Last weekend, for the first time this year, I sat down and watched our Seattle Mariners play a game from start to finish. I don’t know why the shortened season and/or pandemic has impacted by fandom so severely, but it has. I’ve felt oddly uninterested in baseball since the season started, and I don’t think I’m alone.
From what I’ve heard online and through my social circle, many True-to-the-Blue Mariners fans are feeling equally disenfranchised in 2020. And it’s not surprising. Given the state of the world and the sheer number of unusual things bringing stress and anxiety into our lives, it’s challenging to extract joy from our usual places.
Or, it was. Until Saturday, when the Mariners unleashed a 10-1 throttling of the Texas Rangers, simultaneously reconnecting me to my ever-present love of baseball and restoring my fan-investment in the Mariners multi-year rebuild.
Yes, yes… That long-overdue, easy to say but hard to do, top-to-bottom organization rebuild. I know it sounds like the same old clichés that attempt to justify why our team hasn’t made the playoffs in almost 20 years. But guys, I saw it in action on Saturday. And it wasn’t a one-off moment of magic, it’s legit. The rebuild is taking shape… And it looks pretty good.
As of this writing, the 2020 60-game season is more than halfway done (Isn’t that shocking!?!), and the 12-19 Mariners are in 3rd place in the AL West. Based on the rest of the American League, division leaders are all around 20 wins, which puts the Mariners about 9 games back with 29 games to go.
Now, I don’t expect the Mariners to go on an extraordinarily hot run over the next few weeks and take over the division. The Oakland Athletics (21-10) and Houston Astros (17-14) are both formidable foes to face and overcome. Also, the M’s are currently well outside the top five AL teams’ records, pushing them outside the postseason bubble. To change that, the Mariners would have to chase down at minimum the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox, who are both currently out playing us. It’s possible, but unlikely given how young and inexperienced most of our team is.
But that’s the real story with the 2020 Mariners anyway… Not whether or not they can somehow scratch and claw their way to the postseason, but rather how are the young players on the team; the rookies, the prospects, the recent call-ups and acquisitions doing?
How do you measure the current status of a years-long project that’s still underway?
The first step is to admit that I’m not remotely the right person to evaluate the rebuild. That’s obvious. I have no idea what goes into player analysis, development, coaching, or evaluation at the major league level. As a fan only, I must base my assessment on what I can see on the field.
So, here are just a few of the amazing things I saw:
I saw the Mariners get off to a hot start, putting up three runs in the first, including a smoking shot down the third-base line from one of the club’s top prospects, Evan White. And then the M’s added five more runs in the third, again powered by a 3-run homer from White. He ended the night with six RBIs and looked very impressive.
I saw our highly-touted young starting pitcher Justus Sheffield deliver the kind of solid night the team has sorely lacked over the last few seasons. Nothing amazing, just good over the bulk of the game. Over six innings, Sheffield only gave up 1ER, 1BB, and managed to take down five Rangers via strikeout.
I saw our defense keep the Rangers’ bats at bay for most of the night. From Kyle Lewis’ flying feats guarding the outfield wall to yet another spectacular display of shortstop wizardry from J.P. Crawford, the Mariners flashed the leather all across the diamond.
Now this was only one game. And it was an unusually lopsided and high-scoring game at that. But, based on just these few observations, I feel it’s fair to extract a few truths about the rebuild based on this snapshot in time.
The Mariners offense looks promising. Our young bats have clicked on and off this year, which makes sense given the average age and experience of these guys. For some, these are the first real at bats they’ve taken at the big-league level. Even so, they’re figuring it out day-by-day and pitch-by-pitch.
From our younger guys, like Lewis’ and White having their first taste of success to seasoned vets, like Kyle Seager, who’s enjoying a renaissance at the plate recently, it’s not hard to see a 2021 or 2022 version of the Mariners lineup that can produce a lot of runs. Note: I love Kyle Seager and don’t want him to be traded, but given his hot season and the team’s long-term plans, it won’t surprise me if he leaves Seattle. And if he does, it better be to a contending team, because he deserves a shot at the post-season more than anyone.
The Mariners pitching also looks promising. Over the offseason, we saw the Mariners invest in Marco Gonzales, making him the teams defacto “ace”, but the team needs five starters, not just one, and we’ve needed to see more from the rest of the rotation. Fortunately, younger arms on the M’s, like Sheffield and Justin Dunn have been proving they’re more than just potential.
Again, I’m no expert, but seeing the Mariner’s bats, gloves, and arms all come to life in the same game was thrilling.
Baseball is a marathon of a game, with hot and cold periods happening all the time for everyone over the usual 162 game season. As a fan, it’s unfair to expect our entire roster to perform at a high level all year, but getting a glimpse of what they’re capable of when they do, helped verify that the rebuild is working. As these players develop and gain experience, we should see the ‘floor’ of their play come up. And if we’re lucky, we’ll also see moments, then streaks, then sustained play at their ‘ceiling’, as these youngsters grow in the next class of Mariners stars. Picture this, next year the Mariners play a solid season, hanging around .500 all year and just barely making the playoffs. But they lose in the first or second wildcard round. Then, in the following offseason, with all the foundation pieces of the rebuild in place, Mariners general manager, Jerry Dipoto, goes out and signs a few high-profile free agents.
Maybe a dominant starting pitcher known for double-digit strikeouts, an exciting closer with a unhittable off-speed pitch, and a hard-slugging third baseman to put the lineup over the top…
Then, as spring starts to warm up in 2022, we start to hear reports from Spring Training about how locked-in the guys look. The new guys are gelling, the hitters are raking, the arms are on fire. And then, as the first few weeks roll by the Mariners are holding the top of the division.
And as we close in on the All-Star break, Dipoto makes another big move to bring in a short-term rental bat who anchors our lineup with 30 HRs in July and August and pushes the M’s toward a deep run at the playoffs.
I know that’s a lot to imagine, but from what I saw in one game last weekend, it doesn’t seem that farfetched.
Keep in mind, everyone’s favorite Mariner Mitch Haniger isn’t even playing right now due to injury. You add a healthy Haniger to this team, plus a few splashy additions at the right times, and this organization has everything it needs to challenge for the American League.
I’m proud that the Mariners aren’t the Yankees, I don’t like the idea of rooting for a big-spending club like that. But I see no reason why we can’t put a playoff-caliber team on the field that resembles the Athletics or Tampa Bay Rays. Those are smaller-market teams regularly winning against big-market teams with quality play from everyone on the squad.
Sadly, the COVID-shortened season limits how much development is possible this year, but I trust the team leadership to keep the guys on track as well as possible. And who knows, maybe these guys will come along faster than I think, and we’ll see a divisional competition next year.
The Seattle Mariners fan base has been patient for a long, long time and nobody wants to continue waiting… But we must, at least for a little longer.
But from what I saw last weekend, the future of the Mariners looks good. Really good.