustained late last season, but has started full baseball activity. Relief pitcher Andres Munoz had foot surgery but should pitch during spring training, and Dipoto said former first-round draft pick Evan White is fully healthy after two-plus seasons of dealing with injuries.
Mariners hope offseason additions have closed gap in AL West originally appeared on NBCSports.com