There’s a way this all goes FUBAR. Any number of injuries to key players – Julio, Cal, Castillo, Gilbert, Kirby, Munoz, Sewald, Teoscar, Ty – and let’s face it, the Mariners are in a world of hurt. Of course, you can say that about any contending team and be right; the season from hell can strike at anytime, when you least suspect it. I’m not sitting here saying the Mariners are so good they can withstand a tsunami of IL stints; no team’s that good.
But, assuming the Mariners have just the average amount of injuries, just the average amount of underperforming players, just the average amount of good and/or bad luck, we’re talking about a team that’s good enough to go all the way. I’m not saying they will. But, they’re one of a handful of teams who can. And that’s not something we’ve been able to say for over two decades.
So, what makes a legitimate championship contender?
I think you need a true #1 ace starting pitcher. Which isn’t something the Mariners had in the Pat Gillick years (which is why I think those teams ultimately failed). Luis Castillo – regardless of how well he kicks off this season – is a true #1 ace starting pitcher.
Behind him, you’ve got a former Cy Young Award winner, and two other starters who are entirely capable of joining him. There’s an argument to be made that Castillo isn’t even the best starter on the team. The aforementioned Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray has some awesome stuff, and is a bulldog strikeout guy, but I’m not even talking about him. Logan Gilbert is absolutely gnarly out there on the mound, often dominating his opponents; and I’m not talking about him either! George Kirby could be the very best of all of them one day, and he’s just getting going in his Major League career. That’s four legitimate ace-type pitchers in this rotation, with a guy in Marco Gonzales who will eat innings and keep you in ballgames more often than not. What more can you want from a rotation?
What else do you need? Well, an elite bullpen, of course. That’s something those Randy Johnson teams in the mid-90s always lacked (which is definitely why all those teams ultimately failed). Ace starting pitchers are very important, but they don’t do you much good if you don’t have the ‘pen there preventing comebacks. And even though there’s every chance this bullpen could fall apart by sheer randomness, I don’t believe for one second that it’ll actually happen. If there’s any part of this team where the Mariners are truly deep, it’s in the bullpen. Not to mention, their scouting department and coaching staff have seemingly found the secret sauce to keep this train chugging along forever.
What else? It sure helps when you have a superstar in your lineup. A true, bona fide MVP candidate. That’s Julio. He not only leads with his bat, and his glove, and his baserunning, but he leads with his demeanor and personality and the confidence he instills in those around him. When you know you’ve got Julio in your lineup, the makeup of the entire team changes. More importantly, when the opposing pitcher knows there’s a Julio coming up, it can make all the difference in how they take on those other guys. A healthy, dominant Julio lifts all boats.
You also need additional pop in your lineup. Winning baseball teams have to score runs, and extra-base hits are still the best way to do so, regardless of the rules changes. Teoscar and Eugenio and Ty and Cal all give you that in spades.
The Mariners don’t have the most fearsome lineup in baseball, but they have just enough. Combined with the pitching – which should be Top 5 in all of baseball – that’s a combo that can take us into the playoffs no problem. It’s also a combo that can do some real damage once we get there.
What’s the final piece to the puzzle? Management. Coaching. Scott Servais and company. He absolutely doesn’t get the credit he deserves, at least from a national perspective. For some reason, even a segment of the Mariners fanbase likes to shit all over him, but I don’t get it. He’s amazing! He’s the best manager we’ve had since Sweet Lou, and his winning percentage backs that up. What’s more, if he does what Lou never could – gets us to a World Series – then I don’t think there’s any doubt about it: Scott Servais – if all goes according to plan – will go down as the best manager in Seattle Mariners history.
Sure, Servais is still 300-some-odd wins behind, but Lou had the advantage of walking into a situation that already had three Hall of Famers on the roster! Griffey, Edgar, and Randy were already locked and loaded; who couldn’t win 800+ games with three future Hall of Famers?!
Regardless, the key to a great manager is the culture he builds. Both have/had winning cultures, though Servais is much more a man of this particular time. He – much more often than not – pulls the right levers when it comes to bullpen and lineup decisions. In a lot of ways, that has to do with trusting those around him. He has the right group of assistant coaches, and he listens to the analytics team who provides him the information necessary to make him look smart day-in and day-out. He isn’t some old timer coaching with his gut. And that shows up just about every year he’s been in charge. The Mariners, in his tenure, have often outperformed projections and the talent they had on the roster. That’s quality management to a T. He’s a major asset to this team’s ability to win baseball games, and one day he’s going to lead us to a championship.
I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about a new Mariners season. Usually, I’m just hoping they can entertain us until football season, while dreading the inevitable (that we’ll be out of it by June). Not this year. Fuck the other sports; it’s time to go all in on the Mariners.
What’s funny is that I don’t think the 2023 Mariners will be the best team we see over the next decade. I think we’ll manage to get even better, very soon. But, I also have this weird feeling that instead of everything breaking bad, it’s all going to break in our favor. Houston will be the team that struggles with injuries. Houston will be the team that loses an inordinate amount of games to the eventual division winner (Seattle). The Mariners, meanwhile, will enjoy a second consecutive season of unprecedented health in the starting rotation. The Mariners will continue to be among the league leaders in 1-run games, and we’ll continue to win at an insanely improbable rate.
I’ve got the Mariners at 98-64, four games ahead of Houston for the division.
I’ve got the Mariners cruising to the ALCS.
I’ve got the Mariners winning in 7 games.
And, yeah, I’ve got the Mariners against the Padres in the World Series, where we’ll do to them what we weren’t able to do in the regular season: we’ll sweep them in four games.
Even if I’m wrong and this isn’t our year, don’t worry, because that time is coming. The Mariners will win a championship before the calendar flips to 2030. What’s crazy to think about is the very legitimate possibility that we might, in fact, win multiple titles by then.
And if we don’t? Well, print this out and tape it to your fridge, because apparently my words have the power to jinx teams to an unfathomable degree.