I’ve been True to the Blue for many years. Eternally optimistic every March about the season ahead and again every September about the positives likely to be carried into the next year. I listen regularly, watch often, and attend whenever possible. (get cheap seats, hang in the Pen)
But every October for the last 18 years, I’ve had the same heartbreaking feeling: not our year.
Usually when the postseason begins and 30 distinct fandoms whittle down to a limited number of wildcard-round fan groups, we Mariners faithful mix up our annual disappointment, frustration, and sadness cocktail, take the sourest of gulps, and then split time between the Mariners-less playoffs and football.
But this is 2020.
While it still was a ‘not our year’ year, the shortened, 60-game season revealed a cornucopia of goodness for the rebuilding Mariners and it’s been truly wonderful to see and hear. To put the shortened season in perspective, here’s how the M’s stacked up against the rest of the league.
As batters, the Mariners are the 3rd-youngest team, averaging 26.6 years old. As one might expect from a young team, they were among the bottom-third of teams in runs per game, hits, RBIs, and batting average. Interestingly, they were 3rd in stolen bases but also 2nd in caught stealing bases, so I guess the team wanted to test the boys on the basepaths. Despite the bottom-tier rankings, the production from such young players speaks volumes about their potential. This is better news than it may appear.
On the mound, the Mariners are the MLB’s youngest team, again averaging just 26.6 years old. (weird, right?) The pitchers’ win/loss average puts them around the middle of the pack, as does the number of innings pitched and hits allowed. However, when you look at runs allowed and earned runs, the M’s climb toward the top of league (5th overall with 289 earned runs). Much like the batters, the real story here is the young arms finding stable success at the major league level. We wouldn’t expect dominance from the starters at this point, but rather an ability to last deep into games without giving up an insurmountable number of runs is the goal. And the Mariners achieved that goal with flying colors.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the odd season and some of the bright things I had noticed. In the closing of that article, I said the following:
“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.”
Today, I wish to correct the second sentence of that sentiment to now say; these guys will compete next year.
I’ve seen enough. I’m calling it now. The Seattle Mariners will end the drought next year and make the postseason. What’s that? You want to hear it from someone with more insight, intelligence, and experience in evaluating things like multi-team player development… Fair enough.
“The next wave of players, I’m not entirely sure what the timing looks like or their progression, but I know with the group that will come back and what we anticipate adding to our club via free agency or trade, I think we’re in a really nice position for 2021. Our goal will be to go out there and contend for a playoff spot. And I don’t think that’s an unrealistic goal.” – Jerry Dipoto, Seattle Mariners general manager on MLB.com.
So, that’s pretty definitive. But wait, there’s more from the Mariners GM.
With an eye on hitters, Dipoto expects Mitch Haniger to be the starting right fielder next season, making our bats at the plate and gloves in the field only better. After suffering multiple injuries in the spring of 2019 and complications afterward, Haniger wasn’t rushed back to action this year; instead, he was allowed to spend additional time healing and getting truly right. So, given some of the pop we saw in the lineup in 2020, adding Haniger (at least) to the mix could make a measurable impact in 2021.
Looking at the pitchers, Dipoto said the plan is to continue with a six-man rotation next season. The group will almost certainly include LHP Marco Gonzales, LHP Yusei Kikuchi, LHP Justus Sheffield, and RHP Justin Dunn, all of whom had good, if not great seasons. However, Dipoto went on to address the hard-throwing elephant not in the room, saying the plan is to address bullpen needs through free agency and there could be 3-5 new pitchers added in that area.
The rebuild plan has always been based on developing prospects first. Then, once you establish a solid core team, you add the players needed to strengthen weak spots and push your team into a real position of contention.
Lastly, when addressing defense, Dipoto said this about the long-awaited arrival of franchise first baseman Evan White: “Our first baseman is the best defensive first baseman I’ve ever seen.” No matter what you think of the Mariners’ rebuild or Dipoto’s stewardship of the team, I trust him to know far more about player analysis that I do. Hearing this gives me tremendous confidence in the future of the team, defensively and otherwise.
Picture the 2021 team if you can: a rejuvenated Haniger in right field, this year’s Rookie of the Year caliber Kyle Lewis in centerfield, defensive wizard Evan White at first, ultra-utility player Dylan Moore at second, another defensive wizard J.P. Crawford at short, team veteran Seager at third, and a good core of starting pitchers giving the team a fighting chance every day.
That’s pretty juicy. But then imagine adding a few free agents or trade acquisitions to the mix, ideally Marcell Ozuna in leftfield, Trevor Bauer to lead the rotation, and maybe Liam Hendriks to close out games, and this starts to look like a dangerous, maybe even dominant team in the AL West.
I know that’s a lot to put on these young players. And there’s a fair argument to be made that 2021 is still rushing the rebuild.
But after watching the evidence of positive progress this year, and adding Dipoto’s insights about what’s in the plan to come, for the first time in almost two decades I think we can retire any ‘not our year’ groans for the foreseeable future.
And that would be an incredibly welcome relief for Mariners fans everywhere.