For a fleeting moment, it looked as though the 2020 season might be a gift for the Mariners. Not talented enough to contend for a postseason spot over 162 games, there was a glimmer of hope they could sneak into the expanded playoffs in a 60-game season.
If nothing else, perhaps a swift start would make for meaningful games in late August and early September. But that hasn’t been the case. Not even close.
The Mariners entered Saturday’s game vs. the Angels at 13-21, good for the third-worst record in the American League. Fangraphs.com has put its playoff odds at 1.2%, which actually seems generous.
So what does this mean for a rebuilding team in the midst of another “step-back” season? That 2020 will likely go down as a disaster.
This was supposed to be a season of development for the Mariners, but it has provided little opportunity to develop. This, of course, is the fault of a pandemic — not the organization — but that won’t help subdue the frustration.
Young major-leaguers such as Kyle Lewis, Shed Long and Evan White will only get 60 games to fine-tune their games. Prized prospects such as Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez are getting minimal at-bats at the organization’s alternate site, which, try as it might, can’t simulate real games.
Earlier in the month, I asked Mariners manager Scott Servais about the challenges of trying to develop the younger players in these circumstances. And though he emphasized that the franchise was doing the best it could with what it had, he acknowledged there were obstacles.
“This is a huge year for development. Not just at the big-league sites you talk about, but throughout the minor leagues. There’s a number of young players that need that at-bats. Unfortunately, things happen that we can’t control,” Servais said. “I do think we’re doing the best with what we have available to us with the alternate site, a number of young players there. It’s important to keep those guys going. It’s not as good as everyday games against organizations, we all get that, but we’re doing the best with what we’ve got.”
Obviously, the lack of at-bats and innings pitched are going to work against the younger players. So will the number of games. Talent is just one factor that goes into excelling at the big-league level. Learning how to navigate the six-month grind is part of it, too.
Look what happened to Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawford last year. By the end of June, he had a .310 batting average and an .880 OPS. By the end of the season, he had an average of .226 and an OPS of .684.
You could argue that pitchers figured him out, but it’s far more likely that he got fatigued. Players have to learn how to adjust in the later months of the season, and guys such as Lewis and White and Long won’t be able to do that this season.
Players have to learn to deal with fans as well. This is another point Servais underscored. People at home might not notice much of a difference, but the feel of a ballpark is infinitely different with people in attendance. Players can’t feel the tens or hundreds of thousands of people watching them on TV, but thousands of fans in the crowd can ignite the nerves in a way few things can. That’s part of being a big-leaguer. And even though the M’s are still facing the game’s best, the young guys are still missing out on critical experiences.
“We’re getting to compete against the best in the world, which is really important for our young players to see where they stack up,” Servais said. “Next year we’re going to go through another step where we hopefully — we’re keeping our fingers crossed — where there will be fans in the stands.”
But what sort of product would those fans be watching next year? A couple years ago, it seemed as though 2021 was the target date for this to be close to a finished product. It’s hard to imagine that being the case now. In some fashion or another, this year has been a strain on just about everybody in the country. Among MLB teams, it looks as though it has been particularly harsh on the Mariners.
Stepping back has become the norm. And the day they step forward just looks further and further away.