With the way 2018 began, it seemed like the year the Seattle Mariners were going to get off the schneid.
Few paying attention to the Mariners at the start of last season felt it was a given that the M’s would make the playoffs. There was a fair amount of talent on both sides of the ledger, but you had the Houston Astros coming off of a championship, and the AL East juggernauts were looking strong. The Mariners, as is perpetually their style, were going to require the ball to bounce their way in a number of different categories in order to make the playoffs.
2018 seemingly became their year following three straight months of inspired play. On July 5th, the Mariners were 24 games over .500, a mere 1.5 games back of the aforementioned Astros. Over at FanGraphs, their playoff odds had peaked at 88.3 percent.
Though there were cracks in the armor for much of the season, it seemed as though fortune indeed might smile upon a franchise that has never been to the World Series. Having not tasted the playoffs since before camera phones were ubiquitous in society, player, fan and front-office denizen alike were chomping at the bit to break the postseason drought.
Run differential be damned, I must confess that I got caught up in it. I actually allowed myself to imagine walking into the stadium on a cool October night and seeing that old-timey red white and blue bunting adorn the railings. Playoff baseball.
Of course, the Mariners did not make the playoffs...again. Two primary culprits bore the blame:
- The Oakland Athletics
And so, with another abysmal collapse coupled with the specter of the longest playoff drought in the four major North American sports as a backdrop, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto set about the task of gearing up for the 2019 season. As late as November 7th, Dipoto was adamant, despite persistent rumor to the contrary, that the M’s were not tearing down their team. Rather, they were willing to reimagine their roster, in order to take the “quickest path to a championship club.”
Seven weeks later, this re-imagined roster did not include Robinson Canó, or Jean Segura, or Edwin Díaz, or James Paxton, or Nelson Cruz, or Álex Colomé, or Mike Zunino, or Ben Gamel. They were scattered to the proverbial winds, with a parade of new faces to replace them.
In the first year of a supposed rebuild, however, the replacement players aren’t entirely unknown quantities. Mallex Smith and Domingo Santana will join All-Star Mitch Haniger in the outfield. Jay Bruce is likely to take in the majority of his reps at first, at least until Edwin Encarnacion inevitably relinquishes his hold on DH, while younger counterparts Ryon Healy and Dan Vogelbach fight over playing time scraps in the short term.
Catcher Omar Narváez will at least provide a modest upgrade at the dish over Zunino (if not behind it, necessarily). J.P. Crawford wont replace Segura's production at short, but retains the tantalizing upside of a former top prospect. Rounding out the infield will be the inveterate duo of Kyle Seager and Dee Gordon, two guys looking to bounce back big in 2019.
The rotation, despite losing it’s nominal ace, remains largely unchanged. Marco Gonzales (3.6 fWAR in 2018) will anchor a staff that also features Mike Leake, Wade LeBlanc, and former phenom Félix Hernández (but always a king in our hearts).
Perhaps the most interesting acquisition Dipoto made in the offseason was in the international free agent market, when he penned 27-year-old Yusei Kikuchi to a four year, $56 million dollar deal. Say what you will about the Mariners’ eye for talent over their history, but one area where they’ve experienced unparalleled success is the Japanese market.
Yusei Kikuchi out here making great hitters look silly. pic.twitter.com/LYdkGPlyqv— MLB (@MLB) February 25, 2019
As great as Kikuchi has looked in limited action so far, I think it’s fair to say that he wont be pitching nine innings every time out, and if there’s any part that looks like a decided weakness on this squad, it’s a relief corps that experienced significant churn. Veterans Hunter Strickland, Roenis Elías and Anthony Swarzak will try and hold things down with a swarm of lesser known names, but if the Mariners meet the lower end of their projections, you can bet it will be in no small part to this group failing to hold up it’s end of the bargain.
Of course, all of these moves were made ostensibly to bring about a contender not now, but in a few years time. By being willing to part with many a valuable veteran, the Mariners were able to stock the farm to an extent not seen in Seattle in years, taking a system that many thought was the worst in baseball last year to something closer to middle of the pack.
Three of the most recent acquisitions made MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects heading into 2019: lefty Justus Sheffield (43), outfielder Jarred Kelenic (56), and right-hander Justin Dunn (91). Though Kelenic is a ways off at 19 years of age, we could see the two pitchers as early as this season. Other new additions who could possibly factor in this year include pitcher Erik Swanson and utility man Shed Long.
With baseball’s most prolific trader at the helm of the good ship Mariner, one can fairly surmise that moves will eventually be made to make space for these and other future contributors. As for what they have on hand at the moment? An offense with upside, a solid if unspectacular rotation, and an admittedly shaky pen. Sounds like a team that could go .500 if things go right...or lose 90 plus on the flip side.
For once, though, the Mariners aren’t making promises about today. They’ve rightfully pivoted toward a brighter future.
Thomas Bennett is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and a former Managing Editor at Fish Stripes. He loves his terrible sports teams, even when they don’t love him back. He can be followed on twitter @Thomasmanynames.