A third of the way through the season, the Mariners are right where I thought they’d be. Barring a crazy comeback, they’re about to be 24-33. Before the season, I would’ve said they’d be solidly under .500 but far from the worst team in the league, and that’s right where they are.
I can’t take a lot of credit, though, because how they got here is weird as can be. As you might have forgotten by now, the M’s ran to their best start in history, sitting at 13-2 a few weeks into the season. They’ve gone 11-31 since. Both of those numbers are kind of amazing. Much like the hot start, this slump won’t last, but the team has enough real issues to likely keep them from ever getting back to .500. I would guess they end up as one of the better bad teams in the league, if that makes any sense.
Regardless of how they got here, the focus of this season has always been the future. The Mariners are on record as planning to contend again next season or 2021. Personally, I think next season is a pipe dream, but 2021 isn’t out of the question. I’m going to run through the roster and see what progress they’ve made toward that end. This isn’t going to mention everyone; it’s more of a check-in on who might be moving toward establishing themselves as a future foundation piece.
We’ll start on a high note. Omar Narvaez is currently among the best offensive catchers in the league. His defense has been mediocre at best, but it’s still been better than I expected, and seems to be improving. The glove has a bit to go before he’s a no doubt starter for a pennant winner, but if he can continue to improve, the bat is more than enough already. Tom Murphy has also been a welcome surprise after the terrible back ups the team has had lately. It seems unlikely both are around in two years, but there’s no reason why they can’t be.
This is a jumbled mess. The best bet for 2021 looks like JP Crawford at short, despite what looked like a bad ankle sprain a minute ago. He’s hit very well in his month or so in the bigs, and while he’s not likely going to ever win a gold glove, he’s been solid and a huge defensive improvement over Tim Beckham. Beckham isn’t a bad utility guy, but he’s on a one year deal and I’m sure would like to start. I could see him taking over second base, but he’s not a shortstop and mostly likely will not be a Mariner in 2020, and maybe even in August this year. Seager looks great in his week back, but who knows what’s going to happen with that contract situation. Shed Long is hitting well right now, but I’ll need to see more, especially with the glove, to count him as a definite piece of the future.
That leaves plenty of options but not much clarity. First base looks similar. Daniel Vogelbach is everyone’s new favorite, and for good reason. He and Narvaez are the clear biggest developments this season. I see no reason why Vogey can’t continue as a middle of the order bat. The question is whether he can ever be more than a designated hitter. Being able to play first semi-regularly would be very helpful. Ryon Healy seems to have settled as the definition of average, which generally isn’t good enough for a first baseman. That leaves a hole, with a couple of other potential options. Evan White is off to a slow start at Double-A, but he has time to right himself after suffering an early injury. His potential gold glove defense is enticing after watching this year’s squad fumble the ball all over the place. Another option I haven’t seen mentioned is Domingo Santana. I have no idea whether he can field a grounder, but he certainly struggles in the outfield. If the team likes his bat enough to keep him around, he’ll likely have to find a new position, given his defense and the outfield options in the minors. Overall, the infield has by far the most questions and fewest future options in the system.
The outfield looks better, but there are plenty of questions here too. Despite his slow start, I have no worries about Haniger. The only way he’s not a solid contributor in 2021 is if Dipoto decides they’re better off trading him for a couple of young pieces. I already mentioned Santana. I like his bat. He’s plenty good enough to be a streaky, slugging left fielder, but I don’t know if the defense will ever be good enough for Safeco’s big power alleys. There are other options for the corners in the minors, but no one that can be penciled into the line up yet. Jake Fraley, acquired from Tampa for Mike Zunino, has been excellent in double-A. His running mates there, Kyle Lewis and Dom Thompson-Williams, have athleticism and interesting tools, but are currently missing the production to match.
In center, Mallex Smith looks revitalized by his short minors stint. He’s a solid piece when he’s hitting and running like the last few games. I think he’s a better fit as a very good fourth outfielder, but that’s dependent on finding a gold glove-level center fielder who is around league average at the plate to supplant him. Maybe Braden Bishop could fit that bill, but there’s no way to tell yet. The only other in-house option is Jarred Kelenic, who was promoted to High A tonight after torching Low-A the last two months. He won’t be 20 until mid-July and is looking like a future star, and possibly more than that. Opening day 2021 is probably too optimistic for him to make Seattle, but a debut sometime that year isn’t out of the question.
Honestly, I don’t know what to make of the pitching staff, so this is going to be short. Marco and Kikuchi look like solid members of the 2021 rotation, barring injury or something else unexpected (that always goes without saying about pitchers). I don’t see any other current big league starters being part of a contending rotation going forward, at least on a regular basis. Erik Swanson and Justus Sheffield have promise but plenty to work on still. They should both see more big league time before the year’s over. Justin Dunn, obtained in the Cano-Diaz deal, is in a similar situation at AA. Further down, Logan Gilbert, last year’s first round pick, is carving through both levels of A ball. He could be on a similar timeline to Kelenic, although 2022 seems a more likely ETA. While a few bullpen pieces are starting to emerge, anyone trying to forecast the 2021 bullpen this early is crazy. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the whole pen turns over by then.
There’s plenty to like about this team, despite the horrible play of late. The farm system has performed well thus far too. There’s still a lot of questions to answer, though. They’re going to need a lot of things to go right, and likely a few notable free agent signings, if they really hope to contend in 2021. These are the Mariners though, so that’s nothing new. There’s always 2022!