Last season, the Seattle Mariners’ playoff drought legally entered adulthood. 2019 marked the 18th anniversary of the Mariners last earning a postseason berth. The Mariners’ postseason berth is old enough to vote, buy lottery tickets, and enlist in the military. Barring the unforeseen, the drought will turn 19 this year. There are fewer milestones associated with the 19th birthday, but it’s still a formative year.
This will likely be the first birthday the Mariners playoff drought has spent away from its parents, instead celebrating with the new friends it has made in its freshman year of college. Freed from the shackles of high school, the Mariners playoff drought will get another chance to explore who it really is. This year, the Mariners playoff drought will fall in and out of love with the wrong people, maybe get its first job and its first taste of the dull drudgery that awaits it if it grows old enough to get its degree.
There’s still a chance for the Mariners to make it to the postseason before the graduating class of 2024 chucks their caps into the air, but for 2020, it seems inevitable that the drought will continue. The 2020 Seattle Mariners are not a good baseball team.
This will be the first year since 2004 where Félix Hernández won’t take the mound for the Mariners. Even if the Mariners had a bevy of talented superstars ready to take his place, loss aversion bias would still suggest that the pain of his departure would still outweigh the excitement surrounding who would replace him.
There’s no true heir to King Félix’s throne. Marcos Gonzales, the de facto ace, is coming off two fine seasons which were enough to earn him a four-year extension. Kendall Graveman threw just 34 1/3 major league innings between 2018 and 2019, but that’s more than Taijuan Walker who also missed most of the last two seasons while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Kikuchi had a rough first season in MLB (7.85 DRA in 161 2/3 innings).
Then there’s Justus Sheffield, the big piece the Mariners got back from James Paxton. In 2019, Sheffield struck out 37 batters in 36 innings. With a 12.9 percent swinging strike rate, it feels like his strikeout potential should be higher. Sheffield, though, has issues throwing strikes. Sheffield also walked 18 batters in 36 innings, and that was an improvement over his numbers in Triple-A. In 55 innings with the Tacoma Rainiers, Sheffield walked 41 batters.
Sheffield primarily depends on his slider to get by. His changeup isn’t bad, but there’s not much to like about his fastball. Sheffield’s four-seamer averaged just 92.8 mph and an impossibly low 1,835 rpm in 2019. That spin rate placed him in the 0th percentile. With that little spin, it’s tough to generate movement. Less movement generally means fewer whiffs. If Sheffield is going to earn his spot in the rotation this year (and not just receive it by default), he’ll need to figure something out with the fastball.
With the rotation being perhaps a little worse but with higher upside, it’s tough to point to an area where the Mariners improved over the 2019 squad that won 68 games. The starting nine is mostly the same soup with few differences. Until Mitch Haniger returns, Domingo Santana will be replaced with whoever wins the battle between Carlos González and Jake Fraley. There’s a chance Jarred Kelenic, a consensus top-20 prospect in baseball, reaches the majors this year, but with only 92 plate appearances in Double-A, the odds of him opening the season in Seattle are close to zero.
Things in the infield look somewhat more promising. Kyle Seager has very quietly been worth 30 wins since 2012. Though his bat has fallen off a touch, he’s still the Mariners’ leading candidate for an All-Star appearance. Though he grades out poorly by DRS, JP Crawford’s defense should keep him valuable even if he doesn’t hit again. After a nice start in 2019, Shed Long appears to be a lock for the second base job. The only question is whether his defense allows him to stick there or if he’ll have to move to left field in the long run.
23-year-old Evan White is primed to be the starting first baseman after signing a six-year contract in November of last year. White has only appeared in four games at Triple-A, and those came in 2018, but the Mariners must feel confident that he’ll hit well enough to stick. There’s also the chance that the top-100 prospect spins his tires for a few seasons a la Scott Kingery.
Things are a little sketchier at catcher. Omar Narváez is gone, and no one is counting on Tom Murphy to hit for a 126 wRC+ again. Behind him, Austin Nola is second on the depth chart. The 30-year-old finally broke into the big leagues last season, appearing in 79 games and hitting for a 114 wRC+. Only seven of those games came at catcher, however. In five minor league seasons, he’s started just 166 games behind the dish. Going into the season with a career back-up as a starter and a utility player who spent most of his 20’s in the minors as your first and second-best options at catcher is certainly a strategy.
Jerry Dipoto has already said the team “will measure [the] season based on the development of [their] young players.” It’s a familiar promise from bad teams who swear that finishing last in the division is just part of the cycle of contention. It’s easier to swallow when there aren’t people who will vote in the upcoming US elections who weren’t alive the last time the team was in the playoffs.
For now, there’s no going back and changing the myriad minor moves that made the team ever so slightly worse. Dipoto, then, is right. The only reasonable barometer for success is seeing Evan White or Kyle Lewis or Justus Sheffield or Jerred Kelenic or Julio Rodriguez develop. It’s a low bar to cross and there’s no guarantee it will lead to a contending Mariners team in the future.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.