2021 Mariners Preview Extravaganza: We Have A Starting Rotation

I don’t know if the official 26-man roster has been set yet, but I do know we have the 6-man rotation good to go. So, I’ll start there. I’ll forego the bullpen because I don’t know those men, nor do I care to know those men. Tomorrow, I’ll look to talk about the everyday players and then we’ll get this pig in gear!

  1. Marco Gonzales (L)
  2. James Paxton (L)
  3. Chris Flexen (R)
  4. Justus Sheffield (L)
  5. Yusei Kikuchi (L)
  6. Justin Dunn (R)

The next man up – at least until Logan Gilbert gets his initial call-up – figures to be lefty Nick Margevicius. So, a lot of familiar faces there.

Once the M’s signed Paxton, this is pretty much the group we expected all along, even if the order after the top two is a little surprising. I think you can really toss all four of the bottom guys (five if you count Margevicius) into a hat and pick them out at random. Is Flexen really the #3 guy? Or, is he just projected to be the most-reliable right-handed starter and Scott Servais wanted to break up the four lefties? My hunch is it’s the latter.

When healthy, I’ll ride or die with Gonzales and Paxton all day every day; I think that’s as solid a 1-2 punch as you’ll find. Especially with Paxton as your #2? When he’s going strong, he’s as dominant as they come! If things break right with this team, these two guys should have tremendous winning percentages when it’s all said and done.

Neither, of course, were particularly amazing in Spring Training; Gonzales had a pretty high ERA and Paxton only made two official starts (with, presumably, lots of games in back-alleys to fill out his pitch counts). But, these are tried and true veterans who only need to get the work in; they have nothing to prove in these games. I expect big things.

Flexen has always been an interesting case, as he’s largely either an unknown in America, or a terrible pitcher. He salvaged his career in Asia, and obviously is hoping he can carry that over back in the Major Leagues, but this is all Wait & See for me. He had five starts in Spring Training, and pretty pedestrian numbers, but his last two starts totalled 8 innings of 5-hit, shutout ball. So, at least he’s hot heading into the regular season.

Justus Sheffield impressed the hell out of me in 2020. He’s another one with pretty shabby Spring Training numbers, but his last two starts totalled 8.2 innings of 6-hit, 2-run ball. He’s not the proven veteran that Gonzales and Paxton are, so I don’t know if we can totally write off his performance in those four official games. I would still expect an up-and-down season, hopefully with more ups than downs. A full Mariners turnaround and/or a playoff-bound 2021 season likely requires Sheffield to be better than he was in 2020, and to continue to improve as time goes on. I’ll be rooting like crazy for this to happen, even though I have my nagging doubts.

Seeing Yusei Kikuchi as the #5 starter is pretty abysmal, all things considered. There’s no way the Mariners signed him to all of that money to be their fifth starter. Kikuchi had three official starts in Spring Training and his numbers were solid. He continues to make steady progress, but I don’t know if he’s making ENOUGH progress to be a guy that will stick around beyond 2021. At this point, I’d say my prediction is that he’ll continue to scuffle and won’t be here in 2022 under his existing contract, if at all. BUT, of any one of these bottom four guys who might put it all together, I think Kikuchi has the highest ceiling in 2021 (if not necessarily beyond). He has the stuff! The fastball works. If the command locks in, the American League better watch out, because Kikuchi could be pretty special.

I was happy to see Justin Dunn make the rotation in the 6-spot, because obviously he has a much higher ceiling than Margevicius. He’s apparently in tremendous shape and has added a few MPH to his fastball. He’s still young, he’s still raw, but he battled like crazy in 2020 and I’m hopeful another year in the Bigs will work wonders for his development. Like the rest of these bottom four guys, I expect ups and downs. Like Sheffield (and, really, everyone, I suppose), here’s to more ups than downs.

The over/under for Mariners wins is 72.5 (72-90/73-89). That’s a pretty low bar for this team to clear. If it does, I think we’ll have to lean on the rotation to … just keep us in games. That’s largely what they did in 2020. Nothing TOO flashy, just some solid 5-6 innings of 3-4 run ball. The hitting will be there sometimes and will fail us sometimes (but, I think it’ll be there more often than not); the bullpen PROBABLY won’t blow it every single time.

For this team to exceed expectations and actually contend for a playoff spot, I think the rotation will have to be better than just solid. They’ll have to go long stretches of carrying this team. Of not putting too much on the shoulders of the bullpen, as it tries to sort itself out. It COULD be capable of that, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. I think this rotation is good enough to get us to 76-80 wins, with the team constructed around it as such. The real wild card is what we have in the upper minors, how quickly they can develop, and how hot they start their Major League careers.

The Mariners are going to have to ride their youngsters if they’re going to wildly exceed expectations. Fingers crossed!

Let’s Be Patient, Mariners Fans

Look, I’m right there with you. I’ve been there with you the entire time (and by “entire time” I mean I jumped on the bandwagon in the late summer of 1995 like a lot of other people in the Pacific Northwest who weren’t necessarily baseball fans until there was a professional team around here actually worth watching). I’ve ENDURED losing season after losing season, mediocre season after mediocre season, and those handful of seasons where we came oh so close to breaking the playoff drought.

I started this fucking BLOG in large part due to the Mariners and their ineptitude! I needed an outlet for my rage, the M’s were my vessel, and Richie Sexson in 2008 was my inspiration. I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t furious with this organization; even in 2001 – in the midst of a 116-win season – I was pissing and moaning about all the moves the M’s didn’t make mid-season to push us over the hump!

I can’t say I’m the biggest Mariners fan, nor would I want to. I haven’t been around since the beginning. I have no idea what this team looked like in the 80’s, other than various blooper clips that have seeped into my subconscious over the years. But these last 20 years have FELT like a fucking lifetime in and of itself.

I. FEEL. YOUR. PAIN.

And, obviously, I have no skin in the game. I’m not paid by the Mariners. I’m not in the practice of writing puff pieces defending this team. Do I sometimes let my annoying homer side get the best of me, succumbing to rare bouts of optimism when things are going or looking good? Sure, who doesn’t? Why be a fan if there wasn’t some small sliver of hope that our team will one day win it all before our bones have turned to ash? The thing is, we have no choice but to talk ourselves into the next plan of action working! It’s not like we have any say in matters of personnel. Sometimes flukey shit happens. Sometimes the stars align.

Sports fandom is, like, 90% belief, 5% crushing disappointment, and 5% watching the games.

So, believe me when I say this: I don’t come to this argument lightly. But, it’s clearly in all of our best interests to be patient, let the rebuild play itself out, and let’s just see what happens.

I’m not saying you have to trust in Jerry Dipoto & Co. Remain skeptical! Why wouldn’t you? What have they done to earn your trust?

But, now is not time to jump the gun. In spite of the improvement we saw in a weird 2020 season, in spite of MLB increasing the number of playoff teams, in spite of all the glowing reports about our farm system: this team isn’t ready. It may “contend” in 2021 – in the same way that almost all American League teams will contend, if indeed 8 out of 15 teams continue to make it into the postseason – but this isn’t a legitimate championship squad just yet.

And, frankly, I know we’re all looking at 2022 as the goal for finally making the playoffs, but maybe we should be pumping the brakes on that too. You never know with young players how long it’s going to take for them to finally pop. It came out over the last week that the Mariners have five players ranked in the Top 100 Prospects per Baseball America, including two in the top five (Julio Rodriguez, 3; Jarred Kelenic, 4). Will all five of those guys pan out? Hell, will both of J-Rod and Kelenic pan out? I will believe it when I see it.

But, the important thing to remember is: you can’t see it if they’re not out there playing for you. You can’t go out there and sign an outfielder or two when you’ve already got Kyle Lewis (2020 Rookie of the Year) and Mitch Haniger (back from injury in 2021 and looking buffer than ever), on top of two prospects in the minor league top five!

Do you want to go out and sign a starting pitcher or two, to help fill out your rotation? Why would you do that when you have Logan Gilbert (35) and Emerson Hancock (57) in your farm system? Gilbert is ready to jump to the Major Leagues THIS season! Hancock is still a couple years away, but that’s about when you’d expect this team to start contending for real. There are also countless pitching prospects outside of the top 100 (remember, the Mariners have been going HARD in the draft on pitching the last few years); I’m not saying all of these guys will pan out, but one or two might! That’s on top of Justus Sheffield, who took a major step forward in his development in 2020, and Justin Dunn, who is just getting started and nevertheless showed real improvement in his first full season.

All of these guys are young and inexperienced. You want to see what you have, so you know who to keep and who to later flip for other players who can come in here and help this team win at the Major League level.

It doesn’t hurt the Mariners one bit to be regarded as having one of the very best farm systems in all of baseball. Only a small handful of teams have as many as five players in Baseball America’s Top 100, and the M’s are one of them! That reputation is only going to be an asset going forward when the guys we know are rockstars are at the Major League level and producing in a major way. Other teams will see that and wonder who else we’re hiding in the basement of this organization. You didn’t hear it from me, but it rubs the lotion on its skin.

In a way, I do see the other side of the argument. There’s nothing stopping the Mariners from signing a bigtime free agent now, because if the young core is as good as advertised, that free agent will still be around when the Mariners are good again. But, you’re making a lot of assumptions there. Are you signing a guy that will block one of that young core (specifically a position player)? Well, that’s a non-starter for me. There is time later for that, if whatever position of need can’t be filled internally. Are you talking about bringing in a stud starting pitcher? Well, those guys get hurt all the time! Bringing in a great guy for 2021 doesn’t do us any good if the team around him is still young and mediocre. And, if he’s hurt in 2022 or 2023 when this team IS good, then again, that does nothing for us. Also, are any of the free agents out there worth a damn? Are there any true Ace starters on the market? There doesn’t appear to be, to me anyway. On top of injury concerns, there’s aging and regression to worry about (when, again, there will be a whole new crop of free agents in 2022 and again in 2023).

And, if you’re talking about trading guys from our farm system to bring in a younger superstar, again that’s a non-starter for me. Because you know who teams are going to ask for in return? Your very best prospects. Those guys in the Baseball America Top 100. I want to see those guys HERE! And just because other teams are able to trade Not Their Best Prospects to get guys like Blake Snell, doesn’t mean the Mariners would also make that happen to their benefit. The Padres had been building their farm system for years in the lead-up to the Snell deal! The M’s don’t have nearly that sparkling of a reputation as drafters and developers. The Padres also, not for nothing, have a proven young core that made a run in the playoffs in 2020; they were more ready to make that kind of a deal. The Mariners have done jack shit for 20 years; they are not ready.

So, let’s hold our horses here. The only other argument I can make is this: even if the M’s splurged on free agents, and sold their farm for other Major League-ready players, there’s still a great chance that we wouldn’t see this team even make the playoffs. The Mariners have been half-assing rebuilds for the last 20 years; panicking now to try to break a drought would be more of the same. For what? So maybe they can get a wild card spot?

If you’re a Mariners fan, that should not be your priority. We’ve had it too hard for too long. The amount of karma we’ve built up in our suffering should be ENORMOUS. We are due for not just a playoff team, but a real, honest-to-goodness World Series champion! And, there’s no way we’re going to get there by throwing good money after aging free agents, and mortgaging our farm system for unwanted cast-offs from other teams.

We’re only going to reach the promised land by developing our own young talent, promoting them when they’re ready, and wishing on a star that they all hit big at the same time. This is the model. Once those guys are ready, THEN you start throwing money at free agents to complete the puzzle. Once you recognize where the minimal amount of holes are on your roster – because the vast majority of those holes have been filled in-house – then it’s so much easier to get over the final hump.

For now, kick your feet up, sit back, and enjoy the process. I know the 76ers turned “the process” into a four-letter word, but you know, sometimes it goes the other way too. To paraphrase the great Fred Durst, you gotta have faith.

The Mariners Drafted Emerson Hancock In The First Round

The Mariners had already been pretty hard at work – in previous drafts, as well as their bevy of step-back trades – in bolstering what looks to be the future of the Mariners’ everyday roster. Evan White (first base), Jarred Kelenic (outfield), Julio Rodriguez (outfield), J.P. Crawford (short stop), Cal Raleigh (catcher), Kyle Lewis (outfield) among others are either at the Major League level or very close to it. If the M’s are ever destined to break the playoff drought, most or all of these guys will have to hit in a big way.

The glaring issue was (and still is) pitching, particularly starting pitching. Starting in 2018 – with first round pick Logan Gilbert – and really coming to prominence last year (when nine of their first eleven picks were pitchers, including George Kirby in the first round), the Mariners have gone crazy trying to replenish their minor leagues with high-upside hurlers. Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn – among others who are at or near the Majors – are also obviously in the mix, but it was clear what we had the last few years wasn’t going to cut the mustard.

The streak continues with first round pick Emerson Hancock out of Georgia, who fell to the Mariners at #6 in yesterday’s first round of the MLB draft. Apparently, he was once deemed to be elite enough to be considered a potential #1 overall pick. While his most recent season did little to lower his value, as with many players who stay in college a year too long, scouts found reasons to pick apart his game to the point that he slid. He, nevertheless, has a mid-90’s fastball that can nearly touch triple digits. He’s got a great slider, a good change-up, and a curveball that needs work, but otherwise is still a quality part of his arsenal.

I’ve yet to read any concerning news about him from the blogs or whatnot, which I find promising. It seems like whenever the Mariners pick someone, there are immediate stories about how so-and-so projects as a future reliever, or a future fourth-outfielder or whatever. While it’s obviously too early to put ANY projections on a guy and expect them to stick across the board, it seems like those underwhelming predictions come true more often than not, especially where the Mariners are concerned. In other words, this doesn’t sound like a reach. It doesn’t sound like the M’s picked a guy with a “high floor but low ceiling”. This isn’t a safe pick of someone who can rush his way to the bigs (a la Danny Hultzen, when he was drafted second overall in 2011). This guy sounds like a LEGITIMATE top-end starter with a very real possibility to be a future Ace in this league (something, to my knowledge, the Mariners are sorely lacking at the moment, from a prospect perspective).

He could very well be the best pitching prospect we have in our organization RIGHT NOW!

This is very exciting to me! There are, of course, any number of things we have to worry about; he could refuse to sign (holding out for a crazy amount of money), he could get a big head and opt to not really put in the work required to advance his career, he could get injured and have his development delayed or even destroyed (again, a la Danny Hultzen), or he could just suck and start getting smacked around in the minors. The point is: there are COUNTLESS ways he could flame out before ever wearing a Seattle Mariners uniform in a game that counts. So, you know, don’t get your hopes up TOO much.

But, you know what I like? I like comparisons to Justin Verlander. I like dreaming that one day in 2-3 years, he could be anchoring a starting rotation for an exciting, young Mariners team looking to contend for a post-season berth. If nothing else, I like this strategy of selecting a SHIT-TON of pitching prospects in the hopes that a small handful will stick! It’s smart. As I outlined above, there are any number of ways prospects – especially pitching prospects, with all the possible injuries that can derail their effectiveness – won’t pan out. So, the best chance we have in succeeding is to throw as many resources at this problem as possible.

I’ll be concerned if the remaining five picks are so pitching-heavy, because you don’t want to TOTALLY neglect position players. But, for our needs right now, A+ in my book!