The Seattle Mariners have perhaps been the most talked about team in Major League Baseball over the past two weeks, and for all the wrong reasons. As cringey and awful as it was, former team president Kevin Mather didn’t say anything we didn’t already know—it’s more just the fact that he said it. Gaming service time, intentionally not fielding the best possible team and grossly mistreating foreign born players are not something exclusive to the Mariners. Rather, the recent events cemented the rampant problem that exists in traditional baseball culture.
That said, Mather is out and there has been a lot of commentary on this topic, much of which is better than I can offer, so this team preview will focus on the product on the field, interconnected as it may be. The Mariners, despite a problematic corporate culture, finally have a team that fans could be excited about.
Though the American League West division is not as strong as in years past, the Astros and Athletics are still clearly better teams than the Mariners. The Rangers are farther away from their competitive window, and while the Angels are over the M’s in the projections, It’s really hard to have any faith in a team that is still giving substantial playing time to Albert Pujols, even if they may have the best two players in the entire sport.
The starting rotation should be a strength on this team as they will run six men in the 2021 season. The very interesting Marco Gonzales, armed with a new pitch mix that relied more on the cutter in 2020, raised his K% from 17 to 23 percent while refusing to walk batters. Yusei Kikuchi took a massive leap forward in many regards as long as you look past his 5.17 ERA. Thanks to a new shape on his fourseam fastball along with a 2 mph bump in velocity and the addition of a cutter, Kikuchi rated elite in many metrics.
Moving on to the rest of the rotation, Justus Sheffield broke out with a 3.58 ERA/3.17 FIP in ‘20. Sheffield showed a lot of promise, but a 4.4 HR/FB% just isn’t going to hold. His 4.27 xFIP may paint a clearer picture here—which is still good, but unless he can miss more bats, there may be some regression coming. The newly acquired old friend James Paxton is the wild card. The hard throwing lefty who amassed 15.2 fWAR from 2016-19 was a shell of himself in ‘20. He still missed plenty of bats, but many of his metrics took a significant hit. Even so, it’s reasonable that a bounceback is possible.
Rounding out the starting core are KBO standout Chris Flexen and No. 26 prospect Justin Dunn. The Mariners signed Flexen to a two year deal after logging an impressive 3.01 ERA/2.74 FIP in in 116.0 innings for the Doosan Bears. Dunn had a fine year in terms of run prevention, but that .179 BABIP though...
The bullpen on the contrary does not rate out as well. While FanGraphs projects the rotation to be in the middle of the pack, the bullpen is near the bottom. They did acquire the hard throwing Rafael Montero who has some experience getting important outs, but he alone won’t fix what was the second was tied for the worst bullpen in baseball with -1.4 fWAR.
On the position player side, the Mariners have some interesting players, especially in the high minors. No. 2 prospect Jerred Kelenic and No. 4 prospect should force their way onto the roster this year, and premium prospect No. 1 prospect Julio Rodríguez, who is a little further away, is a player to watch as well.
Evan White struck out a ton in his debut year in the big leagues, but when he did connect, he mashed. His .176/.252/.346 may be tough to look at, but his 87th percentile exit velocity, 95 percent hard hit rate, and his 90 percent barrel rate tell a far more encouraging story here. For the rest of the infield, Dylan Moore, JP Crawford and Kyle Seager are the remaining incumbents.
At the catching position, Tom Murphy looks to receive the bulk of the time behind the plate after a breakout in 2019 when he hit 18 home runs en route to a 126 wRC+. He missed the ‘20 season with a broken bone in his foot, so surely that’s something the Mariners will want to monitor.
The outfield is where things get interesting. Reigning AL ROY Kyle Lewis looks to build upon his impressive ‘20 campaign, while Mitch Haniger looks to bounce back to his pre core-surgery form. If that happens, that’s good value in two of the three positions for the M’s. As of now, depth charts have No. 14 prospect Jake Fraley and No. 17 prospect Braden Bishop splitting time in left field, which may be the place for Kelenic and Long to break in.
Ultimately, the Mariners have a lot of exciting pieces, even if it’s being overshadowed by front office problems at the moment. They won’t compete for a playoff spot in ‘21, but with a more than competent starting rotation, a decent cast of position players, and some premium talent waiting in the wings, this iteration of the Mariners may at the vary least provide a window into what looks to be a bright future for the organization.
Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.