The Mariners find themselves in a place no one ever thought they would be — somewhere they probably don’t deserve to be, on merit.
But here they are, entering the homestretch of the 2020 baseball season with a legitimate shot at a playoff berth. You can list off all the reasons it’s inauthentic — the coronavirus-shortened season, the expanded playoffs, the sub-.500 record, the preponderance of wins against a truly awful Rangers team, the absence of games against tough teams in the AL Central and East.
You can’t change one salient fact, however: With 12 games to play, the Mariners entered Tuesday trailing the collapsing Houston Astros by just 1½ games for second place in the AL West before their game with the Giants was postponed because of poor air quality.
This year, second place is a stamped ticket to the playoffs, regardless of record. And incongruously, improbably, tantalizingly, it’s there for the taking for the Mariners.
With that in mind and after much pondering, I have concluded that the Mariners need to change a course and a philosophy that for much of the season I supported.
It’s time to call up their 21-year-old would-be phenom outfielder, Jarred Kelenic. And, for good measure, their live-armed 23-year-old future ace, Logan Gilbert.
Actually, the right time would have been a week ago, when we all looked up and said, “Wait a minute — am I reading the standings right?” Technically, players had to be on the active roster by Tuesday to be postseason-eligible, but anyone who was at the alternate site could theoretically replace someone on the injured list for the playoffs.
The Mariners — once fighting for the No. 1 draft pick that goes with the worst record in baseball — had crept up on not just the Astros, but also the Yankees for the final wild-card spot. In case you haven’t read the fine print, more than half of MLB makes the playoffs this year — 16 teams out of 30.
The Yankees have since regained their equilibrium. The Astros, however, remain a hot mess, losers of nine of their past 11 games entering Tuesday. Catching them, while still unlikely, is not a pipe dream. Not even when you take into account that the Astros have already won the tiebreaker (head-to-head record) and thus would have to be surpassed, not just caught, by Seattle.
The Mariners’ upper management has to do some deep soul-searching. There are still strong, valid reasons to keep Kelenic and Gilbert down at the “alternate site” in Tacoma all year, the strongest of which — though never publicly spoken — has to do with service time. By keeping them down this long, the Mariners have already assured that Kelenic and Gilbert can’t become free agents until at least after the 2026 season. And if they don’t come up at all in 2020, and remain in the minors for about three weeks in 2021, Kelenic and Gilbert wouldn’t have a chance at free agency until after 2027.
For a franchise that suddenly has one of the best collections of prospects in all of baseball, that is not insignificant. If the Mariners eventually become the force they (and many analysts) envision, and those two in particular become the impact players they promise to be, that potential extra year would be coveted.
But the question I’d ask is, what is the ultimate purpose of all this? The goal of rebuilding is not prospect accumulation; it’s winning. And here, the Mariners have been handed an unexpected gift — a shot at the playoffs at least a year, and probably two, ahead of their timetable. In a season that began with no expectations and, really, no hope, why not maximize that sudden opportunity and do everything within their power to steal a berth?
I mean, wouldn’t it be worth it to the Mariners just to be able to ditch, once and for all, the damning label that is attached to them, ad nauseam — the franchise with the longest postseason drought in North American professional sports?
Sure, if this miracle happens, it would come with an asterisk in a convoluted, 60-game season. And yes, they wouldn’t even get a home game under the “bubble” playoff format that was announced Tuesday. But after 18 long, agonizing years, a playoff berth has its own psychic rewards.
So, could Kelenic and Gilbert really be the difference-makers? Here’s an evasive but accurate answer: Who knows? There’s no question, as Ryan Divish detailed recently, that the well-intentioned alternate site in Tacoma has slowed the development process of all prospects somewhat. Without a regular minor-league season, they simply aren’t able to get the consistent reps against polished opponents that are vital. Intermittent intrasquad games against the same handful of people just isn’t the same as the everyday grind of a full season.
It’s possible that Kelenic, with just 21 games above Class A ball, would face the same adjustment to major-league pitching as the similarly inexperienced Evan White did this year. White was hitting .114 after his first 12 games (and .104 after 19 games). If those struggles were replicated by Kelenic, it certainly wouldn’t help Seattle’s playoff cause.
But we’ve heard incessantly that Kelenic is a prodigy, a generational talent. He’s also supremely confident. There’s also a chance he could be a much-needed catalyst for a thin Mariners lineup that has received a .196/.292/.337 cumulative slash line from its right fielders. That ranks 26th in MLB and 14th out of 16 teams in the American League. Phil Ervin, claimed two weeks ago by the Mariners when he was waived by the Reds with a .086 average, has heated up a bit lately. But Kelenic could potentially electrify the lineup as Kyle Lewis did when called up last September.
As for Gilbert, even with the inconsistent work in Tacoma, I think it’s hard not to think he would have given them a better shot in the second game of Monday’s doubleheader than Jimmy Yacabonis, Seth Frankoff and Brady Lail. I’m not saying they punted on that game, but there was a lot of wishful thinking going on, and it was unfilled in a 9-0 loss to Oakland.
The Mariners have a spot in their six-man rotation for maybe two more starts that now goes to rookie LJay Newsome, who had been solid before getting struck on his wrist by a batted ball in his last start. That would be an obvious spot to slide in Gilbert and hope for magic from a guy who likely would have been in the rotation at this point if the season had been normal.
It’s far from normal, of course. The Mariners hatched a blueprint for 2020 that was built around that abnormality. It was a sound one, too, as long as contention wasn’t in the cards. And when they were sitting at 7-18, second-worst record in the league and third-worst in the majors, on Aug. 19, you’d have been laughed out of town for bringing up contention. Seattle even traded two of its best players, Taijuan Walker and Austin Nola, at the deadline.
But circumstances change. The Mariners are 15-8 since their nadir. Under the rules of engagement in place this year, that makes them a contender, like it or not.
With that in mind, I think it would send an important message to the fans, and to the players on the current roster, if they called up their two best prospects. It certainly would help assuage the frustration of Kelenic, who by all indication wasn’t happy to be sent to the alternate site out of summer training camp despite a strong showing.
It was justifiable then. The Mariners weren’t going anywhere this year, right? But now, just maybe — against all logic — they are. And after 18 years of unrequited playoff longing, it’s worth seeing if Kelenic and Gilbert can help push them over the top.