PEORIA, Ariz. — Over the last 20 years, the Mariners have found a way to turn the most ardent optimists into cynics, finding ways to dismantle the remaining shreds of logic from realists and pragmatists.
But in some years they managed to inject just enough hope of better days and better games — impractical or not — into the minds of the fatalists who believe they’re cheering for the baseball equivalent of Interstate 5 traffic.
The Mariners will get you from both sides. They’ve been profoundly capable of crushing your hopes and dreams in one season and then providing you all the reasons to resurrect those feelings of passion and promise only to leave you unsatisfied and forlorn.
So here are some thoughts on this season, supporting both optimists and cynics.
Three reasons to hope
Healthy Haniger/Vive La France
Based on the low bar set last season, and yes it was only a 60-game sample size, the Mariners offense has to be better in 2021.
In 2020, Seattle was near the bottom of MLB in most major offensive categories, including:
- 4.23 runs per game (22nd)
- .225 batting average (24th)
- .309 on-base percentage (26th)
- .370 slugging percentage (28th)
- 60 homers (25th)
The return of a healthy Mitch Haniger and the presence of Ty France for an entire season will add significant boosts to a lineup that relied heavily on Kyle Seager and Kyle Lewis to drive in runs.
Right field was not a position that provided much production, generating 0.7 wins above replacement. Philip Ervin, a waiver claim, made the most starts in right field (14), producing a .211/.318/.289 slash line with three doubles, four RBI, six walks and 14 strikeouts in 44 plate appearances.
Haniger has looked healthy this spring after three surgeries in 2020. The hope is he gets at least 130 games in the lineup, in right field or at designated hitter.
The DH spot, which featured Daniel Vogelbach and utility player Tim Lopes each starting 17 games, produced a .224/.298/.388 slash line with nine doubles, a triple, eight homers and 28 RBIs in 60 games. And that’s with France posting a .400/.447/.629 line with three doubles, a triple, a homer and seven RBI in nine starts and 38 plate appearances.
The kids are coming
At some point, perhaps by May 1, outfielder Jarred Kelenic will be called up to play left field on an everyday basis. This much has become evident this spring — the Mariners’ best outfield for 2021 is Kelenic in left field, Kyle Lewis in center and Haniger in right. Fans may have to wait a little bit to see it on a consistent basis.
Meanwhile, top pitching prospect Logan Gilbert will likely make his debut in July, bringing another power arm to the rotation.
Also, at some point slugging catcher Cal Raleigh will make his MLB debut. The switch-hitting Raleigh doesn’t have the hype of Kelenic, Gilbert and Julio Rodriguez, but he’s just as valuable to the Mariners’ rebuilding plans. And could Rodriguez somehow find his way to the big leagues this season?
It’s a 162-game season
After COVID-19 shut down baseball, the petulant bickering between players and owners on how to restart the season led to a shortened 60-game regular season without fans that could be best summed up as “better than nothing.” But it was detrimental to the development of players such as Lewis, Evan White, Shed Long Jr., Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn and Joey Gerber.
They are expected to experience a full season with fans in the stands as vaccination distribution increases. How this young core handles a full season at the MLB level will be a big factor in judging the timeline to success for this rebuild.
Three reasons to mope
Not another bad bullpen
Besides the pulseless demeanor and ruthless efficiency of Rafael Montero and the enhanced stuff of former starter Kendall Graveman, there are more than a few reasons to wonder if the bullpen, which was a focus of improvement for general manager Jerry Dipoto, still might be a problem. The other significant offseason addition, right-hander Keynan Middleton, has had middling results this spring. His fastball has looked straight and hittable, which is why he has allowed five home runs in eight innings this spring.
Beyond those three established pitchers, there is a lot of unknown in a mass of arms that has power stuff but minimal track records of success. Unless right-hander Drew Steckenrider makes the opening-day bullpen, the remainder of the arms will be pitchers from last year’s bullpen that was considered the worst in the American League by multiple measures. It’s unlikely the bullpen will be as bad as last year, but will it be much better?
Baseball happens, rebuilds continue
So what happens if Haniger is really good in the first three months? What happens if James Paxton is dominant for his first 12 starts, looking like the Big Maple of 2017? Does the entity known as Trader Jerry try and capitalize on their value?
What happens if the Mariners are sort of in contention at the July 31 trade deadline? How can they look to the success of next season when the current season isn’t lost?
Injuries can crush the hopes and dreams of teams and fans. Haniger and Paxton have been plagued by them. The Mariners got some bad news with hard-throwing reliever Andres Munoz suffering a setback in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, delaying his return to the big leagues.
It’s a 162-game season
More games don’t always mean more success. It can also mean having your weaknesses exposed. The Mariners’ young players must adjust to the league’s adjustments. The idea that all of these young players will have a full season of success is laughable. There will be failure and frustration to offset success and triumph.
The beauty of a marathon MLB season is that the length and the number of games don’t allow for small-sample-size bias. A full season will provide enough information besides statistics to know where a player is in his development and provide a realistic gauge of his potential. In past years that hasn’t been a good thing for the Mariners.