For Mariners fans, it’s easy to be pessimistic going into any season based on the franchise’s track record, which now includes a playoff drought dating back to 2001, the longest current streak without a postseason appearance in all major North American professional sports.
Of course, there will always be some fans who remain optimistic. The start of a new baseball season, even significantly delayed and severely shortened by the coronavirus and without fans in the stands, can bring hope and possibility of something more than experts predict.
A good portion of fans likely are realistic. This is a team in Year 2 of a rebuild that should take 3-5 years, depending on whom you ask. Prior to COVID-19 becoming an everyday aspect of normal life, the Mariners planned to use the season as a way for young, unproven players to get a wealth of experience at the major league level with the hope, but not the focus, of being competitive and avoiding losing 100-plus games.
That overall philosophy hasn’t changed. But the plan is somewhat altered given that the regular season will only be 60 games and there will be no minor league season for potential call-ups to improve.
For the pessimists, the optimists and the realists stuck in the middle, here’s a look at the expected good and bad of 2020.
Three reasons for hope
1. Youthful energy
The Mariners are expected to be one of the youngest teams in the American League on opening day. On their 40-man and likely 30-man active rosters, their two oldest players will be 31 — Dee Gordon and Kyle Seager — and two players aged 30: reliever Matt Magill and catcher/first baseman Austin Nola. Reliever Yoshihisa Hirano, who is 36, will start the season on the injured list. When right-handed reliever Bryan Shaw, whom the Mariners recently picked up after he was released by the Rockies, clears intake testing protocols and is added to the 40-man roster (possibly Friday), he will be the oldest player at 32.
These players are getting their first real time in the big leagues, which comes with a precocious enthusiasm and energy that can lift teammates. And with only 60 games, there won’t be any physical or mental fatigue.
2. Real athleticism and improved defense
Do you recall when Tim Beckham was the Mariners starting shortstop, Ryon Healy was at third base, Jay Bruce was at first base and Domingo Santana was in right field for the opening game of the season? The Mariners were catastrophically bad on defense last season, committing a MLB-high 132 errors leading to 95 unearned runs, also the most in MLB.
This team should be better defensively. A full season of J.P. Crawford at shortstop and a healthy Kyle Seager should solidify the left side of the infield. Even though he hasn’t played a single MLB game, White is already considered one of the best defensive first basemen in the league. In the outfield, Kyle Lewis’ troublesome knee is completely healthy for the first time since he was drafted and it’s shown in his speed in the outfield. Center fielder Mallex Smith seems to have cleaned up some of his problems from last season, but he still has a subpar arm. The Mariners could use a platoon of infielders — Tim Lopes, Dylan Moore and Gordon — to start the season in left, which could cause some issues. Behind the plate, Tom Murphy went on the Injured List on Thursday, leaving Austin Nola, who is an athletic blocker, a solid receiver and decent at throwing, as the starter.
3. A healthy six-man rotation
Yes, the Mariners are going with a six-man rotation to keep their starters healthy and accumulate starts for rookies Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn.
Had the season started March 26 as planned, the rotation would have been a serious question mark with right-handers Kendall Graveman and Taijuan Walker still trying to get back to 100% after Tommy John surgery kept them out for basically two seasons. But the 3½ months of baseball’s shutdown allowed them to continue to build arm strength and refine their command to the point where they aren’t limited beyond normal pitch counts. Graveman has found a riding four-seam fastball to complement his nasty sinker. Walker has improved his breaking ball and found a level of maturity missing during his first stint in Seattle.
Meanwhile Marco Gonzales, Seattle’s opening-day starter, has been a steady and consistent performer the past two seasons. Not overpowering, he understands how to pitch and give his team a chance to win.
The biggest unknown is lefty Yusei Kikuchi, who was beyond inconsistent last season in terms of pitch velocity and command, mechanics, mindset, preparation and performance. He’s cleaned up his mechanics and shortened his arm path this offseason to find that consistency. Kikuchi swears he won’t change at the first sign of struggles, something he did last season.
Three reasons to mope
1. 60 isn’t enough
A big part of the Mariners’ plan was to have White, Long, Lewis and Crawford to rack up more than 500 plate appearances vs. MLB pitching this season while playing in 140 games. Outfielder Jake Fraley was also supposed to figure into that mix, perhaps getting slightly less time. Starters such as Dunn, Sheffield and even Kikuchi were expected to make 25-28 starts and rack up 150-plus MLB innings. Young relievers such as Joey Gerber, Sam Delaplane, Aaron Fletcher and Tayler Guilbeau were supposed to get 40-plus appearances. Top pitching prospect Logan Gilbert was supposed to make his MLB debut while top outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic was going to push for a late call-up.
The Mariners were going to see how the projected core of young players handled everything thrown at them in a full season. That sort of experience is invaluable in young players’ development. It would allow the front office and coaching staff to evaluate each individual player’s readiness, the collective projection of the group and the progression in the rebuild.
That won’t be completely achieved in just 60 games. Quantity will have to be replaced with quality. And it certainly delays or clouds the timeline to this team’s success.
2. The bullpen chronicles
The bullpen was always going to be the 2020 Mariners’ projected weakness. Of the cadre of relievers competing for a spot, most were lacking in MLB experience, consistent strike-throwing ability or both. In past years, the Mariners’ relief corps lacked the real MLB velocity and competent secondary pitches necessary for success. This group doesn’t lack that. There are plenty of mid-90s fastballs and put-away offspeed pitches. But the ability to command those pitches consistently at the MLB level is less certain.
The Mariners will carry 11 pitchers in the bullpen. If Shaw clears intake protocols and joins the team, he will have the most experience. But his ERA was also over 5.00 the last two seasons and he was released by the Rockies with a year left on his contract. Their next most experienced reliever, Carl Edwards Jr., has dealt with injuries and awful outings the last two seasons.
3. Where’s the offense?
The Mariners’ best overall hitter, Mitch Haniger, won’t play a game this season. That leaves Kyle Seager as the only established hitter on the roster. Yes, he’s had his struggles over the last four seasons, but his offseason conditioning changes and some swing work last season led to a strong second half that was reminiscent of early Seager success.
But beyond that?
Daniel Vogelbach was a solid hitter for about two months and then struggled the rest of the way. He slashed .244/.379/.519 (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) with 11 doubles, 20 homers and 48 RBI over the first three months (79 games played). From July 1 to the end of the season, he posted a .162/.290/.338 line with six doubles, 10 homers, 28 RBI, 36 walks and 78 strikeouts. He’s looked more like the latter hitter during summer camp.
Nola was a productive hitter last season. Crawford was solid for about a month after being called up and then wilted down the stretch, dealing with injuries and fatigue.
It’s difficult to know what Seattle will get from Lewis, who hit six homers in his first 10 games last September and has looked outstanding in summer camp, Long, who had a brilliant final month of the season, and White, who has never had an MLB at-bat.
This team won’t hit a lot of home runs or post a particularly great batting average. It should be better than league average at getting on base and has some speed to create runs on the bases. Per FanGraphs’ ZIPS projections, Seattle is projected to average 4.16 runs scored per game — the worst in MLB.