Three reasons Mariners will win AL West and three reasons they won’t
March 29, 2023 Updated Wed., March 29, 2023 at 6:04 p.m.
Diego Castillo on the mound for the Seattle Mariners for a spring training game against the San Diego Padres in Peoria, Ariz. on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. (REBECCA NOBLE/NEW YORK TIMES)
PEORIA, Ariz. – In past years, perhaps with the exception of the rebuilding years in 2019 and 2020, this space has usually been dedicated to analyzing three reasons the Mariners would make the playoffs, ending their infamous postseason drought, and three reasons why they wouldn’t make the playoffs, a result that came to fruition with stunning consistency.
But last season, a team with postseason expectations managed to overcome an abysmal start and earn the second wild-card spot, ending the streak of misery.
With that accomplished, the Mariners have decided to raise the bar for success this season. Both manager Scott Servais and president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto have spoken openly about the goal of winning the American League West title. It would mean dethroning the defending World Series champion Houston Astros, who have won the division title five of the past six seasons.
“Frankly, the goal last year was to win the division,” Dipoto said. “That’ll be the goal every year is to win the division, get into the postseason and try to do some damage. We’ve never been more convinced of this team’s ability to do those things than we were at the end of last season. I think that goes for all the players in the clubhouse. It goes for us in the front office, our staff. The goal is to win the division. We feel like that’s a realistic goal. And we’re going to do the best we can.”
So with that in mind, this will look at the reasons why the Mariners will or will not reach that goal.
Three reasons why the Mariners will win the AL West
Starting pitching: The Mariners might have one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball. After acquiring Luis Castillo at the trade deadline to front the rotation, the Mariners signed their ace to a five-year extension. Not since Felix Hernandez in his prime have the Mariners had a pitcher like Castillo, who can dominate and overwhelm hitters.
With the addition of Castillo, it means that lefty Robbie Ray bumps down to the No. 2 starter. After seeing his velocity dip a little in 2022, Ray changed his offseason workouts and throwing program and arrived at spring training with his fastball getting up to 97 mph. If he can return to the form that won him the AL Cy Young in 2021 with the Blue Jays, the Mariners rotation could be elite.
What makes the Mariners rotation special is the depth provided by young right-handers Logan Gilbert and George Kirby, who were both first-round draft picks. Gilbert is entering his third season in the big leagues and has added a sinking split-finger pitch to his repertoire. Kirby was one of the best rookie pitchers in baseball in 2022. He displayed plus stuff and pinpoint command while also adding a sinking two-seam fastball during the season that elevated his outings and success against left-handed hitters.
Veteran lefty Marco Gonzales rounds out the rotation. While there are some who believe the Mariners should use Chris Flexen or promote top prospect Bryce Miller, the Mariners like Gonzales’ steady and competitive presence and reliability in terms of making his starts and pitching at least five innings. With a trimmed down frame, the Mariners believe he could return to his 2018-19 form where he produced over 3.5 WAR per season.
An underrated but overachieving offense: The Mariners’ biggest issue in 2022 was an inconsistent offense that was too heavily reliant on Ty France and Julio Rodriguez in the summer months even with the emergence of Cal Raleigh as a power threat.
Seattle replaced Mitch Haniger with Teoscar Hernandez in right field and brought in Kolten Wong to play second base with Adam Frazier leaving in free agency. Both could provide upgrades in terms of production. Haniger missed most of last season with injuries. Hernandez has been more durable, playing in at least 125 games four of the past five seasons with the exception being COVID-shortened 2020 season.
The explosive spring training production from once-touted prospect Jarred Kelenic has been a major story. The Mariners believe the swing changes and more refined approach at the plate will make Kelenic a consistent contributor. They will also provide some protection for him by using veteran right-hander A.J. Pollock as a part-time platoon mate in left field.
Raleigh hit 29 homers last season, the most of any catcher, and the Mariners believe he will be a more consistent hitter at the plate, raising his .211 batting average into the .240s.
It’s the Mariners’ turn: Part of the planning when Dipoto convinced Mariners ownership to start the rebuild in 2019 was the expected decline of the Astros. The thinking was that age and player attrition due to free agency and budget limitations would hamper the Astros.
That hasn’t happened. Besides owning the AL West, they won the World Series in 2022 and lost in the World Series in 2021.
They aren’t showing any signs of regression, but injuries are an issue. Jose Altuve will miss at least the first two months of the season after fracturing his thumb in the World Baseball Classic, which required surgery. In addition to Altuve, outfielder/DH Michael Brantley and right-hander pitcher Lance McCullers are also going to start the season on the injured list.
They also don’t have Justin Verlander fronting their starting rotation.
This is probably the closest the Mariners have been in terms of the talent gap between the teams. They were competitive even in their losses to Houston last year, including winning a series at Minute Maid Park during the regular season.
Three reasons why the Mariners won’t win the AL West
Injuries: The Mariners’ pitching staff, particularly the starting rotation, was unbelievably healthy last season. Seattle never had a starting pitcher miss an outing due to injury, which rarely happens in a season. There is some concern about the heavy workloads accumulated by Gilbert, Kirby and reliever Andres Munoz last season and the possibility of injury fallout in 2023.
On the position player side, the Mariners saw what life was like with Rodriguez on the injured list. It wasn’t enjoyable.
While few teams have depth to withstand an injury to a major contributor, the Mariners are woefully thin at the upper levels of the minor league system in position players. There is no near-MLB ready prospect at Triple-A Tacoma who can fill in if an injury occurs.
A strained oblique for utility player Dylan Moore has already forced them into scrambling to fill out the opening day roster and reassess their plan to get shortstop J.P. Crawford at least one day off every week.
Still a bat short: The additions of Hernandez, Wong and Pollock should make the daily lineup better. A possible emergence of Kelenic as a contributing player would push the lineup to solid. But the Mariners still feel like they might be a bat short to truly push themselves into a division contender over the long season, particularly if Eugenio Suarez shows any sort of regression or Crawford doesn’t show improvement.
With the same plan to rotate players into the designated hitter spot to keep them rested, the Mariners are going to be playing matchups and might have both Raleigh and Tom Murphy in the lineup at once.
Of course, they could add a hitter during the season to address those needs if they are too glaring.
The Astros are still the Astros: Even with the injury issues, Houston still has more than enough talent to play through the absences and win games.
The addition of former AL MVP Jose Abreu looms as a major upgrade at first base over Yuli Gurriel. Abreu, 36, posted a .304/.378/.446 slash line with 40 doubles, 15 homers and 75 RBIs in 157 games for the White Sox last season. Now he gets to hit in the hitter-friendly environment of Minute Maid Park with its short fence in left field.
The emergence of Jeremy Pena as a reliable and productive shortstop is a major plus for Houston. Even without Altuve, the Astros lineup will still feature Pena, Kyle Tucker, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Abreu.
While Verlander is no longer in the rotation, the Astros’ pitching staff is still pretty loaded with power arms in the rotation and bullpen.
It’s impossible to forget how much Houston pitchers dominated the Mariners in the postseason, most notably the 18-inning marathon. Top prospect Hunter Brown will slide into the open spot vacated by Verlander and McCullers.
The Mariners have had their issues playing in Houston over the years. While they played the Astros tough in the divisional series with chances to win every game, the Mariners were still swept in three games.
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