Can The Mariners Overtake The Astros In 2023?

As we get closer to the start of Spring Training – which commences in a couple weeks – it’s looking less and less likely that the Mariners will make a big, impactful move to improve this year’s team. Although, to be fair, the Winker/Suarez deal came down in mid-March last year, so it’s not impossible for something huge to come down the pike. Nevertheless, we can only render judgments on things as we know them today.

And today, we have a team that added Teoscar Hernandez, Kolten Wong, Trevor Gott, and A.J. Pollock; they lost Mitch Haniger (Giants), Kyle Lewis (Diamondbacks), Jesse Winker (Brewers), Abraham Toro (Brewers), Adam Frazier (Orioles), Carlos Santana (Pirates), and Erik Swanson (Blue Jays), among others. Feels like a wash to me. We’re REALLY banking a lot of our hopes and dreams on Hernandez and Wong coming to Seattle and continuing their relatively high-quality play. I get why we made these moves – Haniger is an injury waiting to happen, Winker and Toro were busts here, Frazier and Santana might be over the hill – but I can see a world where Winker bounces back when fully healthy, and where Haniger manages to keep his body right and not succumb to some more atrocious injury luck.

The justification for not spending a lot in free agency, or taking a lot of money on in trades, is due to our extending Julio Rodriguez and Luis Castillo in the middle of last year. Somehow, those two get lumped into our Hot Stove tally sheet by the Mariners, mostly to play down the complaints that the M’s are fucking tightwads, but that’s neither here nor there. They are who they are.

I’m not as up in arms as a lot of fans are. For the most part, I think the Mariners are building the right way. I’m already on record as saying I hate these big-money deals for outside free agents (the Robinson Cano conundrum). And I understand the farm system took a hit in the rankings – thanks to guys graduating to the Majors, and other guys getting traded away in the Castillo deal – so there’s not a ton of value left to jettison. It’s smart to not completely gut our minors just to bring in one more guy, especially if we’re not necessarily One More Guy away from winning a World Series. What I take issue with is the fact that there were mid-tier free agents out there who we could’ve signed to mid-level free agent deals – knowing we needed at least one more outfielder, as well as someone to rotate at DH – and we opted for A.J. Pollock. I think that’s going to burn us; I hope I’m wrong.

At some point, we have to move forward with the team we’ve been given. Which brings us to the question at hand: can the Mariners overtake the Astros in 2023?

This question assumes, of course, that the Mariners and Astros are the two best teams in the A.L. West, and by “overtaking the Astros”, it means the Mariners will win the division. For the sake of argument, then, let’s just further assume there’s no huge surprise team among the Angels, Rangers, or Athletics (who I would expect to finish in that order at the bottom of the division, though there’s always the chance the Rangers make a leap).

I’ll start with this: I haven’t kept great tabs on the Astros’ wheelings and dealings this offseason. I’m just taking it for granted they’re going to be at least as good as they were in 2022. Meaning: they’re probably good enough to win over 100 games. Last year, the Astros won 106 games, and were 16 games better than the Mariners. So, that’s the gap I’m talking about. Can we make up 16 games on them?

Well, for one thing, since we only play them 13 times – down from the usual 19 – there are fewer opportunities to gain ground in head-to-head play. But, as we’ve seen pretty much since the Astros joined the American League, that actually means there are fewer opportunities for them to beat our brains in. In my mind, that can only be a good thing for the M’s.

There are two, MAYBE three major things that I’m pointing to as reasons for optimism. The big two being: Luis Castillo and Julio Rodriguez. As much as I loathe including them as part of our overall spending this offseason, I do think there’s a legitimate argument to be made in favor of the Mariners picking up some wins in 2023.

Recall we traded for Castillo on July 30th last year; this year, we get him for the full season! (I should point out that this post also has to assume that everyone I write about stays healthy all year, or at least the vast majority of the games, for all teams involved; of course, the M’s could overtake the Astros if their top five guys all go down with ACL tears). Castillo was a 1 WAR player for the Mariners over the final two months; he counted 3.1 WAR for the Reds. What difference will he make at the top of our rotation every 5-6 days (depending how deep of a rotation we opt to go with to start out) for a full six months? I think that’s pretty significant.

Also recall that Julio Rodriguez was effectively worthless in the month of April last year, as he was getting his footing at the Major League level. Now he’s an All Star who should play at a very high level from Day 1. Having that experience last year can only boost him that much more in year two (let’s hope there’s no Sophomore Slump!). You can also say something similar about Cal Raleigh; he was officially demoted to Tacoma for a short spell before injury thrust him back to Seattle, where he FINALLY turned it around. I’m a little more concerned about his effectiveness this year; he’s still pretty boom or bust at the plate. But, let’s just say he SHOULD be as good as he was in the second half last year, and if we get that for a full season, it’ll be a nice lift for this offense in the months of April and May.

Finally, as a little bonus, I’ll just quickly add that the training wheels are officially off of Logan Gilbert, and the experience he’s had through two seasons will hopefully propel him towards one of those upper rotation slots. If he’s not a second ace on this team, I would expect him to be at least an effective #2. His career trajectory to date has been remarkable, and there’s still room for him to get better. We’re just getting into George Kirby’s second season, where it’s expected the training wheels are very much still on (considering he pitched a lot more as a rookie than the team expected going into last year). But, his ceiling looks to be even higher than Gilbert’s, so as long as these guys don’t have any major setbacks, you’re talking about one of the best rotations in all of baseball, starting on Day 1.

Is that enough? The bullpen will have to continue being lights out. The offense will have to continue being timely with their hitting and cluster luck. If everything goes according to plan, and we don’t run into a bunch of guys having career-worst seasons, I think there’s an okay chance. Maybe a 66.67% chance the Astros win the division, with a 33.33% chance the Mariners prevail. That’s not amazing, but considering it’s usually a 99.99% chance the Astros dominate, I’ll take it.

Why Jarred Kelenic Being Penciled In As A Starter Is Potentially A Good Thing

We as fans like to think we know everything. We’re entitled pricks! It’s fine; we pay their fucking salaries, the least they can do is put up with our bullshit.

Anyway, sometimes it’s good to take a step back and acknowledge that teams generally know more than we do. Or, at the very least, they HAVE knowledge that we don’t. At the beginning of the year, the Seahawks started multiple rookie cornerbacks over veterans who had looked pretty good the previous season. We thought they were crazy, but lo and behold, Tariq Woolen and Coby Bryant had pretty solid-to-elite rookie years!

The Mariners know good and well where they are set and where they struggled a year ago. They know what their holes are. At this point in the offseason, they’ve swapped out Teoscar Hernandez for Mitch Haniger in right field. They shed Jesse Winker from left and gave Kyle Lewis a fresh start with another organization who can better afford to keep him on their 40-man. What they didn’t do is … ANYTHING to fill the void in left field, to say nothing of what’s going to happen with the DH spot. We’ve got Dylan Moore, we’ve got Sam Haggerty, and we brought in a right-handed platoon bat in A.J. Pollock for the 25% of the time we face left-handed starters.

Meaning that unless another big deal is coming down the pike in the next month, we’re looking at a healthy dose of Jarred Kelenic.

I find that very intriguing. I just got done telling you how the Mariners know good and well where they struggled a year ago, and one of the most prominent struggle spots was, indeed, Kelenic. So, why would a team that just broke through into the playoffs for the first time in two decades – a team with even higher expectations for 2023 – go into a season essentially guaranteeing a guy like Kelenic the opportunity to start in left? Make no mistake, Moore and Haggerty are insurance policies. But, Kelenic will be given every opportunity to succeed, because he has the highest upside of anyone on this team not named Julio Rodriguez.

On the one hand, this move could blow up in their faces. Kelenic could start this season like he’s started every season in the bigs, sucking HARD at the plate. He could go up and down to and from Tacoma a few times. He could play himself right out of the organization with his value the lowest it’s ever been.

But, I don’t think they believe that’s what’s going to happen. Granted, what organization in its right mind would start a guy they expect to fail? He would have to make significant strides in his development to be the kind of player we need in left. We’ve had ample opportunities to address this void, both in trades and free agents. We have enough prospects to make that spot at least league average; there were deals that could’ve been made. Instead, the Mariners seem content to roll with Kelenic. And that in and of itself gives me hope.

If it backfires, I guess there’s still the trade deadline. But, that’s a pretty huge blunder. So, let’s hope what they’re saying is on point: Kelenic is still VERY young, and there’s plenty of time for him to reach his full potential.

Who Is A.J. Pollock?

Well, he’s a new Mariners outfielder, having just signed a 1-year, $7 million deal with incentives that can bring it to $10 million. I don’t know what those incentives are yet, but I’m guessing they’ll be relatively attainable if he just does what he’s supposed to do.

According to … statistics, he apparently crushes left-handed pitching. If we just go by last year, he was a monster against lefties, and he was pretty mediocre against righties. It should also be noted that almost exactly 1/4 of his plate appearances came against lefties, which pretty much checks out. There are lots more right handed pitchers in baseball than lefties. So, 1/4 of the time, he’s elite. 3/4 of the time he’s somewhere between 2022 Jesse Winker and Jarred Kelenic.

I think those comparisons are relevant to my overall feeling about this signing, because I remember everyone with fingers and an Internet connection telling me that Winker’s greatest attribute was his ability to mash right-handed pitching. Even if he struggled against lefties, you could platoon him and be fine. What happened? Well, for starters, the Season From Hell happened. But, he also weirdly hit much better against lefties and struggled (compared to his previous norms) against righties. I’m not saying it’s going to flip-flop with Pollock the way it did with Winker (that might actually make it a genius move, if true), but I’m just saying beware of making assumptions about guys who have had successful track records.

A.J. Pollock is 35 years old. Sure, he had a 3.1 WAR season in 2021, but last year it was 0.4 (largely due to those platoon splits). He hasn’t been an All Star since 2015 (his Major League debut was in 2012). Last year was also his first in the American League, after being a career National Leaguer; that matters, and everyone pretends it doesn’t. It’s also my understanding that he’s been injury prone of late, which is what happens to most guys in baseball in their mid-30s.

I will say this: the price isn’t outrageous (what IS outrageous is the fact that this is the highest-paid position player free agent we’ve signed in the Jerry Dipoto era; that feels insane to me, even if I’m not the biggest fan of overpaying for free agents based on past success that’s never likely to be replicated). You pay $7 million for a part-time outfielder with some upside still left in the tank. You pay for his leadership, you pay for his production to just remain level with what it’s been in the last couple years, and you cross your fingers that he stays healthy.

But, this move only SORT OF works if he does just that: plays to an expected level, or better. However, you’re still going into the season with the expectation that he’s going to have a platoon partner. How often does THAT work out? How often do both guys pull their weight?

You might like your chances if switch-hitting Sam Haggerty was his partner, except Swaggerty has even MORE stark platoon splits, and his are also in favor of going against lefties. You might settle for a Dylan Moore partnership, but we all know what Dylan Moore is at this point, so don’t make me pull the Dennis Green video again. Also, don’t even try to talk to me about Taylor Trammell or Cade Marlowe, because those are non-entities. Can a guy named Cade succeed at anything?

The expected move – at this point, barring future moves – is to pair him with Jarred Kelenic. And yeah, I get it. He’s awful against lefties. He’s significantly better against righties. But, that’s just compared to how bad he is against lefties. In reality, Kelenic is terrible against EVERYONE. Now, obviously, no one’s sitting here looking to give up on a 23 year old who was once projected to be a crown jewel in our organizational prospect rebuilding effort. But, we’ve seen a decent sample size out of him; over the last two years, it kind of adds up to one full season. Therein, you’re looking at: .168/.251/.338. You saw him look solid towards the end of his 2021 season, only to regress HARD at the start of 2022. He, again, improved towards the end of last year (ever-so-slightly), but fool me twice, you know?

This is a Mariners team coming off of their first playoff appearance in two decades. There are … expectations. We’ve seen a number of lateral moves towards our 2023 roster (Teoscar Hernandez for Mitch Haniger in right, Kolten Wong for Adam Frazier at second, some addition by subtraction in getting rid of Winker and Abraham Toro), but I don’t know if any of these are going to vastly move the needle when it comes to actual wins on the field. A.J. Pollock feels very in line with those other guys; you kind of expect him to play well, but it also wouldn’t shock you in the slightest for him to faceplant as soon as he puts on a Mariners uniform (that goes for Hernandez and Wong as well).

You don’t expect Pollock to only appear in a quarter of these games; he’s not going to be limited exclusively to facing lefties. As long as he’s healthy and productive, he should start against EVERY lefty, and enough righties to put him in a 50/50 timeshare. I think that’s the best-case scenario for him. If he’s thrust into a full-time starting role, I’m guessing we’ll see drastically diminishing returns. But, even at a 50/50-ish split, that’s putting A LOT of trust into Jarred Kelenic figuring it out in his third Major League season, when he’s looked absolutely lost at the plate for 99% of his time in the bigs thus far. For a team that’s expecting a return trip to the playoffs? A team that would ideally like to compete with the Astros for the division title? I don’t think that’s smart.

But, then again, I don’t have a lot of answers here. I’m a guy who doesn’t want to hand over the keys to 50% of the left field job to Jarred Kelenic, but I’m also a guy who doesn’t want to give up on him either. I guess I’d like him to be a guy who goes into this season as a backup outfielder, who slowly builds up his confidence at the plate over sporadic playing time, until he commands starting time through his achievements. Otherwise, this would be the third year in a row where he’s essentially handed a starting job in this lineup, without actually having to prove he’s capable in regular season, Major League baseball games. What has he done to EARN it, other than be good in the minors, and have one hot Spring Training?

I dunno. The Mariners aren’t done, and won’t be set until we get closer to April. I’m still half-expecting a big move between now and Spring Training. But, so far, I’m not exactly bursting with enthusiasm for the moves to date. I guess I’m just waiting to find out who’s set to disappoint us in the 2023 season. It’s not always the people you expect!

Gun to my head, though, I’m expecting A.J. Pollock to disappoint.

The Seahawks Are Somehow Back In The Playoffs

As a Seahawks fan – but really, as a longtime, hardcore fan of most (if not all) Seattle sports – there are a few universal truths. The Mariners are always going to bring in a guy who looks like an amazing fit, only for him to immediately go in the tank (last year it was Jesse Winker, this year it figures to be A.J. Pollock; though never discount the surprise bust). Similarly, the Mariners are always going to give up on someone who goes somewhere else and plays amazing. The Sonics are always going to get screwed over by the NBA (who continually tantalizes us with promises of a new team, with zero follow through) until they’ve crushed the spirit of every last basketball fan in Seattle. The Husky football team is always going to have at least one enraging defeat to a mediocre-to-bad team that prevents them from ever making the playoffs. And for every Seattle-based team, it goes like this: if you need help from someone else to bolster the future of our franchise – whether it’s the near-future, in helping us win a division title in the final week of the season, or the more distant future by giving us an improved draft pick – bet against our interests, because that’s the result you’re going to get.

Now, you can read that and say, “But! But!” And yeah, duh, it’s not literally 100% of the time that these “universal truths” come to fruition, but more often than not. And when it’s not in our favor, BOY does it seem to hurt us bad.

Remember in 2008, when the Mariners were expected to compete for a playoff spot, only to lose over 100 games and be in direct competition for the top overall draft pick? Remember how we won a meaningless series against Oakland at the very end of the year to fall to the #2 spot (whereas the Washington Nationals did their fucking jobs and got to draft a great starting pitcher)? The Mariners got Dustin Ackley and it set us back considerably. Remember in 1992 when the Seahawks had maybe one of the worst offenses in NFL history and finished 2-14? We were in direct competition with the 2-14 Patriots for the top overall pick. Since we beat them, they had the tiebreaker and got to pick first (incidentally, they also had a chance to get a third win in the final week of the season, but lost to the Dolphins in overtime; what’s most galling is that the Pats had a 10-point halftime lead and a 7-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, to say nothing of being in field goal range just before regulation expired, before taking a brutal sack to get knocked back). The Patriots got to draft Drew Bledsoe; the Seahawks were saddled with Rick Mirer.

There are countless examples of the Seattle team getting fucked over at the very end by outside forces compelled to make us all feel bad. It’s the We Can’t Have Nice Things law of nature, and it’s a bitch.

Now, you might also say, “What about the Lions? They just did us a solid by defeating the Packers in Green Bay last night, sending us to the playoffs!”

But, DID they do us a solid? Do we have ANY business being in these playoffs? It took overtime and the total and complete depletion of the Los Angeles Rams by injury (including their three best players: Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, and Matthew Stafford, who also rank among the best players in the NFL at their positions) for the Seahawks just to finish 9-8 and in a position to need help last night.

Part of me will accept the answer that you shouldn’t get accustomed to losing. That it’s better to do sort of what the Seahawks did and hover around .500, than it is to be 3-14 and vie for the top overall draft pick. That means the players you have currently on your roster – and in our case, a lot of them are very young, with room to blossom and improve – are pretty good and gained valuable experience while getting better as the season progressed. But, at the same time, this Seahawks team isn’t good enough to win ONE playoff game, let alone enough to get us to Super Bowl. I would say it doesn’t matter who we play – we could go to any of the top four seeds and most definitely lose – but having to face the 49ers (who already DOMINATED us twice, and is probably the best team in the NFC) is just a blowout embarrassment waiting to happen.

You might say, “Well, it’s hard to beat a team three times in the same season. Plus, they’re down to their third quarterback, and if our defense can just keep things close, you never know.” Even if I give you that – and assume, for the sake of argument, that we find a way to prevail next week – you’re telling me then we have to go to Philly, and I’m telling you there is NO FUCKING CHANCE we win that game against a #1 seed that just had a bye week to get healthy. All that does is bump our draft pick to 25th (or even 26th, if the Bucs upset the Cowboys in the first round before succumbing to reality).

You know what I would’ve rather had? The 14th pick, which is what we would’ve gotten if we’d lost to the Rams on Sunday. Failing that, you know what I would’ve rather had? The 17th pick, which is what we would’ve gotten if the Packers defeated the Lions (everything else being the same). Now, as it stands? We have the 20th pick. If everything goes according to plan – we lose to the 49ers, the Bucs lose to the Cowboys – we get the 20th. What’s the one thing that could help us? The Bucs winning next Monday night and the Seahawks losing, which would bump us up one to 19th overall. Will that happen? Please see: the entire beginning to this blog post.

I would argue that just being 8-9 or 9-8 has achieved everything we wanted. It kept the team relevant to the very end, it showed us a lot of the young guys who figure to be stalwarts on this team for the foreseeable future, and it didn’t get anyone on the coaching staff fired, so we can have that continuity going into the 2023 season. We already HAD that, we didn’t need to add a meaningless playoff defeat into the mix! All that does is hurt our potential in next year’s draft.

And, if you think I’m being an overly-dramatic Negative Nelly, I want you to look at some of the OTHER ways the rest of the NFL could’ve helped us … with the Denver draft pick.

We have the 5th pick. If the Chargers had simply tried to beat Denver and succeeded, that would’ve improved to the 3rd pick. Or if the Colts and Cards had won ONCE in the last seven weeks, it would’ve been the 3rd pick. The Colts had the fucking Texans of all teams in week 18, and still managed to bungle it! And the Cardinals the week before blew it at the end against the lowly Falcons.

Then, there would’ve been the ultimate prize, if Denver had lost to the Chargers, and the Bears had won once in the last TEN weeks, that could’ve moved all the way to a 2nd overall pick.

So many fucking possibilities to get into the Top 3. Instead, we’re saddled with 5th. There were chances to get one of the two best defensive line prospects in this draft class. But, looking at it now, it’s going to require teams trading down:

  1. Chicago – probably keeping Justin Fields and taking the best defender available, unless they trade down
  2. Houston – quarterback most likely
  3. Arizona – committed to Kyler Murray for many years, GM situation in flux, probably not trading at all and taking best defender available
  4. Indianapolis – quarterback all but certainly
  5. Seattle – fucked

What’s worse is that if Chicago trades down, they probably don’t want to trade very far, so I’m guessing Indy will be a likely trade partner; that does not help us. We need someone like the Raiders (7th), Panthers (9th) or Titans (11th) to make a big move, since all three are probably in the market for a quarterback upgrade.

It sucks. What does 5 and 20 get us? One stud, hopefully, and maybe the best guard or center in the draft (assuming there’s one worth taking in the first round; quality centers can usually be had in rounds 2 or 3). Otherwise, at 20, you’re looking for a good quarterback who’s fallen (maybe packaging that with our high second rounder to move up into the teens).

I dunno, I guess that’s Future Me’s concern. For now, I have to try to talk myself into a scenario where the Seahawks aren’t blown out of the stadium on Saturday afternoon (always the anticipated Worst Wild Card Round Game). God help us if we find a way to win, and that 20th overall pick falls to where it normally is, in the mid-to-high 20’s. I may lose my God damn mind.