Teoscar Hernandez said that as the playoff pairings were being determined down the stretch of the MLB season last year, he heard talk among his team — the Blue Jays at the time — that they preferred to face the Mariners.
Hernandez’s reaction? Au contraire.
“I was one of the ones to say no, because of the really good team they had,” Hernandez said at Wednesday’s annual pre-spring training luncheon at T-Mobile Park. “They had a really good pitching staff, starting and relievers. I didn’t want to face that in the playoffs. I wasn’t happy.”
Sure enough, Seattle swept the best-of-three wild-card series in Toronto — after which Hernandez was traded to the Mariners in November in the M’s splashiest offseason move.
Now the Mariners believe that Hernandez’s apprehension should be heeded throughout the league from the very start of the 2023 season.
These kickoff luncheons — and I’ve been to every one since 1996 — are often a delicate blend of optimism and caution. The idea is to sell hope but not foster unreasonable expectations.
But after an offseason in which a predominant storyline was the Mariners’ refusal to engage in free agency at anything but a fringe level, their top officials expressed confidence they have a team that can — and should — compete at the highest levels. It’s not like they went overboard Wednesday and guaranteed a World Series victory or anything like that, but they made it pretty clear they feel this is a season in which much more is possible.
The arc of baseball operations honcho Jerry Dipoto’s outlook has progressed from the long-term but speculative promise of the “step-back” program instituted after the 2018 season through the increasingly bullish rebuild.
Coming off an unexpected 90-win season of 2021, the Mariners said at last year’s luncheon that they had the team to end their 20-year playoff drought. After accomplishing that feat and winning 90 games again in 2022, the Mariners are aiming even higher in 2023 — and not couching their forecast with nearly the customary caution. Dipoto, general manager Justin Hollander and manager Scott Servais on Wednesday weren’t even backing down from the notion that they could end the Astros’ stranglehold on the AL West.
They are well aware that Houston finished 16 games ahead of the Mariners last year and then swept them in the division series en route to the World Series title. But they are also well aware of how competitive the M’s were in all three of those playoff losses to Houston.
“Last time I checked, we played them three really good games and were probably one swing of the bat away from winning all three of those games,” Servais said. “They go on to win the World Series. They’re a really good team, and they’re not going anywhere. We’re a really good team, we’re not going anywhere.”
The Mariners believe they will be a much better team with Hernandez and his potential 30-homer bat (“He’s a damage-doer,” Hollander said) in right field, and with another trade addition, Kolten Wong, sharing second base with Dylan Moore. They believe they have built another fruitful platoon in left field with the signing of A.J. Pollock to augment the left-handed bat of either Jarred Kelenic or Taylor Trammell — and that Kelenic, in particular, is finally, really and truly, poised for the breakout long predicted for him.
They believe that the 16-game deficit with the Astros doesn’t reflect the growth they experienced as the season went on, and slow-starting players such as Julio Rodriguez and Cal Raleigh finding their groove. They believe the sky is the limit for both those players, particularly Rodriguez, and that other youngsters such as George Kirby, Logan Gilbert and Matt Brash will only get better after establishing themselves in 2022. They see no reason their bullpen, among the league’s best for the past two years, won’t be again. And they believe that having a bona fide ace such as Luis Castillo for a full season will give them an immeasurable swagger that can’t be quantified.
“We all saw the ability that Luis has and how he can just change the game — just take the mound and dominate, take over the game and what that does,” Servais said. “It helps the whole club. It’s just a different vibe around your team, and it certainly helps the bullpen on the day. He’s going to pitch, he’s going to go deep into the ballgame. He’s going to win a lot of games for us. There’s no question about that. So having him from Day 1, it’s different.”
Dipoto put it in slightly different terms: “The way he changed our team, just the way our team felt walking out on the field with him starting each of the Game 1s [in the playoffs]. When you have that kind of presence, that kind of thump, walking out to the mound, you feel it. … We’re really looking forward to him being with this group for a full season, and I think that’s part of the reason why we’re meaningfully better this year.”
They believe the experience of two consecutive playoff races, one of them falling just short and the other successful, and two hard-fought postseason series, have hardened them and whetted their appetite for more and better. They believe the chemistry they’ve established is unique and transformational.
Asked about the prospects of winning the AL West, Dipoto replied: “That’s the goal … and that will be goal every year, to win the division, get into the postseason and try to do some damage. We’ve never been more convinced of this team’s ability to do those things than we were at the end of last season. I think that goes for all the players in the clubhouse, it goes for us in the front office, our staff.
“We do feel like we got meaningfully better this offseason. We are a deeper, more complete team than we were at the end of last season. And the start of the season isn’t Game 162. That’s Game 1, and we’ll take it from there, like we have in the last couple of years. Whether it be from within our own system or players that join us from elsewhere, we are invested in continuing to get better, whatever that means. So the goal is to win the division. We feel like that’s a realistic goal, and we’re going to do the best we can.”
Of course, I could do a whole column on where things could go off the rails for the Mariners, but those contingencies rarely come up at these settings. We’ll find out soon enough if the Mariners are overestimating their virtues in 2023, or if Hernandez’s warning to his now ex-teammates was a premonition.
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