The All Star break is finally upon us. The first half of the marathon MLB season has came and gone for all 30 teams. Some find themselves several games out of a playoff spot and impatiently waiting for the trade deadline to sell, while some find themselves right in the thick of it, excited to be competing for a playoff spot and for the chance to bring home a title. Surprising to most, the Seattle Mariners are one of the clubs that are undoubtedly competitive night in and night out, doing the most to try to end the dreadful playoff drought that has haunted the organization for years. They have been in this position before in recent memory, coming within a win or two of the playoffs in 2016 and then staying in it and finishing 16 games above .500 in 2018. This team is young, eager to taste the playoffs for the first time in their careers. When Jerry Dipoto first decided to start this rebuild, 2021 was when he predicted the Mariners would start being competitive. They aren’t even close to their ceiling by any means, but for M’s fans, it’s nice to see some progress in a rebuild that wasn’t fully accepted initially. Let’s take a deeper look into how the Mariners have done what they’ve been able to do this year, handing out our hypothetical first half awards.
If you would’ve asked me this question at the end of May, the answer would’ve been, without much hesitation, Mitch Haniger. But, due to what he’s been able to do in the last month or so, the MVP of the first half is J.P. Crawford. Crawford started the season like most expected, flashing his Gold Glove caliber defense and doing enough on the offensive side to help the Mariners win games. But, since the start of June, J.P. has been a completely different player. He is still one of the best defensive SS in the game, but his offense has began to take shape. As soon as Jarred Kelenic was demoted, Crawford was moved from the bottom half of the order to the leadoff spot. He has been an absolute catalyst at the top of the order. At the break, he has been good for 2.8 WAR and in his last 30 games, he is hitting .304 with a .781 OPS. He has raised his average every single season in a Mariners’ uniform and the improvements he has been able to make makes the trade with the Phillies look like a great one. He isn’t going to put up the power numbers that players such as Trevor Story, Xander Bogaerts, and Carlos Correa do, but he is so extremely valuable to this team. He has been irreplaceable.
Cy Young Award
The lone All Star selection from this year’s team, Yusei Kikuchi is my selection for Cy Young of the first half. Coming into this year, there were many uncertainties regarding his ability to live up to the contract he signed coming over from Japan, but with the way he has performed this year, I think there is no doubt that Jerry Dipoto will find a way to keep him under contract and in a M’s uniform. As I noted in a previous article, Kikuchi has been able to refine his cutter and show added velocity on his fastball much more consistently. he has also been able to stay healthy, which is something many other Mariners have not been able to do, making him somebody the team can lean on every fifth or sixth day. He is currently ninth in the American League in ERA at 3.48, and the decrease in BB% to 8.7% so far this year has been a key. Kikuchi, due to his time playing in Japan before coming to the MLB, is actually one of the older, more experienced players on this Mariners team. At 30 years old, Kikuchi is no stranger to pitching on the big stage. After two mediocre seasons to start his MLB career, Kikuchi is starting to blossom into somebody who has ace potential. As long as Kikuchi can continue to stay healthy, he will be so important for the Mariners going forward, heavily relying on him to keep them in the game every time he takes the mound.
This award could go to many players, as the speculation of over performance has been placed upon this team all year long. But, no player has shown more improvement and promise than Jake Fraley. It has been an absolute pleasure to be able to watch Jake Fraley this year. The Mariners outfield, both in the majors and in the minors, is crowded. There is no way around it. Before this season, Fraley looked as if he may be the odd one out. He couldn’t have picked a better time to start truly showing his abilities than this season. A name that isn’t known by many, Fraley has been good for 1.6 WAR this season, third best on the entire Mariners roster. His unwavering patience at the plate and the shown growth in maturity has been astounding. He is only hitting .237 as of right now, but his .848 OPS shows his true value as a hitter. He doesn’t throw any ABs away, and he makes the best of all of his chances. Lucky for him, the number of chances he is getting has been increasing as the season progresses. With Kyle Lewis sidelined indefinitely, Fraley has also shown his versatility in the field. He has played all three outfield positions, and he has played them well. Whether it was the game saving, homerun robbing catch in Detroit on June 9th or his leaping catch into the wall behind a struggling Justus Sheffield on July 6th, this facet of his game has been a pleasant surprise. His contributions so far this year have indeed been surprising, but now that we have seen how hard Fraley works and how professionally he carries himself, I don’t think anybody will be surprised with any success he has moving forward.
Chris Flexen, what a signing. Jerry Dipoto has shown a knack for identifying pitching talent and that is an understatement when it comes to Flexen. Flexen, much like Kikuchi, has found success when relying heavily on his cutter. He keeps the ball on the ground and in the ballpark frequently, keeping himself and his team in the game consistently. His 48.6% groundball rate and his minuscule 5.1% BB rate gives the outstanding Mariners’ defense many chances, leading to lower pitch counts and longer outings. Additionally, what Flexen has been able to do at T-Mobile Park is simply incredible. In 10 starts in the Emerald City this season, Flexen is sporting a 6-2 record with a 1.76 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings pitched. Flexen originally pitched in the majors with the New York Mets, but after little success found himself pitching in Korea. He has outperformed his contract by far, and as long as he continues to keep the Mariners in games in the second half, he will find himself at the top of the rotation moving forward.
Three Things to Watch
First and foremost, what will the Mariners do with Mitch Haniger? Returning from a couple of brutal injuries, Haniger has had a great first half. He leads the team in homers with 20 and also ranks in the 81st percentile in barrel percentage. A career .265 hitter and a player that has been good for 12.5 WAR in his career, Haniger has an expiring contract at the completion of this season, and after being arbitration eligible in 2022, would become a free agent ahead of the 2023 season. He has been a great mentor for some of the younger outfielders this season and has the potential to be an All Star for years to come. But his name has been swirling in trade rumors. Do the Mariners keep him knowing he is a proven star, or move him to make way for their youth in the outfield? It is a very interesting story to keep an eye on.
Secondly, how does the Mariners pen hold up in the second half? Surprise contributors such as Drew Steckenrider, Paul Sewald, and Kendall Graveman have solidified the back end of this Mariners bullpen, giving them the ability to shorten games and win many one run contests. At the break, they rank 3rd in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and 2nd in WAR from the group. They have many names that aren’t household names, but as I stated before, Dipoto has done an outstanding job identifying pitching talent, no matter their previous experiences. It’s been a pleasant surprise and it is intriguing to see what they plan on doing moving forward. Do they try to make a move for a more proven bullpen piece or do they rely on this exact group to try to help bring them to the playoffs?
Lastly, it will be interesting to see what the M’s do at the catcher position. Tom Murphy has unfortunately been very inconsistent after showing promise in 2019. Luis Torrens, acquired in a trade with the Padres, has spent time in AAA but has shown improvement in the last few weeks. Then there is Cal Raleigh, one of the Mariners top prospects and a very talented backstop. He got his first taste in the big leagues a day before the All Star break and will take up a lot of the playing time moving forward. It’s hard to justify carrying three catchers, even with the possibility of playing one of them at the DH spot. So, will Murphy or Torrens receive the short end of the stick and be traded or even DFA’d, or will that be an issue addressed after this season?
The second half is upon us now, and with that, the Mariners will have many decisions to make. The next month or so will be vital and will give us fans a better idea of where exactly we stand in the process of our rebuild. Every year is a year in which the Mariners have a chance to break the postseason drought, and if some of the names mentioned above elevate their game once again in the second half, they will be in a great position to do just that.
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