The 2021 Seattle Mariners State Of The Union

We just wrapped up a wildly entertaining and overachieving season by the Seattle Mariners. They won 90 games for the first time since 2003 and fell just two games short of the playoffs. We’re in the thick of a full-on rebuild, but it’s the fun part of the rebuild: where things turn from being a perennial loser to hopefully a perennial winner. If things go according to plan, the 2022 Mariners should make the postseason for the first time since 2001 – breaking the longest drought in all of the major North American sports – and the 2023 Mariners should start contending for American League pennants and World Series championships.

There’s also a Glass Half Empty outlook to this whole thing. Because this is Seattle, and these are the Mariners, so of course we have every reason to believe it’ll all go to shit like everything else in our sports universe.

Let’s start with the hitting: the Mariners were dead-last in the American League with a .226 batting average. We were second-to-last with a .303 on-base percentage and .385 slugging percentage. That’s all good for a second-to-last OPS of .688; we were one of only two teams (the Texas Rangers, at the exceedingly UNFUN portion of a rebuild, where they’re legitimately one of the worst squads in all of baseball) with an OPS under .700. And, as far as pitching goes, we were very much middle-of-the-road across the board.

We were 90-72, but ninth in the American League with a -51 run differential. Our Pythagorean win/loss record indicates we should’ve been 76-86 (per Baseball Reference). So, how do you make sense of a season like this? Well, the M’s were 11-28 in blowouts (games decided by 5 or more runs), but we were 33-19 in 1-run games.

It boils down to the starters being good enough to keep us in most ballgames, our manager pulling the right strings regarding when to take them out of harm’s way, and a bullpen that, in part, was one of the best units in the league. And, our hitters being among the most clutch I’ve ever seen. They didn’t hit much, but when they did, they made those opportunities count! Often late in games, to either come from behind, or break a tie to win it in thrilling fashion.

So, where do we attribute the Mariners’ success and ultimate failure?

Well, for the highlights, look no further than J.P. Crawford, Ty France, Mitch Haniger, and Kyle Seager, on the hitting side of things. They had an inordinate amount of impact on just how well the Mariners performed this season. It’s not even close; the drop-off after those four guys is insane. You don’t LOVE to see something like that, because Seager is gone next year, and Haniger only has one year of Arbitration left before he might walk in free agency.

What you want to see is the young guys stepping up and assuming huge roles; I’ll discuss these guys in a separate post, but suffice it to say, they weren’t quite up to the task just yet.

But, Crawford and France are still pretty young, with lots of team control remaining. They’re not nothing!

If you think about the Mariners in 2-3 year chunks, then we’ve got at least those two guys in the fold and producing at a high level. We can always extend Haniger after next year, or if we don’t, that means we likely have someone else of a high calibre who can fill his shoes (Julio Rodriguez, for instance).

In the meantime, as I’ll get into another time, it’s far from doom-and-gloom with the young guys. Plus, it’s not like we’re going to rest on our laurels with the guys in the farm system. We’ll bring in veterans in free agency and trades to fill out the lineup, and make up for the loss of Seager.

As for the starting pitching side of things, who doesn’t love what Chris Flexen did as a bargain-basement signing? He led the starters in innings pitched, WAR, ERA, and wins, and he did it with sustainable stuff that should continue to play as a solid #2 or #3 starter. Marco Gonzales continued to do Marco Gonzales things. And, Logan Gilbert had a strong first season, seeming to improve as the year went on (more on him later).

The downside is, that’s pretty much it. James Paxton got injured on day one. Yusei Kikuchi likely pitched his way off the team (losing a 4-year, $66 million option in the process), though he could always exercise a 1-year player option for $13 million (but, that seems unlikely, as you’d think someone else would fork over more guaranteed dollars and try to fix his issues). Justus Sheffield was one of the biggest disappointments on the team and his future is very much in doubt. Justin Dunn lost half his season to injury, but wasn’t all that effective in the half he was healthy. Tyler Anderson was a competent back-of-the-rotation starter we acquired at the trade deadline, but he’ll be a free agent this offseason and will be looking for a significant raise.

I would argue the Mariners need at least two starters, and it’s debatable as to whether or not the young guys in our farm system are ready yet. If we’re trying to make the playoffs in 2022, entrusting two more rotation spots to rookies seems like a bad idea. But, we have to do better than Sheffield and Dunn, so they better figure something out.

The bullpen was the biggest pleasant surprise on the team. Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider, and Casey Sadler were all lights out! Diego Castillo was fine, though it’s hard to want to trust him in the highest-leverage situations. Kendall Graveman was excellent when he was here, and he netted us a nice little return in Abraham Toro; plus we could always sign him again this offseason if we wanted!

The thing is, we have team control with all of those guys (save Graveman), and I haven’t even gotten to the younger guys who I’ll talk about later. Nor did I mention Ken Giles, who missed this year with injury, but is signed through the 2022 season and is slated to return and be a big part of this group! The bullpen went from being arguably this team’s biggest weakness heading into the 2021 season, to being arguably its biggest strength heading into 2022. That’s HUGE (with the usual caveat being: bullpens are notoriously volatile from year-to-year, so they could all shit the bed as well).

So, what’s the state of the union as we exit 2021 and head into 2022?

I know the marketing materials would tell us it’s all looking up, and I’m buying right into the rose-colored glasses this organization is trying to peddle, but I think they’re right! I like the looks of things for the Mariners in the coming years. I’m not going to sit here and guarantee a playoff spot in 2022; I could easily see this team taking a step backwards.

Odds are, the 2022 Mariners won’t be quite so lucky in 1-run games. Odds are, the 2022 Mariners won’t hit quite so well in the clutch. Odds are, the 2022 Mariners will continue to suffer injuries to key guys (anyone remember Kyle Lewis?).

The thing is, we could see all of that; we could even see the 2022 Mariners end up as a sub-.500 ballclub in the overall standings! That having been said, we could see all of that while the team itself continues to grow and get better. Maybe we start out slow, losing games we expected to win, but in the process we get to watch more young guys make their Major League debuts. We get to see other young guys continue to blossom into Major Leaguers and All Stars. Maybe 2022 is the final step-back before things all skyrocket in 2023 and beyond.

The point is, there will be more bumps in the road. Things never EVER go according to plan. But, that doesn’t mean the overall outlook isn’t high. Just don’t put too much pressure on the year right in front of us. It might take two years, and that’s okay.

But, if we’re not in the playoffs by 2023, there should be hell to pay. Because how do you fuck up an organization with a farm system this stacked? Well, if anyone can fuck it up, you know the Mariners can!