The good news: The Mariners added big-name talent to a team that stunned MLB by winning 90 games last year — a 22-win improvement from 2019, their previous full season.
The not-so-great news: The Mariners seemingly overperformed given their minus-51 run differential, and they haven’t produced back-to-back winning seasons since 2002-03.
The excitement for these M’s is justified — particularly with the MLB playoffs expanding to 12 teams. It’s also a potential setup for disappointment, an emotion Mariners fans know all too well.
So what needs to happen? What events need to unfold for this miserable postseason drought to finally come to an end? Quite a bit, actually.
First — good health. This is the case for all teams to an extent but is particularly true for a club with as little margin for error as Seattle. I’d be happy to eat my words if I’m wrong about this, but this doesn’t strike me as a group capable of winning 100 games. If the Mariners sneak into the playoffs, it would likely be via a victory total similar to last year’s. A couple of key injuries, and their hopes are dashed.
Next, the relievers have to be lights-out again. With a 3.88 ERA last season, the M’s had the fourth-best bullpen in the American League, but that ERA might have been deceiving. There were a few “throw away” games, in which the Mariners would surrender eight, nine or 10 runs, which contributed to that dismal run differential.
But they would also repeatedly start the sixth inning with a one- or two-run lead and ride the relievers to victory. It’s hard to say who the most valuable player for the Mariners was last year. It’s not hard to say what the most valuable unit was — the guys running in from behind the outfield wall.
Next, the Mariners need the best versions of their new acquisitions. Robbie Ray won the Cy Young last year with the Blue Jays when he led the American League in three categories — strikeouts (248), ERA (2.84) and innings (193.1). Impressive — but also his best season hands down. In his previous seven seasons, he made just one All-Star Game and received Cy Young consideration only in 2017, when he finished seventh.
Which version will the Mariners get? You could ask the same about Jesse Winker or Eugenio Suarez. Winker, 28, has been in the show for five seasons — he made his first All-Star Game last year as a platoon player and looks promising. Suarez is a former All-Star who hit 49 home runs in 2019. He had a -0.7 WAR last year and doesn’t look so promising. Those guys need to be at or near their best.
Next, the young guys have to deliver. Outfielder Jarred Kelenic has been hyped up as a generational player for the Mariners. Maybe he will be one day. But the 22-year-old hit .181 in 337 at-bats last year and finished with a -1.8 WAR. First baseman Evan White was the No. 17 overall pick in the 2017 MLB draft. The 25-year-old has hit .165 in 279 career at-bats. Outfielder Kyle Lewis was the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year. Injuries limited him to 36 games last year. And outfielder Julio Rodriguez has long been one of MLB’s top prospects. Can he follow in Lewis’ footsteps and compete for ROY?
There is the obvious stuff, too. Players such as Ty France, J.P. Crawford, Chris Flexen and Mitch Haniger need to maintain the consistency that made them the M’s top four producers last season. Manager Scott Servais needs to maintain the level of motivation that has made him the Mariners’ second-longest-tenured manager (behind Lou Piniella).
And then there’s director of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto. He has been active this offseason and relatively successful in his time running the team. No, he hasn’t gotten the Mariners to the playoffs, but he’s helped produce enough winning seasons to earn two contract extensions.
One thing he’ll likely have to do during the season, however, is make a potent move at the trade deadline.
The Braves were barely even playoff contenders in late July last year. Then they acquired Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall and Jorge Soler and ended up winning the World Series. Might be up to Dipoto to make a similar splash for the Mariners in the middle of the summer.
The Mariners have big-time potential … for both failure and success. Above is their to-do list. Up to them to complete it.
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