It was about the most spirited spring one could imagine for the Mariners. This is what happens when (now former) team president Kevin Mather insults a good chunk of the team on camera in front of a Rotary club.
T-shirts were made. Rallying cries were had. Unity appeared to be near an all-time high.
But things such as motivation and togetherness seem a lot more significant in the Cactus League than they do in the majors. Up in The Show, it’s all about talent.
So do the Mariners have enough of it?
This is the big question as the franchise tries to prevent its playoff drought from dragging into its 20th consecutive year. This is what people are wondering as the M’s enter Season 3 of the so-called “step-back” plan.
The way Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto sold it three offseasons ago, 2021 seemed like the year the Mariners would see an ROI on their (near) teardown of the roster. But is there any indication that that’s happened — or is this postseason skid about to celebrate its two-decade anniversary?
If you look to the stat geeks — and they’ve certainly become a reputable source — the answer is no. Analytics site fangraphs.com estimates the M’s will go 74-88 and finish with the eighth-worst record in MLB and fourth-worst record in the American League West.
This is obviously just a projection, which can be outperformed. But it’s a humbling reminder that — despite their impressive prospects and emerging stars — the Mariners’ future is more exciting than their present.
It’s not as though there aren’t established standouts. Reigning AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis will return to the M’s outfield after hitting 11 home runs in 58 games last year. Starting pitcher Marco Gonzales comes back to the mound after posting a 3.10 ERA and a .947 WHIP in 11 starts last season.
Utility player Dylan Moore led the team in WAR last year despite playing in just 38 games. Outfielder Mitch Haniger is finally healthy three years after his All-Star season, as is catcher Tom Murphy, who missed all of 2020. There are also Gold Glovers in shortstop J.P. Crawford and first baseman Evan White, who are 26 and 24, respectively.
It’s not as though there aren’t prized minor-leaguers who will likely find their way into the majors this year, either. Twenty-one-year-old outfielder Jarred Kelenic, who found himself at the center of the service-time debate in February, is considered one of the top five prospects in baseball. Pitcher Logan Gilbert, 23, is among the top 40 prospects and could add depth to the rotation. And though he is hardly a prospect or young (by baseball standards, at least) former ace James Paxton returns to the M’s rotation after an injury-riddled 2020.
All of these facts are reasons for optimism. Each of these players has the ability to shine. But the odds of them collectively outpacing expectations and ending the longest postseason drought in major American professional sports? It still seems slim.
The fact is, the M’s didn’t land any major free agents this offseason. Talented as some of the youngsters may be, they won’t be joined by a bevy of proven vets with All-Star potential. This isn’t necessarily a shot at an ownership group that may still be waiting for the right time to empty its wallet. It’s simply an acknowledgment of the reality of the Mariners’ situation.
In December I asked Mariners manager Scott Servais what his expectations for the 2021 season were. He said he thought the team could be competitive throughout the year but admitted that “we still have a long ways to go” and added that “we need to be realistic around where we’re at.”
Three and a half months later, that still seems like the most accurate assessment. This offseason was a whirlwind for the Mariners, but not because of endless transactions and the beefing up of a roster.
Does the team have talent? No doubt. But there’s little proof they have enough.