The Mariners Have The Biggest Divisional Lead In Baseball Right Now

Gotta get this post up before the inevitable crash!

After a 6-1 homestand – including a 3-game sweep of the Texas Rangers over the weekend – the Mariners now lead the A.L. West by 8.5 games. I think I read somewhere that this is the biggest divisional lead we’ve had since 2001, which was – of course – the last time we actually won the division. We are a whopping 17-5 against our division, including 4-2 against the Astros and 5-1 against the defending World Series champion Rangers.

For as bad as the actual start to this season was – 6-10 through April 14th – this is about as good of an outcome as you could hope for through June 16th. Not for nothing, but the Mariners are 37-21 since that nadir. Not too damn shabby.

At some point, we have to accept that this is who the Mariners are. They’re good. They’re not great. They obviously have some significant holes. An unluckier team might be down around .500, as opposed to 12 games over .500. But, this team isn’t going anywhere. Not without a significant amount of pitching injuries.

If this is what the Mariners are doing AS IS, that brings a couple questions to mind. #1 – what happens when certain players meet their inevitable positive regression? I’m going to go out on a limb and say Mitch Garver isn’t a .173 hitter all of a sudden. I’m also going to say that Jorge Polanco – when he comes back – will probably be better than .195. Now, I don’t know if those guys are going to be leaps & bounds better than what they’ve shown; I also don’t know if they’re going to continue to be around and given the playing time sufficient to pull themselves out of these respective season-long slumps. But, I would expect at least a little improvement.

I would also expect J.P. Crawford to go on a heater anytime now. Mitch Haniger, we know, has it in him. Now that Raley and Rojas have cooled off, can they readjust and get back to killing the baseball? And, we all know Julio and Cal have another gear that we haven’t quite seen yet.

So, what happens when those guys get it going a little more? Is that going to take place around the same time the pitching inevitably slumps? Well, that would be unlucky, wouldn’t it? Or, maybe perfectly lucky, depending on how clutch the offense can get.

My second question is that – if the Mariners are this good AS IS – how good can they be after adding a couple of competent bats at the trade deadline next month?

Well, obviously, that’s been a point of concern for me lately. Based on historical precedent, I don’t have a ton of confidence in their ability to deal well at the deadline.

If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you know I’m prone to worry about a lot of things when it comes to the teams I follow. This is the first time I’ve written about how these 2024 Mariners are the Real Deal. It would take quite a collapse for them to blow this 8.5-game lead in the division. We also compare favorably to the wild card teams in the American League, just in case this is the second-coming of the 2002 and 2003 Mariners, where we gag away our chances in the second half.

So, this leads me into my newest concern. It’s unfamiliar territory, yet one I think at least long-time Mariners fans can relate to: what if this team is built more for the regular season than it is the post-season?

You can’t deny that this pitching staff is as good as it gets in baseball. The rotation, 1-6, is lights out. In the bullpen, we’ve got an elite closer, a couple of nice leverage arms, and competence throughout. We’ve also got a couple of nice wildcards in Logan Evans and Gregory Santos to boost us in the second half.

But, what does this group look like in the playoffs?

Castillo has been good, but it’s not like he’s Felix in his prime. There’s occasional brilliance, but more often than not, it’s 6 innings and 2 runs. Which, don’t get me wrong, is GREAT for the regular season. If you’re throwing Quality Starts out there more often than not, you’re all right in my book. But, in the playoffs, it’s anywhere from a 3-7 game series. You don’t have a lot of chances. And, if your ace blows a game, that’s a big hole to climb out of. It’s not like we can rely on pulling Castillo prematurely, because usually those two runs are being scored early. And, with the way this offense struggles to score runs through the first two-thirds of games, you’re more likely to try to squeeze a little extra out of Castillo, who tends to get better as the game goes on.

Then, there’s Kirby, who has been really up and down this season. He’s put up a lot of 0- and 1-run games, but he also has five starts of 4 runs or more given up. In the playoffs, that’s a death sentence. Or, rather, in the playoffs – with this offense – that’s a death sentence. Because, I don’t care how much we’re able to do at the deadline, we’re still going to enter the post-season with a lot of question marks on offense.

Hell, even when the Mariners have had an elite offense – back in the 90’s and early 2000’s – they still struggled mightily in the playoffs. Why? Because you’re only going up against elite teams, and all elite teams have elite pitching staffs.

I’ve probably waffled over Logan Gilbert a thousand times in his career, but that game he pitched on Sunday against the mighty Rangers’ offense – 8 innings, 0 runs, 0 walks, 2 hits, 9 strikeouts – might’ve put him over the top for me, at least when compared to Kirby, if not to the entire starting rotation. That was an absolutely brilliant performance! He had everything working, against a really tough opponent who was trying like crazy to not get swept by their direct rivals.

What’s most encouraging to me about Gilbert is his ability to go deep into games. He leads the Major Leagues in innings pitched! He’s got a really good ERA – 2.93 – but it’s not Cy Young calibre just yet. He’s got a low WAR – 1.9 – compared to the other greats across baseball. And, obviously, his 4-4 record isn’t anything to write home about (mostly because it feels like he gets among the worst run support in the game today). But, there’s been a number of times this year where his starts have gone from potentially elite, to merely just good, thanks to a late bomb or run scored, when he’s trying to eke out another inning. If he can clean that up, he’s got Cy Young written all over him.

As it stands now, though, Gilbert seems to have the best and most varied arsenal of the bunch. Bryce Miller is close, but he lacks the command to know where everything is going to go. Gilbert looks pretty close to having mastered the command of his splitter and a variety of other off-speed stuff, to go with that outstanding fastball. Especially that splitter, though; he had that thing dropping like a yo-yo against the Rangers!

Kirby, on the other hand, is still pretty fastball-heavy. He’s trying with his off-speed stuff, but he’s not good enough yet to get those balls to consistently fall out of the strike zone. As such, he’s struggling with his swing-and-miss at times, and that’s hurting his overall numbers.

I would like to see this team really maximize Gilbert. If he’s not this team’s ace, he should at least be our number two in the playoffs. But, even then, will it be enough?

As I said before, when you get to the playoffs, they ALL have elite pitching. And, as we’ve seen all year, you don’t necessarily need elite pitching to shut down this Mariners offense. The funny thing about this offense is that it kinda doesn’t matter who they face. They’re going to score 3-4 runs per game against the best AND the worst. We’ve seen them eat into pitch counts against aces, we’ve seen them overcome deficits against top-notch closers … AND we’ve seen them suck against soft-tossing junkball pitchers. No rhyme or reason to any of it!

I will say that I’ve been fairly discouraged with our lineups against lefty starters. We tried a lineup last Thursday against the White Sox – during the Buhner Buzz Cut night that I attended with some friends – that was among the worst I’ve ever seen. A struggling Dylan Moore in the 2-hole; a miserable Mitch Garver batting cleanup and DH’ing; a bottom four of Tyler Locklear (who actually managed to hit a solo homer against a pretty elite starter), Victor Robles (who should be off of this team very soon), Ryan Bliss (who probably just doesn’t have it, and needs to go back to Tacoma), and Seby Zavala (who I thought would’ve been cut by now, since Garver has become Kirby’s own personal catcher). The offense was as bad as advertised in that one, yet an Emerson Hancock spot start (7 innings, just 2 solo homers in the third), and a clutch Julio bomb in the ninth to tie it, took that game into extras, where unfortunately they scored their ghost runner and we didn’t.

That was the difference between a perfect homestand and a still very, very good one.

Which is funny, because the Mariners were fortunate to take 3 of 4 against the lowly White Sox. We really played down to our competition in that series! It required beating up on their maligned bullpen to do as well as we did. Yet, we came back against Texas and really poured it on! That was nice to see, after some iffy baseball against the Sox.

Thus ends our stretch of 30 games in 31 days. A positively BRUTAL stretch that should be outlawed in the MLB at this point. If you can’t give teams one fucking day off a week, then what are we even doing as a society? Yet, we managed to go 19-11 in that stretch. That was a real Separate The Men From The Boys part of the season, and we passed with flying colors.

Things calm down a bit as we head into the All Star Break, but not before another extended east coast road trip, starting in Cleveland tomorrow before a Florida two-step to play the Marlins and Rays. If we’re looking ahead, there’s only a 3-game set in Boston in the second half, otherwise our road trips only go as far east as Pittsburgh. There’s five series total played in the central or eastern timezones outside of our division in the second half. There’s also only one more trip to Texas (we play the Rangers and Astros back-to-back in late September). So, once we get past this immediate road swing, it’s SMOOTH SAILING as far as travel goes the rest of the way.

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