The best-case scenario for the 2020 Mariners would’ve been going 60-0 with the players we had on our original roster (without calling up any of our prized prospects), followed by a rampage through the playoffs and our first (of many) World Series titles; my second and third wishes – for the record, if there are any lamp-imprisoned genies out there reading this – would be a billion tax-free American dollars given to me through no criminal means, and my very own Perpetual Orgasm Machine that I’m able to plug into Matrix-style for my own nonstop indulgence.
Since we obviously didn’t reach that apex of baseball achievement, I’d have to say the 2020 Mariners season was a qualified success! I’ll rate it a 7 out of 10 batting doughnuts (you don’t rate baseball success on a scale of batting doughnuts?). Based on expectations as a long-suffering Mariners fan, though, I’d have to bump it up to an 8 out of 10.
There was every reason to expect the worst this year. Key guys getting injured. Potential stars failing to develop. Botched trades. Useless free agent signings. Listless or negative clubhouse chemistry compounded exponentially as losses mounted. The Mariners have been in some form of rebuild since plummeting back to Earth in 2004. You can say they’ve never really torn the franchise down to the studs until this time around – and I’m inclined to agree with you – but there’s also no one right way to rebuild a franchise. As it turns out, hindsight being what it is, we know that all the ways we’ve tried it over the last 16 years have been utter failures, largely due to the reasons listed at the top of this paragraph; we’ve seen it all and then some!
So, to have the relative success this team was able to achieve is pretty remarkable. For the first time in a VERY long time, there is reason for actual hope. This feels real! Not based on a mountain of lies and unsustainably-lucky performances. We finished 27-33, and even with the playoffs expanded to eight teams per league, we still failed to get there. Honestly, I think that’s great! We didn’t overachieve! Because let’s face it, the last time there was this much hype around a bad, yet-hopefully-rebuilding Mariners squad, we did overachieve (in 2007 and again in 2009) and were crushingly disappointed (in 2008 and again in 2010).
Our general managers in those eras made what now feels like panic moves, to bolster a house of cards and see if we could parlay unlikely success into a return to meaningful, post-season baseball. And, we ended up losing over 100 games in response both times, falling apart under the weight of too-high expectations.
That isn’t to say the Mariners should stand pat going into 2021; just stick to the plan. The plan all along was to strip away the rotting, dead wood, give our young prospects an opportunity to flourish, and then add on complementary, quality veterans to slingshot into the stratosphere. While a 60-game, COVID-shortened season isn’t the ideal form of development for our young guys, it’s better than nothing. And, you can argue they flourished all the same.
The M’s are in desperate need for young, cheap, homegrown stars (not necessarily draft picks or international free agent signings, but really anyone acquired to work their way through our minor league system). Kyle Seager was really the last one to stick in any sort of meaningful way, and he obviously has a ceiling to his level of production; before him you’re probably looking at King Felix. That’s NOT a lot of stars over the last 15 years, which makes the futility all the more understandable.
With the crop of youngsters we have on the team now, and the guys in the upper levels of the minors (who figure to be called up pretty early on in the 2021 season), there are a considerable number of candidates who could be stars for this team. That’s so exciting!
As a change of pace, I’m going to rank the top Mariners I’m most excited about, with a little blurb for each.
- Jarred Kelenic – We did it! We kept him in the minors for the entirety of the 2020 season! That buys us an extra year of club control, and if we keep him down there for the first month or so in 2021, that’ll earn us one MORE year. This is important, see, because he’s far and away the best prospect we’ve had in the organization since King Felix, the best position player prospect we’ve had since Adam Jones, and probably the best position player prospect who we’re not going to foolishly trade away since Alex Rodriguez! If it all breaks as it should, his floor should be as a perennial All Star, with his ceiling being an MVP-calibre superstar.
- Kyle Lewis – Our should-be Rookie of the Year, he’s really exceeded expectations both in his 2019 cup of coffee and his 2020 surge forward. Of course, in both instances, we saw some struggles; his final month of this season was a pretty collosal nightmare from a batting average perspective. But, he remained a tough out – with a resepctable on-base percentage throughout – and took a huge leap in his defense, in locking down the everyday centerfield job. You never root for someone to do poorly, of course, but I don’t think his end to the season was a bad thing. He’s not a finished product, that’s clear. That’s also really exciting, because we know what the floor is (and that’s a really good player); we have no idea what the ceiling is, though, which allows us to dream as big as we want!
- Evan White – On paper, his rookie season wasn’t all that good, but there are still promising signs of things to come. For starters, he’s already among the best defensive first basemen in baseball. That’s going to paper over a lot of things for someone who slashed only .179/.253/.352. Anecdotally, though, I think we all saw some good improvement with his approach at the plate. In 54 games, he hit 7 doubles and 8 homers; extrapolate that out for nearly a full season and you’re looking at a 20/20 player. As a rookie? I’ll take that. This was good, pain-free experience for a still-developing prospect; I know I’ve said this a lot over the years, but I really believe he’s only going to get better from here. When he makes contact, the ball really explodes off his bat! This isn’t a Justin Smoak/Warning Track Power sort of swing; he’s got some pop that will play at this level! He just needs to improve his eye at the plate and his contact rate; everything else will work itself out in the years ahead.
- Marco Gonzales – What a stud. Just an absolute horse for this team. Someone to lead a new generation of exciting pitchers both with his outstanding on-field performance and his in-clubhouse guidance. I’ll be honest, I forgot we already extended him through 2025, but now that I confirmed it (and at a pretty reasonable salary to boot), I’m even more thrilled! When the M’s originally acquired him from the Cardinals in 2017, I thought we were getting just another ho-hum, soft-tossing lefty who at best would translate to a #5 starter, but more likely fizzle out of baseball entirely. Boy am I happy to be so wrong! He has gotten better every year he’s been here, to the point where you can legitimately have him in the Cy Young conversation! I thought his 2018/2019 level of production was his peak – a 4 ERA type of guy who might give you 175-200 innings and keep you in most games – but what he was in 2020 was a legitimate … ALMOST ace. He’s so close! If he can do what he did this season over 30+ starts next year, then I’ll absolutely give him that mantle for as long as he’s still in Seattle.
- Mitch Haniger – Don’t think I forgot about you! You know what’s exciting? Having an All Star locked and loaded and ready to go (hopefully) in 2021. He’s still young, he’s still at the Arbitration level for two more seasons, he’s STARVING to be back on the diamond and among the greats in this league again (so you know motivation won’t be an issue), and he’s still talented in all the ways you want in a right fielder. Sure, he might be a little rusty at first, but he hasn’t irrevocably declined; he’s just had nagging, freak injuries. Injuries, mind you, that should fully heal and shouldn’t hamper his ability going forward. I’m under the assumption that – before too long – he’ll return to his 2018 level, where he was a 6-WAR type of player. This further helps matters because, while the Mariners do have a considerable glut in outfield talent, they don’t necessarily have to call them all up right away. We’ve got Haniger here to soften the blow! Also, with the DH spot up for grabs, if we do end up extending Haniger beyond 2022, he can always transition there and prolong his career that way.
- J.P. Crawford – Before the final series of the season – where he raised his batting average nearly 30 points in four games – I think there was a lot of consternation about Crawford’s 2020 season. To that I would say: this is the same guy who was hitting nearly .400 through July 31st; he’s streaky! In great and maddening ways! If you offered me .259/.335/.343 out of him every year, with the quality defense he plays at short stop, I think I’d take that and be happy. I don’t think anyone loves the idea of him being this team’s leadoff hitter – though, he was pretty great at working counts and looking at a lot of pitches this year – but as a bottom-of-the-order type of guy with plus-defense? Yes please! But, more importantly, he’s young enough that there’s still plenty of potential for him to get better as he gets used to playing at this level. I think he’s fine, and I’m happy to continue rooting for him.
- Justus Sheffield – There was a lot of concern for him as I’ve noted before, the bloom had come off the rose a little bit (even though he only just turned 24 this year). He was always going to start this season in the Majors and be given every opportunity to work his way through any growing pains. I think he came out of it wildly successful given my pre-season expectations! Six of his ten starts were of the quality variety, and I’d argue it would’ve been seven of ten had the manager left him in there longer in his final appearance of the season (there was no reason to push him, since we weren’t playing for anything, but he had plenty left in the tank). The fastball isn’t great, but his slider is phenomenal, and I thought his command improved tremendously from where it was in 2019. When we traded James Paxton to get him, we’d hoped we were getting a future ace; I don’t think that’s in the cards here. But, he can be a quality #2 or an elite #3 in a great rotation if he continues to progress.
- Ty France – He’s not the biggest name we got in the Austin Nola deal, but he’s the most Major League-ready bat, which is just what this team needs. The question remains: where does he belong? Is he a DH until Kyle Seager moves on? Does he take over at third base after that? Do we try to transition him over to second base? Do we shoehorn him into left field until Kelenic gets called up? Or, is he simply trade bait for someone else who has a more established defensive fit for this team? What I’m excited about is the fact that his production at the plate didn’t falter one bit in going from San Diego to Seattle. You never know what you’re going to get when you trade for someone; sometimes the transition causes them to press and try to do too much (leading to mistakes). His bat plays anywhere in the 2-6 range in the lineup – depending on who you’ve got around him – and it should continue to be productive as long as he’s here (under team control through the 2025 season).
- Dylan Moore – He’s your frontrunner for the starting second baseman job next year, but he too can play all over the field if you need him. This is VERY impressive for someone who appeared to be nothing more than a utility guy (at best) or a Quad-A level talent (at worst). We’ve seen TONS of Dylan Moore types who never took the next step into being an everyday starter, which is why his story is so special. He came into this season and really set all of our expectations on fire! His defense has DRASTICALLY improved since the beginning of 2019, and now his bat – particularly his power numbers – has taken that leap as well. He’s yet another diamond in the rough this team was able to pluck from obscurity who should be a valuable player on the roster, as well as a valuable trade chip if we need him to be.
- Tom Murphy / Luis Torrens – Let’s just lump both of our prospective catchers in here. This has long been a troubled position for the Mariners (as an organization with LOTS of trouble spots they’ve failed to properly fill over the years, that’s really saying something). It’s so reassuring that we not only have this spot 100% locked down in 2021, but for many years to come (with prospect Cal Raleigh knocking on the door of the Majors, who figures to be our regular starting catcher as soon as 2022 or 2023). Murphy, of course, spent 2020 injured, but he should return at full health (and to his quality 2019 form). This, fortunately, afforded us ample opportunity to get a good, long look at Torrens, who also came over from San Diego, and was really reliable in all facets of the catching game for the M’s.
- Justin Dunn – Our other big rookie starter getting a “full” season’s worth of experience didn’t have quite as promising of a year as Sheffield. He too has a rather disappointing fastball, but makes up for it with tons of movement. Which means that he didn’t give up very many hits (or even a ton of hard-hit balls), but he walked a bunch of dudes (31 in just over 45 innings). You wonder, if he is able to harness things and stay within the strike zone more, if that’ll translate to giving up more hits and extra-base hits. BUT, if he’s able to put it ALL together, he could be a really special guy. As it is, this was just a year to get his feet wet, and he did that, while staying healthy throughout. He’s worked his arm up, accounting for four quality starts out of ten, and now it’s time to take what he’s learned this year and advance things in 2021 and beyond. Once again – with Sheffield – he’ll be given every opportunity to walk out of Spring Training with a starting rotation job, which means he has a significant head start over the younger guys we’ve drafted in recent years, who are champing at the bit to make their marks in the Major Leagues.
- Yohan Ramirez – The bullpen was an unmitigated disaster in 2020, but Ramirez – the Rule 5 guy we got from the Cheating Astros’ organization – managed to not only stay up all year, but be probably our best overall reliever, as well as the guy most poised to be our Closer of the Future. He made 16 appearances, got 3 saves, and had the best ERA on the team (of guys who finished the season on the 25-man roster). He had 26 strikeouts in 20.2 innings, so he’s got electric stuff; but he also had 20 walks in that span, which means he’s yet to fully harness it. Bullpen is such a crapshoot, and we’ve probably got 20 guys right behind him who all have potential to be at least competent, so I don’t know if it makes a ton of sense to go crazy here. I’m just happy we came out of this season with ONE guy I like!
I could go on and on; there are a few pitchers in the minors I’m pretty excited about, but I know almost nothing about them, and I don’t know what exactly they were able to accomplish in Tacoma this year, without any real games happening (and facing the same Mariners prospects over and over). Many of them won’t be ready until 2022 at the earliest, and even the guys who are on the cusp will still likely have to start 2021 in the minors just to prove they’re ready to be called up.
But, if you just look at the guys I talked about here, 2021 looks like it could be quite fun. By midseason, Kelenic, Lewis, and Haniger could be our outfielders. Seager, Crawford, Moore, White, and Murphy/Torrens could be our infield, with Ty France as our DH (and any number of good-looking bench/utility guys behind them, like Jose Marmolejos, Sam Haggerty, Tim Lopes, and Shed Long). What do you think about this lineup?
- Dylan Moore (2B)
- Mitch Haniger (RF)
- Kyle Lewis (CF)
- Kyle Seager (3B)
- Ty France (DH)
- Evan White (1B)
- Jarred Kelenic (LF)
- Tom Murphy/Luis Torrens (C)
- J.P. Crawford (SS)
Obviously, of course, Kelenic will eventually ascend toward the 2-4 range in the lineup, but as a rookie? Let’s give him a soft landing, at least until he’s worked through his inevitable struggles.
That’s a fun lineup, though, right?! Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais are already talking about the 2021 team contending for the playoffs – which is a good year (at least) earlier than most projections had us heading into this season – and that has to be a considerable reason why. Those guys can hit, defend, steal bases, get on base; everything you want! That’s a viable Major League everyday roster that can win a lot of ballgames.
On the pitching side of things, it’s a little more iffy. It sounds like we’re going to continue with a 6-man rotation, with four of the slots going to Marco, Justus Sheffield, Yusei Kikuchi, and Justin Dunn. Figure that Nick Margevicius and Ljay Newsome will compete for a fifth spot (with the other likely heading to the bullpen as a long reliever), and a sixth spot going to a free agent (maybe bring back Taijuan Walker, who was KILLING it in Toronto after we traded him; it’s a bummer that it doesn’t look like he got a chance to pitch in the playoffs, before they lost to the Rays). With all the money the Mariners have to spend, I have to imagine that whoever we sign in free agency will be of high quality. So, if you figure he’s at least on Marco’s level, that’s two high-quality starters at the top of the rotation, with two promising young guys in Sheffield & Dunn, and Kikuchi who will hopefully figure it out at some point (considering his pedigree in the Japanese league). Also, not for nothing, but Margevicius and Newsome both threw lots of strikes and consistently kept the M’s in ballgames, so I have no problem with either one of them.
It’s not a dominant rotation, but as long as guys don’t regress too bad, you can win a lot with them.
The bullpen is another matter, of course. You figure the M’s will also look to free agency here to shore it up, but I won’t be holding my breath. The variance from season to season when it comes to relievers makes them too unpredictable to project. It’s going to take a lot of luck – in finding the right guys, as well as helping our homegrown guys improve in their development – but if the Mariners somehow hit the lottery with their bullpen configuration, then 2021 could very well be the year we end the streak.
It could be the first year since 2001 that we make the post-season!
(it would also help if MLB kept the playoff format as is, with eight teams per league advancing, but that’s neither here nor there).
As I mentioned, every time I’ve left a season allowing myself to dream big about the future, the Mariners have fallen on their faces. This time DOES feel different, though. The foundation doesn’t seem like it’s being held together by 15 year old duct tape, with a leaking roof and spiders crawling all over the basement. The veterans are still in their primes, the young guys look poised to develop early, and if we can just catch a fucking BREAK for once, maybe there will be cause for real, legitimate celebration in 2021!
Or, you know, maybe everything falls apart again, the front office all gets fired after making all these promises of contention, panic moves – made in hopes to save their jobs – all bite us horrifically in the ass, and we’re left to do this all over again in another 5-10 years.
When I put it that way, when do the Seattle Kraken start playing?