Given the difficulties of trying to finish the shortened 2020 regular season and all the restrictions required, then factoring in the lack of a coronavirus vaccine and the inability to institute universal rapid testing, it’s illogical to assume the 2021 baseball season will return to normal.
And yet, it’s so easy to want to think about the progress of the Mariners’ current rebuild in the framework of a 2021 MLB season that’s hopefully close to what it’s always been: a regular spring training, a full 162-game season, minor-league seasons being played and fans in the stands.
But coming off this odd, 60-game season, it’s fair to wonder if Seattle’s timeline to “success” — a word that seems to have relative definitions — has to have been slowed or sidetracked in some way.
The plan to get inexperienced position players like Kyle Lewis, Evan White, Shed Long Jr. and Jake Fraley close to 140 games and 500 plate appearances never materialized in 2020, nor did Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield getting 25-plus MLB starts. Meanwhile, top prospects such as Logan Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic, who were possibilities to debut in a normal 2020 season after three-plus months of minor-league games, never played a meaningful game after spring training was canceled.
The Mariners’ on-field performance and results were inconsistent, with stretches of poor play and stretches of promising potential.
But general manager Jerry Dipoto’s consistent optimism about the progress has remained.
“It’s exciting to think about moving forward with this group, knowing the group in that clubhouse is largely going to be the group that comes back and forms our foundation next year,” Dipoto said in a postseason video conference Monday. “We feel like we didn’t take a step backward in a year that could have easily been disrupted. … I thought it was a really encouraging year.”
However, even Dipoto admits there’s some uncertainty about the pandemic and how it has affected the organization, his players and the plan he put in place after the 2018 season.
“Our goal was to gain our experience through 2020 and make our adjustments,” Dipoto said. “And we did that. We may need a month or two in ’21, not knowing what the loss of the minor-league season did to us because that we just don’t know. … So that next wave of players, I’m not entirely sure what the timing looks like, or their progression.”
And yet …
“I think we’re in a really nice position for ’21,” he said. “And our goal would be to go out there and contend for a playoff spot. And I don’t think that’s an unrealistic goal.”
When he began articulating the rebuild, labeled a “step back,” Dipoto often pointed to the end of 2020 as a time when the prospect cache would begin to fill the roster and the middle of 2021 as a time when it would start to gel. While others thought perhaps 2022 or 2023 was more realistic, he hasn’t really wavered other than the month or two delay.
Manager Scott Servais maintained a similar timeline, and said he believes the last 35 to 40 games of the 60-game season verified it.
“We had 2019 as a transitional year where we needed to make some moves on and off our roster,” he said in a video conference. “And 2020 was about, ‘OK, we have our young players here, now we’ve got to give them opportunity,’ which was the second step in this process. I think the next step looking into 2021 is now we’ve got to get over the hump and win and get into the playoffs. So 2021 is going to be a big year for us.”
It’s seems crazy to think about a team projected to lose 100 games in a normal season making this sort of jump. But it’s not unprecedented. The rumors that MLB will keep the expanded postseason with eight teams from each league expedites the expectations, as do the issues surrounding the Astros, Angels and Rangers.
Could the longest active playoff drought, dating back to 2001, end in 2021?
“I do have hope,” Dipoto said. “And I believe our group does as well. And I believe that we would have been in a position like that had we played another hundred and two games, just based on how our team was starting to evolve and the young players grow. I think there’s this long-held belief that you’re going to go from the 66-win team to the 72-win team to the 76-win team to the 85-win team to the playoffs. And it doesn’t really work like that. Usually it’s a couple of 66s, a 75 and then, bam. You add the right free agent and the young players get their reps and you’re good to go.”
For the first time since Dipoto has been GM, there isn’t the glaring need or desire to retool the roster. A good portion of that will remain the same. The infield will feature Kyle Seager at third base, J.P. Crawford at shortstop, White at first base with Long and Dylan Moore competing for the starting job at second base. The outfield will have Lewis in center and Mitch Haniger in right field with Kelenic likely taking over the everyday duties in left field by mid-May. Phillip Ervin, Braden Bishop and Fraley likely will compete for the fourth outfield spot while Jose Marmolejos, Tim Lopes and Sam Haggerty will compete for other bench spots. The catchers will be Tom Murphy and Luis Torrens.
Haniger missed the entire 2020 season as he recovered from multiple offseason injuries. But he’s healthy and working out.
“We’re anticipating that he’ll be 100%,” Dipoto said. “His recovery has really picked up steam this last 30 or 40 days especially. … Right now, my 100% belief is that Mitch Haniger will be our right fielder on opening day.”
Dipoto confirmed again that the Mariners still plan to use a six-man rotation in 2021. It will feature Marco Gonzales at the front of the rotation with lefties Sheffield and Yusei Kikuchi locked into spots. Kikuchi is on a major-league contract, while Sheffield was the Mariners’ second-best starter this season. The other three spots will be up for competition with Dunn, Nick Margevicius, Gilbert and at least one free-agent signee.
“We think with the limited number of innings we were able to throw in 2020 that we’re putting our players in a position to be healthier, stronger,” Dipoto said of the six-man rotation. “I think what we learned in 2020 was that the combination of the extra days rest and the freshness that it provided, we had crisper stuff, more precision and more consistency across the board.”
The bullpen is where the greatest churn will occur. The group was the obvious weak spot this season as injuries, inexperience and inconsistent performances played major roles.
Right-handers Yohan Ramirez and Joey Gerbert and lefty Anthony Misiewicz — all rookies — had solid stretches of production, while right-handers Brandon Brennan and Erik Swanson had decent 2019 seasons and showed some moments of success in 2020.
Dipoto was clear they will add ‘three or four guys down there’ to the bullpen via free agency.
They must also decide on whether they will pick up the $3.5 million option for Kendall Graveman, who was converted from starting to relieving due to a benign bone tumor in his neck. There are concerns about Graveman’s durability and availability over the course of a full season, but there is little doubt about his stuff.
It’s safe to assume the 2021 season will be played in some way. What it will look like is difficult to know. But regardless of the circumstances, the Mariners — their front office, coaches and players — believe they can and will contend for a postseason spot.
If they somehow achieve that goal, it will make next season very different compared to seasons past.