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The Seattle Mariners’ contention window is just starting to open

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The 90-72 Mariners overachieved in 2021 if we consider their -51 run differential, but some of their young stars are starting to blossom and there is more help on the way

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Seattle Mariners Abbie Parr-USA TODAY Sports

If you followed the season’s final weekend, you know that the Seattle Mariners were in the hunt for one of the Wild Card spots until the very end. They weren’t supposed to contend in 2021, yet they managed to defy the odds and make a push for October baseball. They didn’t succeed, but at 90-72, they were very close to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, who made the cut with a 92-70 record.

Yes, the Mariners severely overachieved and outperformed their -51 run differential (only the ninth-best in the American League). So, in a way, you could say that they were somewhat lucky, or that their good bullpen helped them have a good record in close games. Both true. But these Mariners are only seeing their contention window open, as they are preparing for relevancy for years to come.

A new era is about to begin, but the roster needs work. The offensively-challenged Mariners will have to replace Kyle Seager’s 35 home runs and 101 RBI, as the team will not pick up his $20 million option. However, in reality, he was roughly an average player, as his 99 wRC+ suggests.

An up-and-coming offense with a high ceiling

To work with in 2022, the M’s will once again have Mitch Haniger’s potent right-handed bat, for one last time before hitting free agency. The outfielder hit 39 dingers and finished with a solid 120 wRC+, qualifying as the most dangerous power threat on the team.

Ty France made the leap to a solid regular and hit .291/.368/.445 with 18 homers, a 129 wRC+, and 3.5 fWAR. JP Crawford’s average offense (103 wRC+) and elite defense at shortstop made him a fine regular, too, with his 3.1 fWAR.

Let’s not forget the M’s will have 2020 AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis back in 2022, looking to rebound after a knee injury took away most of his 2021 campaign. Jake Fraley and Taylor Trammel are good, young outfielders with considerable ceilings, while Abraham Toro (99 wRC+) also has some untapped potential and can play all over the infield. He isn’t a free agent until 2026.

However, if the Mariners are going to make a run at the playoffs in a very tough division, they will need September Jarred Kelenic, the one with the .248/.331/.524 line, .854 OPS, and 135 wRC+, as opposed to full-season Kelenic, the one with the .181/.265/.350 line and the 73 wRC+.

If Kelenic plays as advertised, and maintains a similar level to what he showed in the season’s final month, the Mariners will be dangerous. Offensively, the organization is banking on a handful of players fulfilling their potential, and we should include one that hasn’t made his MLB debut: Julio Rodriguez.

One of the best pure hitters in the minors, Rodriguez showed in 2021 that he is ready for primetime – 173 wRC+ in 206 Double-A plate appearances – and could potentially make the team out of camp next season. Ideally, he will start contributing in 2022, and Noelvi Marte, another brilliant hitting prospect, in late 2022 or 2023.

A deep pool of arms

When it comes to pitchers, we should start by saying the Mariners did a good job stockpiling on prospects in the last few years, via trades and the draft. Logan Gilbert (4.68 ERA, 3.73 FIP, 25.4 K%) seems legit, and despite Yusei Kikuchi’s middling end-of-the-season numbers (4.41 ERA, 4.61 FIP, 24.5 K%) he was dominant at times.

Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield haven’t shown much consistency yet, but remain talented, controllable young hurlers with potential. Impressively, a low-profile free agent signing turned out to be the best starting pitcher in the Mariners’ roster, at least by ERA (3.61) and fWAR (3.0): Chris Flexen.

The 26-year old has an affordable contract next year and a cheap option for 2023, making him a bargain for Seattle. After a good 2020, Marco Gonzales had a decent 3.96 ERA, but it came with an ugly 5.28 FIP, so he needs to perform to keep his rotation spot next year.

If/when super-prospects George Kirby and Emerson Hancock are ready to help the major league staff; Gonzales, Dunn, and Sheffield will need to step up their game to keep themselves in the organization’s plans for the future.

Both Kirby and Hancock were highly regarded by most prospects evaluators, including FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen, before the season, and their 2021 performance exceeded expectations.

The most impressive part of the 2021 Mariners was the bullpen. The unit had MLB’s eighth-best ERA this season, at 3.88, and several of the most effective pitchers will be returning next year: Paul Sewald (3.06 ERA, 39.4 K%), Drew Steckenrider, Casey Sadler, Diego Castillo, Anthony Misiewicz, Matt Brash, and Erik Swanson are some of them. Many of them are under team control for several more campaigns.

The best part is that fireballers Andrés Muñoz and Ken Giles will come back in 2022 from long-term injuries to strengthen the relief corps: the former actually made it back to pitch 23 of a frame before the end of the season; and the latter, when he is on, is one of the league’s best relievers.

The pieces are there for the Mariners to fight for a Wild Card spot next year and perhaps dream about the division in a best-case scenario. The club as a whole has a high ceiling, but its floor is relatively low. Still, the team should compete.

The Mariners should also have some money to spend in a free agent class that includes several high-profile names. If they manage to keep Haniger beyond 2022, Seattle could capitalize on its opening contention window.

With their current core, their top-notch farm talent close to MLB, and a potential impact free agent or two, Seattle fans can dream about returning to the postseason as soon as 2022. Once there, they will have a fighting chance.

Andrés Chávez loves the game of baseball and writes about it at Beyond the Box Score, Pinstripe Alley, and other sites. He is on Twitter as @andres_chavez13