MLB: Seattle Mariners at Tampa Bay Rays

Mariners center fielder Jake Fraley is on deck to bat in a recent game against Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The Mariners have long been past the point of playing games with postseason implications. That ended around May, if not before. You could argue that hope ended before the season started, given what transpired in the offseason.

But this weekend’s series with the Blue Jays provides some level of interest beyond the speculation of by how much Toronto fans will outnumber Mariners fans at T-Mobile Park.

For a quick reference point, the Mariners have said good tickets are still available for the weekend series. Based on advanced ticket sales, they are projecting crowds between 30,000-35,000 on Friday and Saturday and 25,000-30,000 on Sunday.

There are significant points of interest for this series. That’s something that has been lacking for extended periods of this season, as it has seemed like the Mariners were rolling out a team of players you didn’t recognize and needn’t bother remembering because they’d be gone after the season. This happens when you’ve used 63 players, including 40 pitchers, in a season. For the first time since J.P. Crawford’s promotion, the Mariners are going to play a young prospect who is part of this rebuild plan on a daily basis. Outfielder Jake Fraley, the No. 8 prospect in the organization, made his major league debut on Sunday in Tampa, Fla. He scored a key run, made a nice catch in the outfield and hit the ball hard despite not registering his first big-league hit.

Fraley is expected to play all weekend, giving Mariners fans a chance to see a player they’d only heard about from exploits with Class AA Arkansas and later Class AAA Tacoma. The Mariners had been forced to use infielders such as Tim Lopes and Dylan Moore as their daily corner outfielders as they waited for Fraley to recover from quad issues that had him on the 7-day injured list with the Rainiers.

Besides Fraley, another key piece to general manager Jerry Dipoto’s step-back plan will make his return to T-Mobile Park about two months later than anticipated.

Left-hander Justus Sheffield, who started the season as the Mariners’ top pitching and overall prospect, will make his second start for the Mariners in a season where he was expected to make significantly more than that.

Sheffield’s struggles to start the season are well documented. His fastball command ranged from inconsistent to nonexistent, he walked 15.6% of the batters he faced and posted a 2-6 record and 6.87 ERA in 12 starts and one extended relief appearance. In the midst those struggles, Mariners called him up to piggyback off a one-inning start for Yusei Kikuchi on April 26. He pitched three innings, allowing a run on two hits with four walks, two strikeouts and a homer allowed.

Sheffield’s continued struggles at the Class AAA level forced the Mariners to demote him to Arkansas on June 14 to try to find his command and confidence, which had been sapped by the homer-happy Pacific Coast League.

Sheffield’s time in Arkansas has been restorative. He’s made 12 starts, posting a 5-3 record with a 2.19 ERA. In 78 innings, he amassed 85 strikeouts with just 18 walks. He’s pitching with authority and swagger.

Now it’s time for him to transition back to the MLB level. With the Mariners going to a six-man rotation, he should get at least four to five starts to close out this season as preparation for being a part of the starting rotation next season. These appearances will give the Mariners a gauge to see if he’s ready for that transition, or if they have to adjust plans this offseason.

While the interest in the future will be the focus on Friday, a reminder of the past will take the mound Saturday in what could be one of his last remaining starts in Seattle.

Felix Hernandez, the erstwhile ace and longtime face of the franchise, will return to the rotation after missing the last 85 games with a lat strain. He was placed on the injured list May 12 and suffered a setback in a June rehab start. He’s made four starts in his latest rehab starts and is healthy.

In the final year of his seven-year, $175 million contract extension signed in February 2013, Hernandez has acknowledged this is his last year with the organization that signed him as a chubby, hard-throwing 16-year-old out of Venezuela and helped develop him into one of the game’s most dominant pitchers. It’s also the same organization that put inferior talent around him for much of his prime.

Despite the last three seasons, where he’s dealt with injuries, lost command, broken pitching mechanics and bad results — he’s 15-23 with a 5.32 ERA in 53 appearances — Hernandez still hopes to pitch next season. Showing he’s healthy in his last handful of starts could help him find an opportunity next season, though it will likely come on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Such a notion would’ve been unbelievable five or six years ago.

The Mariners have, of course, rolled out a King’s Court promotion in honor of Hernandez’s return. Given his time on the injured list and the uneven performances during his rehab stint, it’s unlikely he will be particularly in sharp in his return, though adrenaline and motivation can work wonders.

Beyond this one start, it will be curious to see how the Mariners and Hernandez handle the inevitable end of a relationship both know is coming and believe is for the best. If he stays healthy, he could get possibly two more starts at T-Mobile Park. Will they honor him? What will the reception be like?

There are also the call-ups of prospects such as Kyle Lewis and Justin Dunn looming after the Texas League playoffs end in early September.

The remaining weeks of a lost season should be a little more interesting to watch for fans. And it starts Friday.

___ ©2019 The Seattle Times Visit The Seattle Times at www.seattletimes.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.