No matter how you work the calculator, crunch the numbers or even invent a new metric to judge, 2019 will be one of the Mariners’ least successful seasons.
They are 55-75, not the worst in baseball (thank you Tigers, Orioles, Blue Jays, Royals, Marlins and Pirates) but bad enough to leave an acrid scent in the air.
And yet, even in this “step-back” season, there have to be some positives, right?
It isn’t easy, but we put on our Pete Carroll-approved rose-colored sunglasses and we were able to find four areas in which Mariners fans can glean a modicum of positivity.
Justus Sheffield’s resiliency
Label it present-ism if you want, but Sheffield, acquired from the Yankees in the James Paxton trade, made his first major league start Friday night and showed something that will be crucial in his development. No, we’re not talking about the left-hander’s fastball or breaking stuff, his command or his pickoff move. Nothing physical.
Sheffield wouldn’t give in. Or break down.
And proved adversity can sometimes show a lot more than success.
Sheffield’s first inning was labored. Two quick hits, two quick outs and then a play that was this close to being made and ending the inning.
Except shortstop J.P. Crawford – one of the season’s positives just by himself – couldn’t complete it. Before Scott Servais could blink, the Blue Jays had two runs, three on and Brandon Drury at the plate. More than 30 pitches in, the bullpen active, it seemed Sheffield wouldn’t survive. Yet he did. He struck out Drury, limited the damage and moved on.
From there he was fine, giving up another run but getting through four innings.
Nothing spectacular, but a gutty performance from a guy the M’s are going to count on to gut-out a bunch over the next few years.
The catching corps
The M’s have used a lot of platoons over the recent years, most of which could best be described as busts. But if you try something enough, there is a chance you can find success at least once.
They have with their catching tandem. The past few years, Mike Zunino has handled those chores mainly by himself. That’s been good (defense, for the most part, and power) but much more bad (every other aspect of hitting). So Jerry Dipoto traded the former first-round pick to Tampa.
And traded for Omar Narvaez.
The former White Sox receiver could always hit. But this year his catching has improved, as has his power. The lefty has stroked a career-high 18 home runs, while playing a majority of the innings.
He hasn’t been alone, however. Tom Murphy, who hits from the right side, has also posted career numbers despite moving from Coors Field to T-Mobile.
It’s a real platoon at a position that actually calls for one. Only superstar catchers actually play more than 150 games (or should), so almost every team needs a backup, preferably hitting from the other side. That’s what Seattle finally has.
The duo is also having the best season for M’s catchers. They may post franchise bests in home runs (34, besting the 28 of 2017), slugging (.517, better than the .459 of 2017), on-base percentage (.348, topping 1993’s .344) and OPS (.865, better than the .777 of 2017).
And both are under club control for a few years, with Narvaez arbitration-eligible next season and Murphy the year after.
Improvement in the minor league talent level
At the end of last year, the Mariners’ system was ranked near the bottom by most talent evaluators.
There was Kyle Lewis, an awfully young Julio Rodriguez and not much else.
Then Dipoto began trading. Robinson Cano, Paxton, others. It was an offseason of restocking the system.
When the season began, the M’s were in the top 10 in some rankings.
Sheffield, a year-older Rodriguez, Jarred Kelenic (picked up from the Mets in the Cano/Edwin Diaz trade) and others gave them a new look – and a new ranking.
And it keeps getting better. Besides Kelenic (.298 with 20 home runs in 108 games at three levels) and Rodriguez (now 18, he’s hit .293 with 10 home runs in A ball), right-handed pitchers Logan Gilbert (the 2018 first-round pick is 10-5, 1.95 earned run average in three minor league stops this season) and Justin Dunn (8-5, 3.67 with Arkansas after coming over in the Cano deal) give the M’s four top 75 prospects.
What was once a desert seems to have become an oasis.
A September worth watching despite the record
The M’s Double-A franchise, the Arkansas Travelers, won the Texas League North’s first-half race. As of Friday, the Travelers had the best record in the second half as well. They already are assured of being in the league’s playoffs.
So we will have to wait until as late as Sept. 16 to see if the M’s will bring up Kelenic, Gilbert, Dunn or others. If they do, the results aren’t what matters as much as how they come about.
Do they look overmatched? Comfortable? Do they need more seasoning or are they just a couple of steps away?
If there are more positive answers than negative ones, then the step-back season may actually be just that, a season.
And if the answers are not Carroll-like? Then 2020 might just be a rerun.