The Mariners Have The Biggest Divisional Lead In Baseball Right Now

Gotta get this post up before the inevitable crash!

After a 6-1 homestand – including a 3-game sweep of the Texas Rangers over the weekend – the Mariners now lead the A.L. West by 8.5 games. I think I read somewhere that this is the biggest divisional lead we’ve had since 2001, which was – of course – the last time we actually won the division. We are a whopping 17-5 against our division, including 4-2 against the Astros and 5-1 against the defending World Series champion Rangers.

For as bad as the actual start to this season was – 6-10 through April 14th – this is about as good of an outcome as you could hope for through June 16th. Not for nothing, but the Mariners are 37-21 since that nadir. Not too damn shabby.

At some point, we have to accept that this is who the Mariners are. They’re good. They’re not great. They obviously have some significant holes. An unluckier team might be down around .500, as opposed to 12 games over .500. But, this team isn’t going anywhere. Not without a significant amount of pitching injuries.

If this is what the Mariners are doing AS IS, that brings a couple questions to mind. #1 – what happens when certain players meet their inevitable positive regression? I’m going to go out on a limb and say Mitch Garver isn’t a .173 hitter all of a sudden. I’m also going to say that Jorge Polanco – when he comes back – will probably be better than .195. Now, I don’t know if those guys are going to be leaps & bounds better than what they’ve shown; I also don’t know if they’re going to continue to be around and given the playing time sufficient to pull themselves out of these respective season-long slumps. But, I would expect at least a little improvement.

I would also expect J.P. Crawford to go on a heater anytime now. Mitch Haniger, we know, has it in him. Now that Raley and Rojas have cooled off, can they readjust and get back to killing the baseball? And, we all know Julio and Cal have another gear that we haven’t quite seen yet.

So, what happens when those guys get it going a little more? Is that going to take place around the same time the pitching inevitably slumps? Well, that would be unlucky, wouldn’t it? Or, maybe perfectly lucky, depending on how clutch the offense can get.

My second question is that – if the Mariners are this good AS IS – how good can they be after adding a couple of competent bats at the trade deadline next month?

Well, obviously, that’s been a point of concern for me lately. Based on historical precedent, I don’t have a ton of confidence in their ability to deal well at the deadline.

If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you know I’m prone to worry about a lot of things when it comes to the teams I follow. This is the first time I’ve written about how these 2024 Mariners are the Real Deal. It would take quite a collapse for them to blow this 8.5-game lead in the division. We also compare favorably to the wild card teams in the American League, just in case this is the second-coming of the 2002 and 2003 Mariners, where we gag away our chances in the second half.

So, this leads me into my newest concern. It’s unfamiliar territory, yet one I think at least long-time Mariners fans can relate to: what if this team is built more for the regular season than it is the post-season?

You can’t deny that this pitching staff is as good as it gets in baseball. The rotation, 1-6, is lights out. In the bullpen, we’ve got an elite closer, a couple of nice leverage arms, and competence throughout. We’ve also got a couple of nice wildcards in Logan Evans and Gregory Santos to boost us in the second half.

But, what does this group look like in the playoffs?

Castillo has been good, but it’s not like he’s Felix in his prime. There’s occasional brilliance, but more often than not, it’s 6 innings and 2 runs. Which, don’t get me wrong, is GREAT for the regular season. If you’re throwing Quality Starts out there more often than not, you’re all right in my book. But, in the playoffs, it’s anywhere from a 3-7 game series. You don’t have a lot of chances. And, if your ace blows a game, that’s a big hole to climb out of. It’s not like we can rely on pulling Castillo prematurely, because usually those two runs are being scored early. And, with the way this offense struggles to score runs through the first two-thirds of games, you’re more likely to try to squeeze a little extra out of Castillo, who tends to get better as the game goes on.

Then, there’s Kirby, who has been really up and down this season. He’s put up a lot of 0- and 1-run games, but he also has five starts of 4 runs or more given up. In the playoffs, that’s a death sentence. Or, rather, in the playoffs – with this offense – that’s a death sentence. Because, I don’t care how much we’re able to do at the deadline, we’re still going to enter the post-season with a lot of question marks on offense.

Hell, even when the Mariners have had an elite offense – back in the 90’s and early 2000’s – they still struggled mightily in the playoffs. Why? Because you’re only going up against elite teams, and all elite teams have elite pitching staffs.

I’ve probably waffled over Logan Gilbert a thousand times in his career, but that game he pitched on Sunday against the mighty Rangers’ offense – 8 innings, 0 runs, 0 walks, 2 hits, 9 strikeouts – might’ve put him over the top for me, at least when compared to Kirby, if not to the entire starting rotation. That was an absolutely brilliant performance! He had everything working, against a really tough opponent who was trying like crazy to not get swept by their direct rivals.

What’s most encouraging to me about Gilbert is his ability to go deep into games. He leads the Major Leagues in innings pitched! He’s got a really good ERA – 2.93 – but it’s not Cy Young calibre just yet. He’s got a low WAR – 1.9 – compared to the other greats across baseball. And, obviously, his 4-4 record isn’t anything to write home about (mostly because it feels like he gets among the worst run support in the game today). But, there’s been a number of times this year where his starts have gone from potentially elite, to merely just good, thanks to a late bomb or run scored, when he’s trying to eke out another inning. If he can clean that up, he’s got Cy Young written all over him.

As it stands now, though, Gilbert seems to have the best and most varied arsenal of the bunch. Bryce Miller is close, but he lacks the command to know where everything is going to go. Gilbert looks pretty close to having mastered the command of his splitter and a variety of other off-speed stuff, to go with that outstanding fastball. Especially that splitter, though; he had that thing dropping like a yo-yo against the Rangers!

Kirby, on the other hand, is still pretty fastball-heavy. He’s trying with his off-speed stuff, but he’s not good enough yet to get those balls to consistently fall out of the strike zone. As such, he’s struggling with his swing-and-miss at times, and that’s hurting his overall numbers.

I would like to see this team really maximize Gilbert. If he’s not this team’s ace, he should at least be our number two in the playoffs. But, even then, will it be enough?

As I said before, when you get to the playoffs, they ALL have elite pitching. And, as we’ve seen all year, you don’t necessarily need elite pitching to shut down this Mariners offense. The funny thing about this offense is that it kinda doesn’t matter who they face. They’re going to score 3-4 runs per game against the best AND the worst. We’ve seen them eat into pitch counts against aces, we’ve seen them overcome deficits against top-notch closers … AND we’ve seen them suck against soft-tossing junkball pitchers. No rhyme or reason to any of it!

I will say that I’ve been fairly discouraged with our lineups against lefty starters. We tried a lineup last Thursday against the White Sox – during the Buhner Buzz Cut night that I attended with some friends – that was among the worst I’ve ever seen. A struggling Dylan Moore in the 2-hole; a miserable Mitch Garver batting cleanup and DH’ing; a bottom four of Tyler Locklear (who actually managed to hit a solo homer against a pretty elite starter), Victor Robles (who should be off of this team very soon), Ryan Bliss (who probably just doesn’t have it, and needs to go back to Tacoma), and Seby Zavala (who I thought would’ve been cut by now, since Garver has become Kirby’s own personal catcher). The offense was as bad as advertised in that one, yet an Emerson Hancock spot start (7 innings, just 2 solo homers in the third), and a clutch Julio bomb in the ninth to tie it, took that game into extras, where unfortunately they scored their ghost runner and we didn’t.

That was the difference between a perfect homestand and a still very, very good one.

Which is funny, because the Mariners were fortunate to take 3 of 4 against the lowly White Sox. We really played down to our competition in that series! It required beating up on their maligned bullpen to do as well as we did. Yet, we came back against Texas and really poured it on! That was nice to see, after some iffy baseball against the Sox.

Thus ends our stretch of 30 games in 31 days. A positively BRUTAL stretch that should be outlawed in the MLB at this point. If you can’t give teams one fucking day off a week, then what are we even doing as a society? Yet, we managed to go 19-11 in that stretch. That was a real Separate The Men From The Boys part of the season, and we passed with flying colors.

Things calm down a bit as we head into the All Star Break, but not before another extended east coast road trip, starting in Cleveland tomorrow before a Florida two-step to play the Marlins and Rays. If we’re looking ahead, there’s only a 3-game set in Boston in the second half, otherwise our road trips only go as far east as Pittsburgh. There’s five series total played in the central or eastern timezones outside of our division in the second half. There’s also only one more trip to Texas (we play the Rangers and Astros back-to-back in late September). So, once we get past this immediate road swing, it’s SMOOTH SAILING as far as travel goes the rest of the way.

Ty France Landed On The IL, Ty(ler) Locklear Got Called Up

On Friday, Ty France broke the Mariners all-time record for most Hit By Pitches, taking Edgar Martinez’s crown in relatively quick fashion. That’s a neat, albeit random record to own. On the downside, though, he was hit on the heel, which resulted in a hairline fracture, landing him on the IL for an indeterminate amount of time.

That being said, it doesn’t sound incredibly serious, so I wouldn’t expect him to be gone for much longer than a couple weeks.

Enter Tyler Locklear, who is only one of a few players from the 2022 draft to make it to the Major Leagues so far.

This is an interesting move for the Mariners, because they have very little – if any – Major League-ready hitters down in the minors who could potentially help out this season. We’ve tried Ryan Bliss, and through 23 at bats, he looks somewhat promising, but I’m not holding my breath. Jonatan Clase has already had a couple cups of coffee with the M’s through two-plus months, with very little to show for it. A couple other guys had brief call-ups without any sort of legitimate shot to produce. And we even picked up Victor Robles after he was let go by the Nationals; it’s probably pretty safe to say he’s shot.

The point is, I don’t know if there’s any help on the horizon that we can promote internally, or pick up via the MLB scrap heap. Our only real shot in 2024 is Tyler Locklear, and indeed, he’s no guarantee.

What prospect is, though? Even the best of the best have some growing pains. Tyler Locklear has produced every step of the way. Predictably, he raked in college. We took him in the second round in 2022; he proceeded to dominate at the lower A level that very same year. He was promoted to high-A Everett in 2023, crushed it there, and proceeded to get promoted again in 2023 to AA, where he finally met his match, but still showed out well.

That brings us to 2024, where he started at AA and took another step forward, which is impressive given that league isn’t nearly as forgiving to hitters as the PCL. You can argue AA has the best of the best prospects across the Major Leagues, but there’s still something to be said for getting your feet wet in AAA, where pitchers tend to throw more breaking pitches, and are in general a little more savvy on the ways of getting guys out. Tyler had 10 games in Tacoma, where he kept right on rolling.

Given this trajectory, and his massive minor league success, it was only a matter of time before the Mariners gave him a chance. We already moved Mitch Garver to backup catcher (making Seby Zavala’s roster spot as worthless as can be), so unless Garver and France balled out the rest of the way, Locklear was always going to at least get a look.

Which brings us back to France’s IL stint.

There are certainly internal options for the Mariners at the Major League level to fill in at first base. Luke Raley could play first, Dylan Moore can seemingly do it all, one would think Garver could handle it in a pinch. But, the time feels right. It’s early June; we’ve got a month and a half before the trade deadline. Let’s see what Locklear can do, because if he continues tearing the cover off the ball, that makes France or Garver expendable.

Ty France is an interesting case for the Mariners. He’s got one more Arb year in 2025 before he’s an unrestricted free agent. He’s also turning 30 in July. Through last year, he was on a steady decline in his offensive production, which led to him going to Driveline in the offseason and vastly revamping his swing and approach at the plate.

In spite of some peaks and valleys, France has unquestionably been a better hitter in 2024 than he was last year. That being said, his batting average is about the same (.251 compared to .250 in 2023), his OBP is worse (.329 vs. .337), and while his slugging has drastically improved (.403 over .366), it’s still considerably lower than it was in 2022 (.437), 2021 (.445), and 2020 (.468). France is earning just under $7 million this year, with a likely marginal increase for 2025; is that someone we absolutely NEED to hang onto?

That’s a tough question, because we can’t dismiss the fact that France has the third-highest slugging percentage on the team right now (behind Luke Raley and Dylan Moore). He also has the fourth-highest batting average, and the third-highest OPS. He’s second on the team in homers (tied with Garver, oddly enough, at 7), and is tied for the lead in doubles with Dylan Moore at 11. He’s not the best, most-productive hitter on the team, but he’s up there in just about all of the major categories. If you’re going to make France a cap casualty at the trade deadline – to help bring in other hitters – you better be DAMN sure you can replace his production at the lineup.

I would be curious to know what the Mariners’ front office feels about Locklear. Do they see him as The Future? Is this a scenario where maybe we flip France and a prospect for a rental like Pete Alonso? Presumably, there would be other salary offsets besides France, to get that deal done. But, knowing there’s a virtual certainty that we will never re-sign Alonso, could Locklear slot into first base heading into Spring Training 2025?

Or, might this call-up be a showcase of sorts, to see if we can package Locklear with someone else to bring in a hitter at a more-valuable position, like third base or left field?

Either way, Locklear had his first Major League start on Sunday, and went 1 for 4 with a double, RBI, and run scored (all in the 7th inning). He came out swinging from his very first at bat, and he ended up helping out in a big way, as the M’s salvaged one game of the 3-game set (not for nothing, but we should’ve won 2 of 3 in Kansas City, if we didn’t blow Friday’s game 10-9, after scoring 7 runs in the first and holding an 8-0 lead in the top of the 4th).

I’ll be rooting for him like crazy. Am I confident he’ll succeed? Absolutely not. That has nothing to do with Locklear, and everything to do with every other minor league bat I’ve ever seen called up to the bigs. The failure rate is quite high!

But, some dudes just know how to hit. It’s a shame that Locklear will be denigrated for “only” playing first base. I’ll say this: you still need guys to hit there. And I want a guy who not only looks the part – so many players “look the part” – but also has the numbers to back it up. Locklear has the numbers. He looks the part. So, I wouldn’t be too quick to give up on him, or flip him for a rental.

He COULD be the real deal. I hope the Mariners know what they’re doing.

The Mariners Have Managed To Hold Onto First Place In Spite Of Their Offensive Incompetence

Is the incompetence offensive? Or is the offense incompetent? Why not both?!

The 10-day/10-game road trip that just concluded wasn’t as mortifying as it could’ve been. There was a nice late-game scramble in Baltimore to take one of those three games; we managed to score 4 runs off the hottest closer in the game to help us split the 4-game series against the Yankees; and, while winning 1 of 3 against the Nationals isn’t ideal, it limited the damage to only a 4-6 road trip, when it very easily could’ve been 2-8 or worse.

Knowing how close it had been atop the A.L. West for most of this season, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Mariners somehow comfortably ahead of the rest. I was even more shocked to see that the Mariners are the only team in the division with a winning record as of this writing. We are 3 games over .500, and 3.5 games ahead of second place Texas (who are 4 games under .500). The Astros (who we’re playing now, back in Seattle) are 6 games under, the A’s are 11 games under, and the Angels are a whopping 13 games under .500.

It’s always something with the Mariners. It seems like every single year, we can say, “If only X, Y, and Z were to happen, this team would contend for a World Series.” A buddy of mine and I were talking about this very subject yesterday. If the Mariners ever figure out how to score more runs, they’re going all the way! He had mentioned previously that the 2018 Mariners – the last decent group, with Cruz, Seager, Cano, etc. – if they had only had more pitching, would’ve been serious contenders.

This MIGHT end up being the most extreme case we’ve ever seen, though. The starting pitching is SO good, and the bullpen has been its usual brand of effective (and occasionally excellent), that it feels like if the Mariners ever score 5 runs, they should be undefeated. That if we can average an extra half-run per game the rest of the year, we WILL go all the way.

Through 55 games, the Mariners are averaging 3.73 runs per game. If you were to bump that up to just 4 and a quarter, that’s an extra 28-29 runs. Are you telling me – with an extra 28-29 runs – we wouldn’t have an extra 6-7 wins? Come on. We’d be one of the best teams in baseball! If you bump us up to 234 runs (as opposed to our actual 205 runs), there would still be 15 teams ahead of us in the MLB. 234 is EXTREMELY middle-of-the-road. 205 is 4th-worst. So, it’s not like I’m asking a lot. I’m not asking for the moon and the stars here. I’m asking for an extra half-run per game, to turn us into one of the best teams in the game.

Now, the question, obviously, is: how do we get there?

It’s a valiant effort by this team to hang around .500 and luck into the division lead as we head into June, but a lot of that has been predicated on the Astros and Rangers either dealing with an inordinate amount of injuries or just playing well below their means. You can argue the Mariners have also had injuries (Brash, Santos, Woo, Crawford, Canzone, now Polanco), and have also played below their means (Julio, Polanco, Garver, Haniger). But, I would argue our ceiling isn’t nearly as high as the two Texas teams, and they’re coming. They’re GOING to get hot and start making a charge; it’s only a matter of when, not if.

So, how do we fend them off? Or, at the very least, put ourselves in a position to steal this division when it’s all said and done?

How do we get to that extra half-run per game?

I really want to say there’s enough on this roster as it’s currently constructed. I want to believe that Julio has started to turn things around as soon as I badmouthed him on the blog (as was my intent, naturally). I want J.P. to rebound, I want Garver to start mashing, I want Ty France to salvage his career, I want Haniger to look a little more like he did 6 years ago, and a lot less like he’s looked the last two seasons. I want the Polanco that was advertised to us when we traded for him, and I want our pleasant surprises (Raley, Moore, Rojas) to continue being productive Major Leaguers.

But, that might be asking too much. Haniger is probably toast. Polanco and Garver clearly haven’t adjusted to life in Seattle. Rojas has already started to come down to Earth after that supernova start to the season, and I don’t think Raley or Moore are far behind. Those guys are fine, but expecting more from them than what they are is a bridge too far. I do see better days for J.P. And, obviously, Julio will have his good times. But, it sure feels like Ty is on borrowed time, and is probably one extended slump away from getting the boot (or, at least, getting benched in favor of Tyler Locklear, who was recently promoted to AAA Tacoma).

That leads me to believe there’s an outside move or two coming. But, will that be enough?

I was going to do a post about how I don’t want the Mariners to go after seasoned veterans anymore. Too many of them get here, get it into their heads that they can’t hit here (if they didn’t already arrive with those preconceived notions), and it becomes one long self-fulfilling prophecy until they get shit-canned or sold for scrap parts. The problem with that concept for a blog post is, there are too many players I’d have to exclude. I mean, obviously, you have to take out Nelson Cruz: Greatest Mariners Free Agent Of All Time. You have to forget about the first Eugenio Suarez season. You at least have to ignore the occasional clutch success of Carlos Santana in big moments, and the semi-competence of Teoscar Hernandez (particularly when he was super hot last August, only to be overshadowed by Julio, who was a man possessed).

But, I would write that post because of guys like Garver and Polanco and Jesse Winker and Kolton Wong and A.J. Pollock and Adam Frazier. What do they have in common? They’re all established, veteran Major Leaguers. They were all very productive immediately before arriving in Seattle. And, they all sucked. They probably shouldn’t have. If they had signed with another team, maybe one that didn’t have as much pressure to win (and win close), or maybe with a team that had a friendlier hitting environment, maybe they would’ve been success stories with those respective teams. Guys like Frazier and Winker HAVE, in fact, gone on to other teams, with moderate success. One would suspect that Garver and/or Polanco – when they move on next year – will have a much easier time turning their fortunes around.

On the flipside, maybe the Mariners are smarter to buy low on younger, hungrier Quad-A type players, like Canzone and Raley and Rojas. Maybe it’s better to continue bringing up guys from within, like Clase and Bliss. Oh sure, a lot of them will fail and move on. But, if you can get one or two to hit, that’s invaluable! Because they’re cheap, and they will have done it here. They won’t be coming from some other organization and have to try to adapt.

Or, we can just admit that every team has moves that flop, involving both young guys and veterans alike, and it’s all one big, shitty crapshoot. That’s kind of where I’m at with all of this, and why I didn’t bother writing that post (you didn’t see nothin’ here; these aren’t the droids you’re looking for).

Some interesting numbers to look at: we’re 10-4 in one-run games, which I heard is best in baseball. That’s going to HAVE to happen if this thing is going to continue. We finished April 15-11 (we were 2-2 in March), which I don’t think anyone saw coming after the way we started. And we’re actually a game under .500 in May (it certainly felt like we were doing better than that, but again, that last road trip was certainly a killer). We’re 7-7 in blowouts, we’re 6 games over .500 at home, and 3 games under .500 on the road. Most importantly, we have a winning record in our division (7-3 against Houston, Texas, and Oakland; we’ve yet to play the Angels).

Keep it up! We eked one out against the Astros last night, gotta find a way to win at least one of the next two.