Inbox: What will Paxton's status be in 2018?

Beat reporter Greg Johns answers questions from Mariners fans

Inbox: What will Paxton's status be in 2018?

Which is more likely, James Paxton being the Opening Day starter or Felix Hernandez dropping to third in the rotation next year? -- Josh W., Eugene, Ore.

Scott Servais doesn't let me set his rotation quite this early, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if Paxton winds up pitching against the Indians on March 29 in next season's opener at Safeco Field. Clearly Paxton was Seattle's best pitcher last season and, when healthy, one of the most dominant lefties in the game.

Hernandez has made nine straight Opening Day starts -- the longest streak in MLB -- and 10 overall in his career and has deserved every one of those. But nothing lasts forever, particularly pitchers who throw 190-plus innings for 10 straight years. Where Hernandez might fall in next year's rotation will depend on how healthy he is and how well he pitches next spring, as well as who else the Mariners add to the mix.

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What are the Mariners chances of picking up the Japanese Babe Ruth, Shohei Ohtani, and what is his potential fit with the club?
-- Shaun H., Mount Vernon, Wash.

Clearly this is the hot question not only for the Mariners, but most MLB cities this offseason. Assuming Ohtani makes himself available, the frenzy will be intense. The Dodgers and Yankees are considered by many to be the favorites, and Texas is ready to make a big push, but in this particular case, money won't be a factor, since the new Collective Bargaining Agreement severely limits any international free agent under the age of 25 and Ohtani is just 23.

Mayo on Ohtani

The belief of many Japanese journalists is that Ohtani will only go to a team willing to use him as both a pitcher and hitter. That puts the Mariners at a bit of a disadvantage since they have Nelson Cruz employed at designated hitter for another year. But Ohtani could be used in right field on some days, with Mitch Haniger shifting to center, so that's not necessarily a deal-breaker.

While few are listing the Mariners as one of the favorites to land Ohtani, I do think they have a chance, given their history of Japanese players and ownership. Hisashi Iwakuma loves Seattle as a comfortable place to live and raise a family, and Ohtani apparently is a relatively quiet and unassuming sort, much like Iwakuma, so that can't hurt.

I've seen the young Japanese star's name spelled as Otani and Ohtani. What is the correct version? -- Frank C., Yakima, Wash.

Many publications are using Otani. But MLB.com is going with Ohtani and it's pretty hard to argue with that, given the name on the back of his jersey in Japan says "Ohtani." This is just one of the many mysteries surrounding the youngster, however, as both are just translated versions of his Japanese spelling and apparently he's used both at times.

Five-inning starts are becoming the new normal. Have the Mariners identified an Andrew Miller-style stud in the organization or elsewhere who could fill that key bullpen role? -- Tony M., Hua Hin, Thailand

Every team would love someone like Miller or the Astros' Chris Devenski, a guy who can shut down an opposing lineup for several innings in a versatile relief role. Those kind of relievers are extremely valuable -- and not easy to find. One of the Mariners' better discoveries this past season was rookie Emilio Pagan, who did very well in a similar role, as he proved quite capable in multi-inning outings and various situations in helping bridge short starts to the back end of the bullpen.

The Mariners also toyed with moving well regarded prospect Max Povse into a similar role in midseason, but that didn't go so well either at Triple-A Tacoma or his brief stints in Seattle and he's now working as a starter again in the Arizona Fall League.

Does Hisashi Iwakuma come back next year or does Jerry Dipoto seek another starter through trade or free agency? -- Chris B., Lafayette, Tenn.

Iwakuma is recovering from shoulder surgery and isn't expected to even begin throwing until close to the start of Spring Training in February. The veteran right-hander didn't pitch enough innings this past season to meet a clause in his contract that would have guaranteed him a $15 million deal. Instead, his contract reverts to a $10 million team option for 2018, or a $1 million buyout.

Given his age (37 next April) and injury situation, it's almost a certainty the Mariners will give Iwakuma the buyout. If his shoulder recovers quickly enough, it's always possible he could be brought back on a Minor League deal or incentive-laden contract. He's already indicated he'd like to continue pitching, so we'll see.

It's clear the Mariners will need to sign a strong first baseman in the offseason. Do you think they'll try to keep Yonder Alonso or go after Eric Hosmer or some other available free agent? -- Scott B, Hillsboro, Ore.

Hosmer would be a terrific addition, and at 27 is just hitting his peak years, but let's be realistic. The Royals standout is the hottest ticket on the free-agent market and may well command a $200 million-type long-term deal. Seattle already has two such mega-contracts with Robinson Cano and Hernandez, and appears more in a mode of trying to spread its payroll to build a deeper team around them, rather than accentuate further such a top-heavy salary structure.

Alonso's solo homer

Alonso is interested in returning and seems the likely front-runner at this point, but there are a lot of available free agents at that position. Carlos Santana is the best hitter in the bunch behind Hosmer, Mitch Moreland is a quality defender and Lucas Duda and Logan Morrison are lefties with some pop.

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