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Commentary: Seattle Mariners stars Julio Rodriguez, Luis Castillo deserve share of blame for missing playoffs

Seattle Mariners’ Luis Castillo tries to regroup against the Texas Rangers on Sept. 30 in Seattle. (Tribune News Service)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – It took a few days, but the fallout seems to have momentarily subsided, with Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto apologizing for postseason comments that called his ambition into question.

That fiasco of a news conference was the main M’s headline over the past few days, as fans’ fears that the team might never spend big money were amplified.

But now that we’re five days removed from that presser – one filled with sound bites primed to come back and haunt at any given moment – let’s take a minute to acknowledge a fact that almost undeniably caused Seattle to miss the playoffs in 2023.

When the Mariners needed them most, their two best players sucked.

My apologies for not mining the depths of the English language for that description, but the word seems most apt. For most of the season – particularly in the second half when the M’s surged their way into playoff contention – center fielder Julio Rodriguez and starting pitcher Luis Castillo were the pillars of productivity.

At one point in September, Rodriguez was second in the American League in Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs. And in that same month, betting sites had Castillo with the second-best odds to win the AL Cy Young Award.

So what the hell happened?

We’ll start with Julio. September wasn’t the worst month of the season for the 2022 AL Rookie of the Year, but his .792 OPS was below his season mark of .818 – and well short of his August 1.198 OPS that earned him AL Player of the Month.

But in the last 10 games of the season, when the Mariners lost six out of 10 to Houston and Texas? He was 4-for-36. And the seven-game homestand to finish the season – also against Houston and Texas? He was 2-for-28.

I wrote about Rodriguez’s struggles to deliver in the clutch earlier in the season, focusing on his “late and close” stats, which essentially track production beyond the seventh inning in tight games. Those numbers were abysmal this summer before spiking later in the year.

Judging whether someone is “clutch” or not genuinely requires a larger sample size than a couple of seasons, and Rodriguez has had his moments. But a season during which he made himself a top-three MVP candidate at one point ended with a thud that could be heard in Vancouver.

Rodriguez’s late woes, however, might not have been as conspicuous as those of the Mariners’ three-time All-Star pitcher. Castillo also was dominant during Seattle’s midsummer climb up the standings, with the M’s winning 10 straight games in which he started.

But in his second-to-last start, when the Mariners trailed the Astros by a half-game in the wild-card race? He allowed five earned runs in six innings in a 5-1 loss to Houston.

And in his last start, when the Mariners trailed the Astros by one game in the wild card and the Rangers by two games in the division? He gave up four earned runs and five walks in 2 2/3 innings. The Mariners lost to Texas 6-1.

Perhaps you could say that the Mariners’ offense in each of those defeats was so anemic that even an above-average performance by Castillo’s standards would not have sufficed. Or you can look at the lopsided nature of some of the M’s losses during that homestand and argue that Rodriguez’s bat might not have helped all that much either.

I don’t know. You can blame the brass all you want for failing to acquire key players in the offseason or refusing to spend for much needed talent. But that same brass gave the Mariners the tools to make the playoffs over the final 10 games if they could have just posted a winning record. It was the players who didn’t come through.

I’m not talking about everyone, of course. J.P. Crawford’s walkoff double vs. Texas would have gone down as one of the most clutch hits in Mariners history had his team reached the playoffs – and he followed those heroics with a grand slam the next game. And it wasn’t just Castillo and Rodriguez that had trouble. Starting pitcher Bryce Miller was shellacked in his final two starts, and third baseman Eugenio Suarez was just 4 for his final 18. But those aren’t the players you rely on. Julio and Luis are.

To be sure, potential on this Mariners roster abounds. A trip back to the playoffs next year is still the expectation.

They just need their best to be at their best when it matters most. That simply wasn’t the case last season.