As the Mariners fight off mediocrity in their quest for sustained success, what can we take away now and moving forward?
The new rules implemented by MLB in an effort to re-energize the game of baseball have largely worked. Stolen bases are way up, the pitch clock has made watching games much more palatable, and baseball seems to have some of its swagger back. The vibes around baseball are at an all-time high, yet the Mariners are struggling to capture the magic that guided this squad to the playoffs just a season ago.
No matter who you ask, the Mariner's 2023 season has been nothing short of frustrating. For the fans, they were promised and expecting a team ready to compete for a World Series. The majority of the roster is caught in a season-long struggle to replicate previous success. The front office has watched the product of their meticulous offseason strategy crumble before their eyes. Perhaps the only ones enjoying this season are ownership, who are reaping the benefits of last year’s success with an increase in attendance and an overall revenue boost (I have to imagine the all-star events netted them a good chunk of change as well.) I hope to break down my thoughts from this season here but will be using no stats this time around, so take that as you will.
Before we dive deeper into the unshakeable frustration that is Mariners baseball, let us at least focus on some bright spots. Despite losing Robbie Ray (Tommy John surgery) and Marco Gonzales for an extended period of time, the Mariners rotation has been excellent in the face of adversity. Castillo and Kirby have been as advertised, Gilbert has bounced back from a slow start to look like a force as of late, but the true difference-makers have been the two rookies. In fact, it really cannot be overstated just how impressive Bryan Woo and Bryce Miller have been to start their big league careers. Even with a healthy amount of pre-season hype, not much was necessarily expected from Bryce Miller at the big league level as he began the season in AA Arkansas. Even less was expected from Bryan Woo, who carried a fraction of the prospect pedigree than Miller as a 6th-round pick out of Cal Poly (though I tend to think he can be the better of the pair before long.) Even the most optimistic fan could not have imagined the immediate impact both would be having for the Mariners so far this season. Waiting in the wings is former top-10 pick Emerson Hancock, who appears to finally be putting things together in Arkansas after a rough start to his career. Though the Mariners chose to not hurry him to the bigs like his peers, he figures to play a role in the near future for the major league rotation. Barring a much-rumored trade, this core of starting pitching has the chance to be extremely special over the next several years. There will be growing pains like the ones we’re starting to see in recent starts of Miller and Woo, but the supreme talent of these young arms should trump any concerns fans may have. This rotation is not something we or the front office should take for granted, you simply don’t see this very often.
Another notable high point of this season has been the continuation of the Mariners' reliever factory. After turning former castaways like Paul Sewald and Kendall Graveman into dominant bullpen arms in years past, they’ve done much of the same in 2023. The front office keyed in on fringe big leaguers Justin Topa and Gabe Spier due to their intriguing pitch mix and underlying data, then swooped in to acquire them at little to no cost. Mariners pitching development then did what they do best: identify their strengths and use those strengths to attack each and every hitter they face. This seemingly simple philosophy is integrated throughout the system, evident by the influx of relievers who’ve made their way to the big leagues from AA Arkansas this year. Devin Sweet, Juan Then, Prelander Berroa, Ty Adcock, and Isaiah Campbell have all made their big-league debuts and pitched meaningful innings before the calendar flipped to August. Then and Berroa were international signees with tantalizing pitch arsenals but struggled to put it all together as starters. Adcock, Campbell, and Sweet were productive college arms who suffered significant injuries or inconsistency early in their careers that hampered their talent on the mound. Yet, the Mariners turned all of them into quality bullpen arms poised to help this team for years to come — either directly or as a trade piece. The saying goes that you can never have too much pitching depth, so it seems the Mariners have mastered the craft of pitching development. It’s this commitment to development that allows the Mariners to trade from their wealth of bullpen arms to fortify the rest of the roster — Paul Sewald being proof of concept. Pitching is this team’s identity and lifeline, which is never a bad thing in this league.
Now for the not-so-shiny side of this season’s story.
My goal isn’t to beat a dead horse and harp on the struggles of this team’s offense. We all know it’s been a significant reason the team has underperformed. However, it may be surprising to some that this year’s overall offensive numbers are essentially in line with what they were last season. So what makes this lineup seem so dreadful in comparison, and so incapable of winning games behind stellar pitching? The answer lies at the root of this team’s flawed construction. This roster as a whole was constructed to play to its 90th percentile outcome. That is to say, nearly everything needed to go right in terms of injury and timely hitting like it did much of 2022. While they’ve managed to stay mostly healthy, this team is simply not winning close games at the spectacular rate they did in 2021 and 2022. You can think of it as a regression to the mean; something that could have been hedged with significant upgrades to a middling offense that managed to come up with clutch hits more times than not last season. Maybe it’s true that the value was not right for some of the top free agents, and it was impossible to predict cratering production from the guys who were brought in, but that’s the risk you run when you assemble a team that requires best-case scenarios to be great. There was no contingency plan. This isn’t to say that the players aren’t responsible for their level of play, but championship teams can weather injury or regression in ways that this roster cannot. Even the best possible outcome for this lineup was not going to bridge that gap that separates the elite from the very good; that much was apparent from opening day.
I do believe the Mariners have the chance to play entertaining — and competitive — baseball the rest of the way in 2023. They may find a way to make things interesting as the season winds down, but this is not a playoff team in my opinion. There are too many good teams standing between them and postseason baseball, almost all of whom made considerable efforts to improve their roster for a playoff run. The division is all but out of reach with the Astros and Rangers making significant upgrades, leaving the narrowest of windows via the final wild-card spot. Dominic Canzone and Josh Rojas (the returns of the aforementioned Paul Sewald trade) are not going to move the needle this season, but I think it hardly matters. Even if the bats find a way to play closer to their respective career norms, it may be too little too late. It’s not unfair to expect some overperforming members of the pitching staff to regress as these young arms are taxed and pressured in ways they’ve yet to experience. They’ve had to bear a disproportionate workload this season as the offense has struggled, and at some point, it will rear its ugly head. General Manager Justin Hollander said on the radio post-deadline that he’d be extremely disappointed if this squad does not make the playoffs. I certainly don’t doubt his sentiment, and nor should any fan or player. However, I do think it spurs a sense of hope that frankly is not justified for the 2023 season. For reasons not entirely tied to the Mariners, this season is a reminder of just how unforgiving this game can be. Nothing can be taken for granted and things can be taken away just as quickly as they were given. There is no such thing as a sure thing. These governing laws of baseball are inevitable and unwavering, and no one is spared.
This mid-market team in a city that’s hungry for sustained success will get another crack at it next season. Hope and optimism are justified for 2024 and beyond. There is a clearer picture of what needs to be improved and we can only assume that the front office — being the experts they are — will work tirelessly to address them. The degree to which ownership will financially back these efforts is anyone’s guess, so I won’t venture further into that. The building blocks that catapulted this team to the playoffs last season are still very much in place with reinforcements on the near and distant horizon. There is no telling what next season holds for this roster, but my hope is that it’s well-prepared for whatever is thrown its way. There is plenty of talent and many ways to help it bridge the gap of playoff contention. With a little good fortune, I have no doubt this core can win a championship. What I don’t know is if it will happen next season or even in the next decade but all we can hope for is a team that can survive the ebbs and flows of the season and strike when the stars finally do align. So, enjoy this season and all the moments that are bound to occur even if they end at game 162. And once that’s finished, it’ll be time to do it all again.