Writing about an individual before the season has even started is the ultimate kiss of death for the weak-willed motherfucker.
If you wanted to put the 2022 Mariners in a nutshell, you’d say that they got to where they were because of their pitching, but ultimately failed to go any further because of their hitting. A 1-0 loss in 18 innings to end our playoff run isn’t a perfect microcosm of that team, but it’ll get the job done.
After this most recent offseason, I think it’s safe to say the 2023 Mariners will go as far as their pitching will take them, and ultimately fail to go any further because of their hitting. That’s not a reason for dismay, necessarily, because an argument can be made that their pitching is set to be even better this year, while there’s always a chance for the hitting to also be improved.
To put it politely, there’s a lot of room for variance among the bottom third of the lineup. But, I think we’re all banking on the upper two-thirds to be as advertised. Julio Rodriguez is going to play like a superstar. Ty France is going to be steady while he’s healthy, and he’s going to slowly break down over the course of the season as he leads the league in being hit by pitches. Eugenio Suarez is going to lead the team in homers and strikeouts. Cal Raleigh is going to be one of the most valuable catchers in the game. And Kolten Wong is going to bring veteran at-bats to every game he plays in. Even if the bottom third stinks, it’s going to give us occasional bouts of competence (at the very least), and when you wrap it all up, that should make the Mariners – with the pitching we’ve accumulated – playoff participants for the second year in a row.
There’s a real wild card here who could make all the difference. For once, I’m not talking about the impending breakout season of Jarred Kelenic. No, this time I’m talking about our lone major hitting addition this past offseason: Teoscar Hernandez.
Last year, we were saddled with far too many games featuring a massively-underperforming Jesse Winker, and a wildly-disappointing Abraham Toro, with precious too-few games from Mitch Haniger. That’s just a lot of turmoil for an outfield (Toro obviously played a lot of second base as well, but he was also a utility outfielder at times), which we had hoped was going to be one of our biggest strengths. Hernandez will hopefully stabilize things a little bit.
He’s a two-time Silver Slugger who’s averaged over 20 homers in every non-COVID season the last five years. Easily his best season came in 2021 when he hit a career high 32 homers, while slashing .296/.346/.524. That’s the ceiling. At least, for now.
He’s also in his age 30 season, heading into the final year of his contract. He just lost an Arbitration case with the Mariners, meaning he’s only getting $14 million instead of the $16 million that he wanted. With the way free agents are racking up the dough with these contracts nowadays, he’s in line for a massive payday after this season. So, he has all the motivation in the world to overcome the marine layer in Seattle and play his absolute best ball of his life.
And, frankly, the Mariners need it.
Our margin for error is razor thin, when it comes to competing with the Astros for the division. We need everything to break right, up to and including Teoscar and/or Julio playing like the MVP of the American League. But, given how injury luck can strike, along with the natural variance of the game of baseball, it also wouldn’t shock me if the Mariners weren’t quite locks to even make a wild card spot. Getting the most out of Hernandez would go a long way toward ensuring we don’t come up a game or two short at the end.
The worst case scenario for all involved is for Hernandez to hit the IL for a significant portion of the season. That’s going to – depending on the injury – drastically reduce his value in free agency, while at the same time severely hamper our ability to compete this season.
The best case scenario for all involved is for Hernandez to jack 40+ homers, hit around .280, and knock in 90+ RBI, followed by some other team overpaying for his services next offseason (or, if the Mariners do sign him to an extension, then he turns into a young Nelson Cruz in his prime).
With Teoscar in that group of guys at the top of the lineup, crushing the ball like he’s never crushed it before, we could really do some damage this year! There’s nothing more fearsome than a talented player in contract year. If you can factor that in with more DH days for Ty (to rest his body), with more familiarity by Suarez when it comes to facing A.L. pitching, and with a skyrocketing career trajectory by Julio, there’s no telling how far this team can go. It’s not necessarily about winning the division (though, that would be most delightful), it’s about getting hot come playoff time and riding our pitching to a World Series championship.