It can be easy to dump all over this season, for good reason. The Mariners were expected to compete for the A.L. West, or at the very least somehow make it back to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2000-2001. We’re very nearly two months into the year and the Mariners are 23-24. It’s embarrassing, it’s infuriating, and it’s starting to feel like we’re getting to the point of desperation. It’s starting to feel like this team needs to go on a massive tear just to get to where they should’ve been all along. Essentially, we’re required to bank on what happened last year – when the M’s won 14 in a row and 22 out of 25 – except the problem is, this team has thus far failed in what they’ve been so good at recently: winning in 1-run games. Sure, there have been blowouts so far that have contributed to a +27 run differential, but that just means we’re 3 games off of the pace of where we should be.
We’re 6 games out of first place. AND we have three other teams to leapfrog to get there. That’s not where you want to be, if the expectations coming into the season were to – again – compete for a division title.
On the flipside, it’s not like we’re the A’s. It’s not like we’re the White Sox. The Mariners are a team with a lot of talented players, and while there are a plethora of disappointments, there’s also a lot of bright spots that we didn’t necessarily see coming either.
My tendency is – when a team plays down to this level – to throw away the season and focus on next year. The problem with that is – unlike in years past – there’s still enough talent on this team, and it is still early enough (even though I hate that line of thinking as much as anyone), that we’re in our window right this second. I don’t WANT to focus on next year. Because, sure, while it’s interesting to imagine what this team might look like in 2024 and beyond, there are also a number of the same underperforming players who will be back as well. It’s not a matter of these bright spots continuing to make their mark; it’s a matter of everyone else playing up to the backs of their baseball cards. It’s about everyone being good at the same time and putting together a magical season. We’ve had the experience of 2022. We’ve made the playoffs, we won a series, and we played the eventual World Series champs the toughest of anyone they played in their entire post-season run last year. Now it’s time to take the next step.
But, instead of belaboring our woes, let’s look at the silver linings of 2023 through 47 games.
You have to start with Jarred Kelenic, obviously. Some people are on record – at least back in April – of saying they’d trade a slow team start for Kelenic turning into The Real Deal. I was definitely uncomfortable with that line of thinking, but I do think it’s a franchise-changer for Kelenic to not only be a solid platoon guy, but to be an All Star everyday player, against both righties and lefties. To have played himself not only into a starter role, but someone batting in the top third or top half of the lineup. It still might be too soon to take this to the bank – I mean, look at Julio’s 2022 vs. 2023 – but I also don’t think Kelenic is a flash in the pan. I think this is who he is, he’s unlocked something extra-special – something we all saw in him as a prospect since the Cano deal – and he projects going forward to be a vital piece of this team’s success. His average has dipped ever-so-slightly below .300, but the whole offensive package is exactly what you want. He’s the best player on this team this season, period. That’s extraordinary! It certainly wasn’t something I was anticipating coming in.
I’m not going to completely abandon the regulars from here on out, but let’s shift over to the pitching for awhile.
George Kirby has built on an already-phenomenal start to his career. He’s been the best pitcher on this team all season. 8 quality starts out of 9, and that one was his first start of the season, whch I’m more than happy to write off. He’s getting deep into games, he’s economical with his pitches, and he’s giving this team a chance to win every five days. The fact that we’re only 5-3 in his quality starts says more about this offense and how it’s let the team down.
Bryce Miller has obviously come from out of nowhere, to a degree. He was on everyone’s radar coming out of Spring Training, but in another universe, he wouldn’t have gotten the call-up until late May or June. He’s 4 for 4 in quality starts, and two of them came against the Astros and Braves. He’s also getting deep into games, he’s also economical with his pitches, and more importantly, he’s helping us all forget how much we were counting on Robbie Ray to be a central part of this rotation. We essentially replaced a former Cy Young Award winner with another Cy Young-calibre arm.
There are a number of nice bullpen pieces who have stepped up, even if the bullpen as a whole has been a little inconsistent (and not quite up to snuff compared to recent seasons). Justin Topa, Gabe Speier, Trevor Gott, and Juan Then all have quality stuff and solid numbers so far. They’ve helped us through some poor outings by Brash, Castillo, Festa, and Sewald, and injuries to Munoz and Murfee. It’s kind of mind-blowing how we’re able to keep reloading a stacked bullpen, while overcoming the expected high-variance year-to-year performances you get with a segment of the team that’s always so volatile.
While I don’t want to dismiss the inconsistencies of Logan Gilbert and Luis Castillo, they’ve also had some dynamic outings so far, and it’s not hard to see these guys continue to chug along and give you the quality outings you’ve come to expect so far in their careers. The starting rotation is, far and away, the strength of this team, and pretty much the only reason why we’ve even managed to hang around .500. The hitting will start to come around at some point, so having our 1-4 spots in the rotation being so good will give us a great chance to go on that significant winning streak we need to climb back into contention.
I’m happy to shout out J.P. Crawford in this particular blog post, because I think a lot of us were really down on him after his 2022 (especially the way it ended with a whimper). He’s always been kinda streaky, but all too often he goes in the tank for long stretches, leaving his overall numbers a little lackluster. But, especially as we started this year with so many hitters in the tank, it was nice to have some consistent production from our slap-hitting short stop. Indeed, he’s actually hitting a good number of extra-base hits for him – mostly doubles – but more importantly he’s still getting on base at a great clip. His on-base percentage leads the team among qualified players, and he has since elevated himself to leadoff hitter once again (thanks in large part to Julio’s struggles, but still). And just anecdotally, the only hitter I’m more comfortable with right now in a big spot than J.P. is Kelenic. J.P. is one of the great leaders on this team, and so far he’s been leading his ass off!
Finally, let’s round out this post with Jose Caballero. It’s WAY too early to lower the Mission Accomplished banner with him, but the M’s have been in a desperate search to shore up the second base position since the Cano deal, opting to go with veteran savvy on short-term deals the last two years. Adam Frazier was a dud, and so far Kolten Wong has made us long for the days of Adam Frazier (it’s not surprising to see him have a little bit of a bounce-back season with the Orioles so far). Once Caballero started seeing playing time (we got him as sort of an A-ball level Just A Guy in a deadline deal with the Diamondbacks in 2019 for Mike Leake), I think we all thought he’d only be keeping Dylan Moore’s bench spot warm for him until he healed up. But, with Wong sucking, Caballero has gotten more and more opportunities, and he’s certainly made the most of them! So far, Caballero has played in 8 fewer games and had 38 fewer at bats than Wong, but he has the same number of doubles, infinity more homers, is crushing him in all slash figures (OPS of .802 vs. .468), and already has a 2 WAR advantage (0.8 vs. -1.3)! All in his first-ever Major League season! I mean, what the fuck?! I don’t know if this is going to continue for Caballero, but it certainly looks like he’s getting more comfortable in all facets of the game. We’ll see if he sticks as a long-term solution to our second base woes. But, right now? Caballero is a godsend, and the Mariners can certainly use more of that.