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Seattle Mariners

Commentary: Mariners are only team not to make World Series. Does that change this year?

The Seattle Mariners line up for the national anthem before playing the San Diego Padres during a spring training game Feb. 24 in Peoria, Arizona.  (Getty Images)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – I must admit, the task of writing a Seattle Mariners season preview column is a little trickier this year.

For at least the past decade, I’ve always had the underlying theme of the team’s ever-growing postseason drought to fall back on. Last year’s headline for my preview column declared, “This is the year the Mariners’ playoff drought ends. No, really.” (Yes, this is me taking a victory lap.) The point is, no matter what the main focus of the column was in any given year – new blood on the team, new strategy from the front office – it always played against the backdrop of playoff futility that hung over the franchise.

As we all know, that angle flew out the window at the precise moment Cal Raleigh’s playoff-clinching home run off Oakland’s Domingo Acevedo on Sept. 30 flew near the window of the Hit It Here Café.

So I’ve summoned all my creative power to come up with something new this season. How about this: “This could be the year the Mariners’ World Series drought ends.”

Yes, there’s one more gaping hole in the Mariners’ resume now that the two-decades-long playoff abyss has been filled. Of the 30 major league teams, 29 have appeared in the World Series at one time or another. Only one team hasn’t – the one that resides at the Corner of Edgar and Dave.

The Tampa Bay Rays, born in 1998 – 21 years after Seattle, or the time it took for a baby to have been born and reach adulthood – have been to two. The Arizona Diamondbacks, also born in ’98, won a World Series in 2001 – their fourth season. The Miami Marlins have never won a division title in their 30-year history – but they’ve won two World Series titles.

You want more depressing facts to fill the void left by the absence of playoff-drought lore? Of course you do.

The Giants won three World Series in five years in the 2010s. The Braves went to five between 1991 and 1999. It took 71 years to even get back, but the Cubs in 2016 won their first World Series since 1908. That came 12 years after the Red Sox won their first in 86 years and 11 years after the White Sox won their first in 87 years.

The Astros have been to the World Series – in both leagues. Since they moved to the Mariners’ division in 2013 when they were one of the worst teams in MLB, they’ve been to four World Series, and won two of them.

The Yankees have been to 40 World Series and won 27. Granted, the franchise is more than 100 years old, so it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison (although the Yankees have won seven titles while the Mariners have been in existence). But here’s a comparison that’s straight Red Delicious to Red Not So Delicious: the Blue Jays became an expansion franchise the same year as the Mariners – 1977 – and won their first World Series in 1992. Then they won their second in 1993.

You get the picture. This is a team that had three future Hall of Famers on the roster at the same time – Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez – plus a Hall of Fame talent in Alex Rodriguez and a Hall of Fame-caliber manager in Lou Piniella and didn’t get to the World Series. This is a team that won an American League-record 116 games one year and didn’t get to the World Series.

The Mariners are aligned with the Rays, Rangers, Brewers, Padres and Rockies as the only remaining teams that have never won the Big One. But those other five teams have at least grabbed a pennant or two along the way. The Mariners have no flags to show for their 46 years of existence.

So is this the year that another drought ends? Only a fool would predict that, considering the vagaries of baseball, not to mention the presence of the defending champion Astros in their division. But this is one of those rare years in the Mariners’ history when it at least seems well within the realm of possibility, with a few breaks – and a few breakouts.

The pitching staff, for starters (and they hope relievers), is of championship quality. They have a bona fide ace in Luis Castillo, now on hand for the entire year after an electrifying two months-plus following his trade-deadline acquisition. Robbie Ray, one year removed from winning a Cy Young, had an exceedingly encouraging spring with increased velocity and a single-mindedness of purpose after giving up the most damaging hit of the year to Houston’s Yordan Alvarez in the divisional series opener. Logan Gilbert and George Kirby are youngsters who seem to still be on the ascent. Marco Gonzales will be looking for a bounce-back year, but there is starting depth on the farm if he should falter or if the Mariners’ run of pitching health – nearly impeccable last year – finally runs out.

The baseball truism of bullpens being fickle and volatile from year to year keeps getting confounded by the Mariners, and they’ll try to make it three outstanding years in a row. In particular, Andres Munoz and Matt Brash – both in full nastiness at age 24 – will be counted upon to be dominant in late-inning leverage situations.

The real story of the Mariners season, however, will be their offense, and whether they did enough in the offseason to boost what was too often a lackluster attack last year. Seattle traded for a bona fide slugger in Teoscar Hernandez to replace Mitch Haniger, and a glove-first second baseman, Kolten Wong, to replace Adam Frazier. Rather than pursue any of the big-ticket items available in free agency, they went for depth pieces and platoon partners – outfielder AJ Pollock, infielder Tommy La Stella, catcher/jack-of-all-trades Cooper Hummel (acquired in a swap for former No. 1 draft pick and Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis).

Whether that’s enough of a boost for a lineup that finished 10th out of 15 American League teams in OPS last year is a huge question. Certainly, it’s not unreasonable to expect that Julio Rodriguez, such a revelation last year, can take another step toward, or beyond, superstardom. Nor that Ty France and Eugenio Suarez can be the same solid contributors they were last year, with Hernandez and his 30-homer potential on hand as another power bat.

What could put the Mariners over the top would be breakthroughs from two players still in their formative years. Catcher Cal Raleigh was touted recently by Baseball America as the player scouts in spring training most often cited as being on the verge of a huge year. Raleigh led all catchers with 27 homers last year but hit just .211 with a .284 on-base percentage and 122 strikeouts in 370 at-bats. A precipitous rise in those numbers (and drop in the strikeout number) would bode well.

Then there’s Jarred Kelenic. No one had a more eye-opening spring than Kelenic, who at a mere 23 still has plenty of time to make his two disappointing partial seasons (a combined .168 average in 500 at-bats in 2021-22) a distant memory. If he comes close to approaching the hype that preceded his arrival – and for good reason, based on Kelenic’s amateur and minor league profile – it will be a game changer for Seattle.

The Mariners are unequivocally a playoff-caliber team again. While there are a multitude of unforeseen things (and some foreseen) that could derail that quest, any team that makes it that far has a chance to get hot at the right time – October into November.

The Mariners, in particular, appear to be built for a short series with their front-line pitching. Last year, one unsightly drought ended. Could this be the year another one does? I’ll go by the same credo I used last year, and might be compelled to use again next year.

Eventually, it has to.