Dipoto 2The Seattle Mariners are expected by most to finish somewhere outside the top two in the American League West this season, perhaps with a record hovering around the .500 mark.

There are literally hundreds of reasons to believe the M’s will finish with between 75 and 84 wins, and perhaps more reasons why fans should be pessimistic (74 wins or fewer) than optimistic (85 wins or more, postseason contention).

Here are the Top 5 reason for the latter.

5. Improved Bench
A year ago the Mariners’ 25-man roster was set with reserves that included Willie Bloomquist, Jesus Sucre, Justin Ruggiano and Rickie Weeks. This time around it’s Franklin Gutierrez, Luis Sardiñas, Steve Clevenger and Dae-Ho Lee. Across the board this year’s foursome are considerably better and bring a more reliable aggregate value to 2016.

While it’s unrealistic to expect Gutierrez to repeat his .292/.354/.620 triple-slash it’s plausible to see a return to form of 2009’s .283/.339/.425 performance, perhaps with more power since he’s likely to see few right-handed pitchers and play but three days a week, or so.

Clevenger is a bit of a wild card but should hit right-handed pitching well enough. Lee is an unknown since he’s spent his entire career in Korea and Japan, but his swing and history suggests he’ll have a shot for power production versus lefties.

Sardiñas may be the key to solidifying the infield; if Ketel Marte experiences extended struggles in his first full season, Sardiñas can step in and be useful at the plate and solid in the field. He can also provide the necessary breaks in the grueling 162-game schedule for Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano.

4. Peripherals
There is always talk of starting rotations, bullpens and middle-of-the-order production, but the peripheral areas are like special teams and third-down defense in the NFL. The Mariners will wheel out above-average defense in left field, center field, at third base and behind the dish. They may get the same from shortstop while second base and right field should hover around average. Adam Lind and Lee will combine for below average defense at first, but if you’re going to be bad defensively at one position first base is it.

With Leonys Martin, Nori Aoki, Sardiñas and Marte, the Mariners have four speedy players, three of which will play regularly. Martin’s instincts aren’t terrific, but he’s actually a solid base stealer, as is Marte. All four will easily go first to third on singles and first to home on doubles. Aoki, Marte and Sardiñas all bunt well, too, and Martin is average. Remember the past two years when the Mariners tried to bunt runners over? Yeah, they were asking bad bunters to get the job done. It’s also worth mentioning we’re likely to see fewer bunts from Scott Servais than we did with Lloyd McClendon.

The above skills don’t slump — defense, baserunning, situational hitting including bunting, they’re all what I like to call will or won’t skills.

3. Lineup
On paper, by far, this is the best projected lineup the Mariners have employed in 13 years. It comes with some risks — Nelson Cruz likely regresses a step or two; Martin and Iannetta are bounceback candidates but the bounce doesn’t always happen and Iannetta’s 33 years old next week. But even a career-line Cruz combined with a healthy Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Lind, solid matchup bat in Gutierrez and Seth Smith, the aforementioned speed and situational abilities all spell solid-average run-scoring.

The Mariners finished 13th in the American League in runs scored a year ago, but were just 13 runs short of No. 11 Cleveland and despite Safeco Field finished just four points behind Houston (8th in AL) with a .311 OBP and ninth in slugging at .411. The Royals slugged .412 as a team last season, the Rangers .413 and the Red Sox .415.

All of this strongly suggests tiny, incremental improvements by the club’s 13 offensive spots on the roster likely produces enough to thrust the Mariners into the top half of the AL with an upside of the top-6 or so.

It’s remarkable and may sound ridiculous but the Mariners’ offense may very well be a strength this season.

2. Felix Hernandez
King Felix sets the tone. Not simply for the rotation or the pitching staff as a whole, and not even just for the Seattle Mariners. Hernandez sets the tone for every butt in every seat at Safeco Field, and the club’s wavering but passionate fan base around the entire Puget Sound.

Hernandez had a bit of an off year in 2015. Some of the significant markers of decline are showing, but he’ll be 30 next week, not 40, and he’s in great shape as always. If the arm is sound he’ll find a way to respond if the situation calls for it. The job of the other 24 spots on the roster, the field staff and the front office is to make sure Felix has a chance to do so.

The King has the ability to light this town afire, both early in the season and late. He can keep the M’s in the race in May and he can win it for them in October.

He’still the heart of the franchise, still the ace and still The King of Seattle.

1. Jerry Dipoto
Yes, the Seattle Mariners’ general manager and V.P. of Player Personnel is No. 1 on my list of reasons the club will contend in 2016. Not just for what he and his staff has done to mold the roster to date, but for what Dipoto has shown he’s capable of doing mid-season.

Dipoto’s strengths have been building bullpens, fixing bullpens and overall trade market analysis. He rebuilt the Angels’ bullpen with what seems like the snap of a finger, including the acquisition of Huston Street.

Perhaps the most concerning unit with the 2016 club entering the season opener is indeed the bullpen. If Dipoto wakes up three or four weeks into the season and the ‘pen is a dumpster fire and a half, sitting and waiting to see what happens won’t be part of the plan.

If the club is in contention come July, Dipoto is better equipped to identify the right areas of the trade market to attack that will improve the roster. What makes him automatically better at it than his predecessor? His belief system, for starters. He’s already proven he believes in building a roster that can take advantage of the home ballpark. He’s already shown he values defense, on-base percentage and baserunning more than Zduriencik.

Dipoto also has shown in his very short tenure in Seattle that he can be aggressive in addressing issues with his team.

If the Mariners are to be legitimate contenders all year (at least 85 wins, perhaps more will be necessary) it won’t be by standing pat with the current bullpen options and perhaps not even in the starting rotation.

Even in his failures in Los Angeles, Dipoto actions strongly suggest he’s not a fan of sitting back and hoping for hope’s sake. If there’s a move to be made that makes sense the trigger gets pulled. Maybe this summer Dipoto will pull said trigger and the move won’t work out and the Mariners will miss the postseason for the 15th consecutive season.

Then again, maybe the move will work, pushing the club to an extra win or two that puts the ball in King Felix’s hand, under the lights in a postseason game at Safeco Field in October.

Jason A. Churchill

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