Felix, heart of order locks for Opening Day

Mariners' drive to end postseason drought will rely on trusty ace, trio of sluggers

Felix, heart of order locks for Opening Day

SEATTLE -- With the Cubs and Indians both ending long pennant droughts in 2016, it's possible for the Mariners to look ahead and wonder, "Why not us?"

The Mariners are one of six MLB franchise to never win a World Series and one of two -- along with the Nationals -- who've yet to play in the Fall Classic. So, yeah, it is about time. And the new regime, led by CEO John Stanton, general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais, has made it clear that winning a championship in Seattle is the ultimate goal.

Of course, first things first. The Mariners have to end baseball's longest playoff dry spell, as they have now gone 15 seasons without a postseason berth. But they made a big stride toward that goal last year before finishing just shy at 86-76 and now have a better base to take that next step.

It all starts in five months, when the 2017 season opens. So, yes, a lot can and will happen between now and then. But just to get you in the mood and set the stage for the long winter, here's a sneak peek at Opening Day on April 3:

Opponent
The Mariners will open against the American League West-rival Astros at Minute Maid Park, with lefty Dallas Keuchel the likely Opening Day starter at this juncture for Houston. Keuchel, the 2015 AL Cy Young winner, struggled through a 9-12 season with a 4.55 ERA in 26 starts last season. But like the Astros -- who dropped to third in the division at 84-78 last year -- Keuchel will be looking for a bounce-back season. Keuchel is 5-5 with a 3.08 ERA in 12 career meetings with the Mariners, and Houston went 11-8 against Seattle in '16, so the Mariners' ability to deal with the talented young Astros will be one of next season's key plot lines.

Keuchel's eight strikeouts

Opening Day starter
Despite all the change in the Mariners' organization over recent years, one constant has been the presence of Felix Hernandez atop the rotation. And there's no reason to think the King won't be on the mound again for the 2017 debut, which would be the 10th Opening Day start of his career and ninth in a row. Hernandez took his first Opening Day loss last season at Texas, but is still 6-1 with a 1.49 ERA in nine openers. This would be his first time opening against the Astros.

Felix's dominant start

Opening Day lineup

1. Ben Gamel, RF
2. Ketel Marte, SS
3. Robinson Cano, 2B
4. Nelson Cruz, DH
5. Kyle Seager, 3B
6. Daniel Vogelbach, 1B
7. Mike Zunino, C
8. Guillermo Heredia, LF
9. Leonys Martin, CF

OK, let's be honest here. It's next to impossible to pencil out a starting lineup before knowing what moves Dipoto will make this winter. You can be pretty sure the heart of the order will revolve around Cano, Cruz and Seager, but the other pieces are very much in flux. Gamel could certainly be part of the club, but he likely wouldn't play -- or certainly lead off -- against a left-handed starter like Keuchel. Vogelbach is in a similar boat at first base, and Marte's role could change if the Mariners land a veteran shortstop. So both corner outfield spots, shortstop and first base should have large asterisks attached at this point, with new names possible at all four spots.

Statcast: Cruz's 493-ft HR

Three reasons to be excited
• Dipoto and Servais will have had a full season to evaluate their roster, and they now can really move forward with the kind of team they want to build for Safeco Field. Dipoto proved to be extremely active last year -- resulting in a a 10-win improvement from 2015-16 that kept the Mariners in the playoff race until the final weekend -- and it'll be interesting to see what he has in mind this winter.

• Flame-throwing closer Edwin Diaz will be part of the team from the outset and should anchor a bullpen that returns most of its primary pieces. Dipoto will be looking to add a strong left-hander to the mix as well and has a chance to fashion the kind of bullpen that has helped carry several recent teams to postseason success.

Diaz's five-out save

• While most teams are seeking starting pitching in a free-agent market that is thin in that department, the Mariners are pretty solid in their rotation with Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Ariel Miranda and Nathan Karns all set to return. So while Dipoto may well test the trade market for pitching, he should be able to focus most of his resources on filling position needs and further raising the base around his potent veteran core in the middle of the lineup.

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.