As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Nick Tucker takes a look at the Seattle Mariners!
After the 2018 MLB season ended, Seattle Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto called a press conference and announced that the Mariners would begin the process of taking a new competitive direction. The “step back,” as it was referred to by Dipoto, would be a process with a specific goal in mind: bring championships to Seattle. The move would be unpopular among many fans. Hundreds of thousands of them who had waited so long for playoff baseball were told they would wait longer yet. Dipoto felt confident enough in the moment to establish a timeline of how long that might be, saying that the Mariners competitive window could open as soon as 2021.
Well the 2021 season is right around the corner, and suffice to say now, that is not the case. There are many reasons for that, not the least of which being the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season, as well as significantly reduced free-agent spending nearly league-wide, and the leadership of a now-disgraced Chief Executive Officer.
All that is not to suggest that the 2021 Seattle Mariners won’t be an absolute pleasure to watch. Trust me, I see the contradiction, but what is being a Mariners fan, if not contradiction persevering?
2020 Record: 27-33, 3rd Place in AL West
Team MVP: Kyle Lewis (.262, .364, .437, 11 HR, 126 OPS+, AL Rookie of the Year)
Team Cy Young: Marco Gonzales (7-2, 3.10 ERA, 9.14 K/BB, 136 ERA+, 3.32 FIP)
Before the 2020 season started, there was a small, but loud subsect of the Mariners fanbase trying their hardest to get #TankForKumar seen by as many people as possible. The idea being that while winning games is still cool, losing could take on a new identity as stepping stones towards drafting the extremely exciting college pitcher Kumar Rocker with a first overall pick in the draft. Clearly, the expectations for the Mariners were exceedingly low going into 2020, even, and perhaps especially so, among their most dedicated fans. All manner of wild and crazy things can happen in a 60-game season though, and such was the case for a couple of days in early September when the door was still very much open for a youthful Mariners squad to come from behind and snatch a playoff spot from the floundering Houston Astros. But September 7th marked the closest the race ever got, when an Astros loss brought their record to 21-20, while a Mariners win pulled them to 19-22. After that, the Astros did just enough in the remaining games to fend off the Mariners, and their playoff hopes died with a whimper.
In the midst of it all, however, was a mix of glorious highs and the expected lows. Kyle Lewis’ rookie season was wonderful to behold. Lewis managed to carry an OPS over 1.000 through the first 13 games of the season, then another hot stretch brought it back to 1.014 at game 31 before the bat cooled off as the season wound down. The waning days of the season saw some of the strikeout concerns rise back up for Lewis when he sprinkled a trio of 3 strikeout games into the final 7 of the season, but the cold snap he suffered from wasn’t enough to stop him from being voted a unanimous Rookie of the Year in the American League, and even snagging an MVP vote. Lewis’s defensive concerns were left at the door, as he covered center field effectively for the entire season, and will start there again in 2021. Lewis’ great rookie campaign was complemented by the steady veteran presence of Kyle Seager, and the emerging top-of-the-order bat wielded by Dylan Moore.
Marco Gonzales and rookie Justus Sheffield anchored a shaky rotation. Marco put together another ace quality season by striking out 64 batters in 69.2 innings while only walking 7. His .9 BB/9 led the AL while his 9.14 K/BB led the majors, and his consistency allowed the M’s to remain in contention for every game he pitched. His season was capped off by a brilliant complete game against the Angels, when Marco hurled 9 innings and 8 K’s, only allowing 4 baserunners, with the only blemish being a 2nd inning homer off the bat of Justin Upton. Justus Sheffield had a very shaky start to 2020, but after a few starts, it was very clear to anyone watching that he was getting much more comfortable on the major league mound and more confident in his stuff. After getting knocked around by the Angels in late August, he cruised through his final 4 starts of the season, giving up 23 hits and 9 runs while striking out 25 and only walking 8. The big highlight for Justus was only allowing 2 home runs during the entire season, and none in his last 4 games, proving how difficult it is to put hard contact on his pitches even if they aren’t as sharp as he would like.
Injuries were a major hindrance for the Mariners loftier 2020 goals. The entire season was played without catcher Tom Murphy (foot) and All-Star right fielder Mitch Haniger (back). Kendall Graveman, Taylor Guilbeau, Luis Torrens, Jake Fraley, and Dylan Moore all spent meaningful time on the Injured List, while Shed Long Jr. attempted to play through excruciating pain during the 2020 season that limited his play and resulted in him still being on the Mariners injury report today. The revolving door of the supporting cast that was called up to assist the team was never the jolt that the team needed to stay competitive. Phillip Ervin, Jose Marmolejos, Donovan Walton, Aaron Fletcher, and Tim Lopes among a handful of others were not exactly the shot in the arm that phenom prospect Jarred Kelenic might’ve been if the team had called him up. Instead, a trove of less talented players was plugged in where they were needed to field a full team. The team also did its best to find playing time for veteran Dee Strange-Gordon, but being a fan favorite didn’t make much difference in his on-field performance.
But ultimately the team fell short because the bullpen was bad, and some bats just never got hot. Bryan Shaw started the season in the Mariners bullpen, and if you’re familiar at all with Bryan Shaw you already know EXACTLY how that went. The M’s took a flyer on Yoshihisa Hirano that got them 12.1 IP of 18 hits and 9 earned runs. Taylor Williams put up largely similar numbers to Hirano, just in 1.1 more innings. Yohan “Wild Thing” Ramirez pitched the most innings out of anyone in the Mariners bullpen last year and used his 20.2 innings to walk 21 batters and plunk 4. Hard thrower Dan Altavilla was traded to San Diego mid-season, but he left behind 12 hits and 11 runs in 11.2 innings. I could go on, but instead, I’ll move on. J.P. Crawford and Evan White both won Gold Gloves in 2020, but defense remained J.P.’s strength, and the 2020 season marked the first pitches above Double-A that White had ever seen – and it showed. All-Star catcher Austin Nola was the key piece in the trade that sent Altavilla away. The haul included a pair of bats that have both been very hot in Spring Training presented by Camping World 2021, but Nola’s absence was felt after the midpoint of 2020, with Luis Torrens and Joseph Odom never able to fill the gap at the position. Daniel Vogelbach hit .094 (!) and slugged .216 (!!) in 18 games before being cut, and every outfield stop gap the M’s trotted out failed to hit over .200.
Key losses from 2020: Dee Strange-Gordon
Notable Free Agent Additions: James Paxton, Keynan Middleton, Chris Flexen, Ken Giles (sorta)
Notable Trades: Rafael Montero
A cursory glance at the list of Mariners’ off-season transactions is all that’s needed to understand that this was not the traditional Jerry Dipoto Move-A-Palooza. Some work was done to add depth to the Mariners catastrophically bad bullpen by signing lifetime Mariners fan Keynan Middleton to a one-year, $850,000 contract, and investing in the 2022 season by signing Ken Giles to a two year, $7 million contract, with an option for 2023. Giles will not pitch in 2021 as he’s in recovery from Tommy John surgery he had in September, but his contract is a steal if he returns to form in 2022. The Mariners are hoping that Middleton can benefit from a change of scenery, as his tenure with Anaheim is not remembered fondly by Angel fans, or Middleton himself. The Mariners sent relief prospect Jose Corniell and a PTBNL to Texas for 30-year-old reliever Rafael Montero, intending to make him the closer. Texas had Montero in the closer role for the middle part of the 2020 season, where he faced the Mariners three times, allowing no hits, no runs, and collecting 3 Ks and 2 saves.
Some holes were left in the Mariners’ rotation after the 2020 season. Although Kendall Graveman started 2020 in the rotation, a tumor was discovered in his neck mid-season, and Graveman was moved into the bullpen. With the Mariners planning to run a 6-man rotation again, some reinforcements were needed. Prospect Logan Gilbert is very close to joining the club, but to give him some time, the Mariners went out and brought back the Big Maple. James Paxton returns to the team that drafted him in 2010. After a tour of duty in New York that was plagued by the injuries that have followed him for his entire career, the Yankees decided to let him go to free agency. With an extra day of rest being a guarantee in the Seattle rotation, it was clearly a great fit, and Paxton signed a one-year, $8.5 million deal to come home. This also marks the return of the fan-created James Paxton cheering section The Maple Grove and their chants of “Eh! Eh! Eh!” floating down from the left-field bleachers when Pax gets to 2 strikes. In addition to Paxton, the Mariners signed right-hander Chris Flexen to a two-year, $4.75 million contract. Flexen is returning to Major League Baseball after a season in the KBO with the Doosan Bears. He comes back with more 2020 innings than anyone in the MLB got to pitch, and good numbers to show for it. In 116.2 innings, Flexen struck out 132 batters, while giving up 30 walks, and 39 earned runs for a 3.01 ERA. That is an awful lot of polish to be bringing into your first full Major League season, and the Mariners were smart to jump on that much potential upside.
The majority of players not returning in 2021 include waiver claims on young players that the club simply no longer had room for. Tim Lopes, Phillip Ervin, and a handful of others were all claimed off waivers. Hopefully, they find playing time and success with new clubs, but the Mariners organization simply doesn’t need that many outfielders, and their opportunities in Seattle had run their course. The departure of Dee Strange-Gordon was not surprising. The 2021 roster doesn’t have room to offer Dee any of the playing time he desires so much, but his humanitarian focus and leadership will be missed in the Mariners clubhouse.
2021 Season Preview
Projected Opening Day Roster
- Mitch Haniger (RF)
- Dylan Moore (2B)
- Kyle Lewis (CF)
- Kyle Seager (3B)
- Ty France (DH)
- Tom Murphy (C)
- Taylor Trammell (LF)
- Evan White (1B)
- J.P. Crawford (SS)
Luis Torrens (C), Sam Haggerty (INF/OF), Jake Fraley (OF)
- Marco Gonzales (L)
- James Paxton (L)
- Justus Sheffield (L)
- Chris Flexen (R)
- Yusei Kikuchi (L)
- Justin Dunn (R)
Keynan Middleton, Kendall Graveman, Domingo Tapia, Anthony Misiewicz (L), Joey Gerber, Casey Sadler, Nick Margevicius (L), Rafael Montero (CL)
Clear improvement is evident across every aspect of this projected roster. The return of Mitch Haniger and Tom Murphy brings very strong bats back to the lineup, and I really can’t overstate how high I am on Haniger’s return. I’ve been tweeting at every opportunity my firm belief that Haniger is destined for a 9+ WAR season in 2021, and I will not be allowing logic to change my mind on that at this time. His swings in Spring Training presented by Camping World have been just as strong and violent as they were in ’18 and ’19, and he hasn’t seemed to be taking it easy on the base paths. His recovery focused very heavily on getting him to use his body in more efficient ways to limit the chance of future injuries.
Ty France is going to be a mainstay in the middle of the lineup for the whole season. Unable to find playing time with the Padres due to an embarrassment of infield riches in San Diego, Seattle is more than prepared to offer him time as a designated hitter, second, or third baseman. The second base position remains a question mark halfway through Spring Training presented by Camping World, and France can field the position well, but Dylan Moore and Shed Long Jr. are also competing for time there. Seager fields an excellent third and I’ve already mentioned J.P. and Evan White are coming off Gold Glove campaigns, so I expect France and his bat speed to get a lot of time at DH.
Taylor Trammell has worked his way into being the front runner for the Mariners’ left field job when the team breaks camp. The competition has thinned recently with Jarred Kelenic being sidelined due to a knee problem while legging out an infield single. Jose Marmolejos is an absolute liability on defense and hasn’t been hitting all that well in Spring Training presented by Camping World. Jake Fraley and Braden Bishop are both defensive wonders, but Trammell has shown he has excellent range in the outfield and has been tearing the cover off the ball throughout camp.
Sam Haggerty and Luis Torrens are seemingly locks to start on the Mariners bench. The aforementioned Braden Bishop is the only one who I think could work his way onto the bench with what is left of Spring Training presented by Camping World. But Fraley has made a couple of sparkling plays in the outfield showing off just how healthy he’s feeling right now, with health being a roadblock for him in his last efforts with the big club.
I’ve seen a number of different takes on how the Mariners could structure their rotation. Some have Kikuchi as the number 2, some have Paxton as the number 5. Really the only thing anyone can agree on is that Marco is the obvious number 1. No matter which way you look at it, there’s a lot of left-handers in the rotation and it’s difficult to split them all up. Flexen could be the number 3 to prevent any team from seeing 3 lefties in a row, but I structured mine to insert Paxton into his old spot when he used to throw behind Felix. Kikuchi has been not great the last two seasons, and I don’t particularly like the idea of moving him up any higher in the rotation, but his ceiling is limited only by his whiff rate. Flexen is the biggest question mark, but it would be foolish to have four lefties in a row in the rotation, and moving Dunn out of the 6 spot isn’t really an option, so 4 seems the most logical spot.
The bullpen has a number of more established arms in it this year, but it’s really unclear how much better it is this season, if at all. Middleton has had a yucky Spring Training presented by Camping World, but the team’s pitching development still has plenty of time to try to get his accuracy dialed in the way the Angels failed to do. Roenis Elias was set to return to the Mariners for a third term, but a “serious” elbow injury forced Elias to stop warming up in the middle of a spring game. No details have been announced about the injury yet, but the 32-year-old reliever will undergo surgery. Domingo Tapia was picked up from the Red Sox in the offseason and he seems in a position to fill the spot. Kendall Graveman, Joey Gerber, and Casey Sadler are the only Mariners I feel truly confident will return to the pen for the Mariners after 2021. Anthony Misiewicz could just easily end up being Nick Margevicius (please don’t ask me to spell those names again), as both are lefties that the Mariners bullpen is in need of.
I can’t leave without talking about the prospects that are expected to come up this season. Jarred Kelenic, Logan Gilbert, and Cal Raleigh are all expected to debut in 2021. As I mentioned earlier, Kelenic might’ve broken camp with the club, but in the aftermath of Kevin Mather’s video going public, Dipoto has been very clear that they still believe strongly that Kelenic could benefit from getting more at-bats in the high minors before facing MLB pitchers, and his recent injury has all but put the question to bed. Logan Gilbert is the Mariners’ highest ranked pitching prospect. Praised industry-wide for maturity beyond his years, and an extremely disciplined approach to his preparation and workouts, he is poised to get 5-10 starts in the majors this season. But when asked about his preparation, Gilbert is often quick to point to Cal Raleigh. Raleigh is the Mariners’ highest-ranked catching prospect. A switch hitter with prodigious pop that has earned him the nickname “Beef Boy”, Raleigh puts a tremendous amount of work into learning how to work with his pitching staff and has earned the trust of just about every pitcher in the Mariners system. Pitchers Juan Then and Sam Delaplane are longer shots to come up to the Mariners this season, but they might get some bullpen innings should injuries pile up. Assistant General Manager Justin Hollander alluded to Julio Rodriguez beginning 2021 with Low-A Everett, so if anyone needs me you can probably find me at Aqua Sox games this season until he gets bumped to West Virginia. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Julio advances up to Double-AA Arkansas by the end of the season. I anticipate RHP Emerson Hancock to join Julio in Everett, while George Kirby gets shipped off to West Virginia.
FanGraphs Projected Record: 73.4-89.6, 4th place in AL West
PECOTA Projected Record: 70.7-91.3, 4th place in AL West
Personal Projection: 75-87, 4th place in AL West
It’s really difficult to see a way this team finishes with much more than 75 wins. The Athletics, Astros, and Angels are all in much better positions to make a playoff run than the current iteration of the Mariners. The Mariners added so little in free agency, and while they didn’t really lose anything of substance either, it still seems likely the Mariners go to the trade deadline as sellers, as there are plenty of movable contracts. James Paxton, Mitch Haniger, and Chris Flexen are all on very movable deals and could perform themselves into being trade pieces for the Mariners to make the 2022 team into a fully operational battle station. Kyle Seager and Marco Gonzales seem to be the topic of trade rumors weekly at this point, but the Kyle Seager contract is still difficult (not impossible) for the Mariners to move, and the reverse is true of Marco, who the Mariners do not want to move unless they get a truly outstanding offer. Regardless, the Mariners could move very strong pieces at the deadline and leave them limping in August and September. If by some divine miracle, the Mariners find themselves to be buyers at the deadline, it’s likely that those contracts are still the ones they try to move, as the Mariners are rightly loathed to part with any of their top prospects. To say that this Mariners team is clearly better than it was in 2020 while simultaneously expecting a worse overall record is certainly contradictory, but what is being a Mariners fan, if not contradiction persevering.
This is the third season of the rebuild. It is frustrating to imagine where the rebuild might be had a pandemic not inserted its ugly head into the middle of it, but that’s not the fault of the Mariners themselves. They dealt themselves this hand, then someone sneezed on it. If all my hopes and dreams come true, this time next year I’ll be writing the final chapter of this saga, preparing everyone for the emergence of a hungry beast in the Northwest. But right now, the beast lingers, not fully ready to attack yet, but certainly ready to surprise anyone who makes the mistake of underestimating it. One eye still rests on the minor leagues, but the major league eye gets more to look at this year, with the prospects set to put on their big league uniforms for the first time. The youth will continue to be the guiding light of this tired franchise. So what if the Minor League season is starting late this year. After all, contradictions, perseverance, you know how it goes.