Before the first Mariners’ workout of the spring Thursday in Peoria, Arizona, manager Scott Servais began his Zoom news conference by exclaiming, “I love this team! I really do.”
The task for the Mariners now is to get their fans to love it, too, which has been a two-year work in progress. And it could still go either way. It is one thing to have a bunch of quality, dedicated, stand-up guys, as Servais asserted. It’s quite another to have a winning team to rally behind.
The Mariners are confident they are building toward that — and they have a slew of top five farm system rankings to back them up. But this is the year when prospect love has to manifest itself in tangible progress toward the ever-present and ever-elusive goal of playoff baseball.
Rarely has a season dawned with so much ambiguity for the Mariners. The data-driven predictive programs are not kind to Seattle. Baseball Prospectus’ “PECOTA” algorithm forecasts a 70-92 season with a 0 percent chance to win the division. That’s “zero,” as in the number of postseason appearances by Seattle since 2001, a disgrace odyssey.
FanGraphs has them at 74-88, with a 2.4 percent chance to make the playoffs. (“So you’re saying there’s a chance?”) USA Today’s six-person panel of experts put the Mariners at 70-92. Statistician Clay Davenport has them at 71-91. About the only good news on the prognostication front is that almost everyone has the Mariners finishing out of last place, ahead of the Texas Rangers — a team not as far advanced in their own rebuild.
So where exactly is that ambiguity, you might ask? The analysts seem to have unanimity in their predictions of doom for Seattle. There’s not much that’s ambiguous about 90 losses — a total the Mariners have exceed seven times since 2004.
Well, the Mariners believe they have breakout candidates that are flying well under the radar. They believe their influx of youth, which figures to be parceled out incrementally during the season — outfielder Jarred Kelenic, starter Logan Gilbert and catcher Cal Raleigh being the prime candidates to break in at some point — will provide a boost that can’t be measured.
Also, the Mariners play in a division, the AL West, that doesn’t have an overwhelming favorite. The defending champion A’s suffered considerable offseason free-agent departures (though on Thursday they did sign closer Trevor Rosenthal, a pitcher who would have fit very nicely in the Mariners’ bullpen). The Astros, a playoff team last year despite finishing under .500 (29-31, just two games ahead of the Mariners), lost one of their major stars, George Springer.
The Mariners’ postseason chances will rise exponentially if MLB expands its playoff field. The decision to do so last year — letting in eight teams per league instead of the usual five — was made hours before opening day. There could be a late format change again in 2021 if the union uses it as a bargaining chip to get a concession it seeks.
Also, all those predictions I cited were made before the Mariners signed James Paxton, a move that became official Thursday and adds considerable depth to their rotation.
That said, the Mariners could have considerably boosted their chances to compete at a playoff level with a more active offseason. Instead, Paxton is the only offseason acquisition that can be called major. They hope they got a sleeper in starter Chris Flexen, who thrived in Korea after struggling in the Mets’ organization. The Mariners re-signed their free agent, reliever Kendall Graveman, and added Keynan Middleton and Rafael Montero to the bullpen, in addition to the usual variety of nonroster, speculative additions.
Rumored budget constraints may have limited the ability of general manager Jerry Dipoto to improve the club for 2021. Dipoto said Thursday that he aggressively — and unsuccessfully — pursued a veteran left-handed hitter who could play second base and/or the outfield.
“We just fell short at every turn,” he said. “We had a series of targets, each of which we thought were ideal fits. … In some of those cases — actually, in all of those cases — we offered multiyear contracts that seemed to fit what we were trying to do, not just for 2021 but for 2022 and potentially beyond. We were aggressive in that market; we just failed to bring in the offensive piece we were looking to add.”
Players who possibly fit his description include Tommy La Stella (who signed a three-year, $18.75 million deal with the Giants), Jurickson Profar (three years, $21 million with the Padres), and Kolten Wong (two years, $18 million with the Brewers). Another is ex-Mariner Brad Miller, who on Wednesday signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Phillies, with whom he played in 2019.
Dipoto said Thursday it is unlikely the Mariners will pursue any more offensive players on major-league contracts.
“We’re going to go with what we have in house, and we’ll stay open to any other opportunities that present themselves with the pitching staff,” he said.
Dipoto has been insistent that he doesn’t want to block the progress of any young player, which is the proper stance. But this is a roster that could have benefited from a greater infusion of more-proven talent to bridge the gap until their blue-chippers arrive.
Instead, as so often happens, they will have to dream on some things. Like a major uptick in the offensive contributions of first baseman Evan White and shortstop J.P. Crawford, Gold Glove winners in 2020. Like Dylan Moore showing that he can maintain last year’s surprising pop at the plate over a full 162 games, and Mitch Haniger reverting to his 2018 All-Star form after missing a year and a half from a gruesome injury. And that’s just for starters.
Servais talked Thursday about how great Haniger looked, along with Tom Murphy, the catcher who also missed last season. Crawford and outfielder Jake Fraley caught Servais’ eye, as did left-handed pitcher Yusei Kikuchi. Largely a disappointment during his previous two seasons, despite significant signs of improvement last year, Kikuchi is a classic breakout candidate who can change the entire tenor of the Mariners’ outlook for 2021 if he finally harnesses his high-caliber stuff.
“I really think we don’t talk about Yusei quite enough,” Servais said. “He’s in a really good spot to have a big year this year. He looks great. He really does.”
That’s time-honored spring training talk, right up there with players reporting in the proverbial “best shape of their career.” Everyone has limitless possibilities in February. Any number of scenarios for team success can be conjured — and, alas, so can the potential pitfalls and prophecies of doom, for which the vision is even clearer.
Those, however, tend to be pushed aside in Arizona to focus on the upside for the Mariners. The question is, will you still love them in July, August and September?