The Mariners are about three hours from the first pitch of the season. Everything about this opener is strange, starting with the fact the game will start at 2:30 AM in Seattle. I’m pretty sure they play Oakland in every opener, but this time will be in the Tokyo Dome. Even stranger will be having someone other than Felix on the mound, for the first time since 2008. In fact, with Kyle Seager’s injury, the only holdover from 2018’s opening line up at the same position will be Mitch Haniger.
So, what should fans expect, or even hope for this season? Usually with a rebuilding team, the answer is pretty easy: progress from young players, but not so much that the team plays itself out of a top draft pick. Baseball, and this year’s M’s team in particular, is a little different. Top draft picks are nice, but they’re no sure things in baseball and take a long time to develop. The Mariners aren’t tanking for Zion Williamson.
Further confusing expectations, this M’s squad might not be that bad. They’re not going to be good, to be clear. A .500 season would be an overachievement. As they started trading off veterans this offseason, people assumed they were going to completely tear the team down and 100 losses would be an inevitability. Instead, they kept Haniger, Gonzales and a handful of others, added pieces at the big league level or close to it, and took back a bunch of veterans in salary swaps.
The upshot is a team that won’t contend (barring something crazy), but shouldn’t be horrible, while having the clear expectation of being good in a couple of years. It’ll be a weird year. So, what would make this a successful season for the M’s? Here are my thoughts.
Young Players Emerge
This is a staple of rebuilding seasons and goes without saying. Nothing is more important this season than having young players improve and hopefully establish themselves as big leaguers. The difference between winning in 2021 or not could very well be JP Crawford and Domingo Santana demonstrating that they are capable professionals, and that starts sometime this season. While most of the young prospects won’t start the year in Seattle, plenty of them should make an appearance before the summer ends. Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson, Blake Bishop, maybe even Evan White should see the majors, and if they can quickly show they belong, that will make the rebuild quicker and simpler.
The Mariners have plenty of young veterans who could establish themselves with a solid season. Santana is one of the most intriguing, as a guy with big time power who’s only a season removed from playing very well in the bigs. Mallex Smith and Omar Narvaez are other additions who have had offensive success, but need to show it again and improve their defense. Holdovers like Ryon Healy, Daniel Vogelbach, and Dan Altavilla need to rebound or demonstrate that they are capable of producing. That’s to say nothing of Kyle Seager, who, while out for a couple of months to start the year, needs a major rebound year to either become tradeable or hold down third again.
Trade The Veterans
You would think there are no veterans left, but there are some prime candidates to be moved if they can rebound. Edwin Encarnacion and Jay Bruce are obvious, as potentially productive guys with big salaries. Dee Gordon is a prime candidate if he can rebound offensively. The biggest trade chip may end up being Hunter Strickland, if he can re-establish himself as a solid closer or set-up man. It still wouldn’t be a shock to see Haniger moved, but it will take a major return. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see anyone go, and if the Mariners can be creative to upgrade their talent, they should do it.
This will mostly come from trades, but there are other ways to find talent. The Mariners should maintain enough flexibility to bring in waiver claims or anyone else who might hit the open market. Every year, guys with talent are cut or can be had for next to nothing in trade. The Mariners are in a position to give players a shot if they want to.
Get Better in the Second Half
Improvement as the season progresses is a sign the young talent is coming together. It also provides some momentum going into the offseason and 2020, when Dipoto and company are hoping the team can start to contend.
Make the Baseball Entertaining
Baseball is usually more fun if your team is winning, and the Mariners aren’t likely to do a ton of that. Lately I’ve come to appreciate the ways players and teams can be fun regardless of the results. This team could be fun. The athleticism got an upgrade with Mallex Smith, and a healthy Dee Gordon might rebound and give a shot of energy with his speed and smile. The team still has some decent power, especially in Haniger and Santana and the 1B/DH guys. The pitching isn’t the most dominating bunch, but seeing Sheffield debut at some point will be fun to follow. All through the first part of spring training, the buzz around the team was how they seemed excited to be there and to have their chance. If that carries into the season, I think we’ll see it on the field, if not in the win column.
Watch The Minors
This is a whole other post, but the M’s farm system should be fun to follow for the first time in years. They’ve had the worst system in baseball recently, but have jumped to middle of the pack with all of their trades and some improved drafting the last couple of years. Tacoma will have some talent and is always a fun place to watch a game, but many of the top prospects will likely start in double-A or lower. Jarred Kelenick and Julio Rodriguez look like they’ll start next to each other in the outfield in low-A. They’re the two most prospects most likely to turn into superstars. Short of Marco Gonzales winning the Cy Young, or Mallex Smith morphing into Rickey Henderson, nothing is more important to the Mariners future than the farm system having a breakout year.
Very little could happen this season that would shock me, which could be fun or could be terrible. At the very least, it’s nice to have some new faces to learn. Let us know what you’re watching for in the comments. Go Mariners!