Angels series highlights best and worst of M's
Justus Sheffield delivered six shutout innings in Sundays win over the Angels
May 3, 2021
In winning the rubber match of this past weekend's three-game series against the LA Angels, the Mariners moved past the Houston Astros and into second place in the AL West standings. Now, it's only May 3rd, much too early to put any stock into who is where in the standings, but at 16-13 Seattle continues to perform above the expectations of many preseason prognosticators, having won five and split two of the nine series played thus far. These three games highlighted both the reasons the M's may well be better than expected and the reasons expectations were so low.
Friday night, Seattle overcame a shaky start by Chris Flexen, who now has three good starts and two not-so-good ones on his ledger, to come back and beat a struggling Angel pitching staff, with production not just from Mitch Haniger at the top of the order but light-hitting Tom Murphy and Dylan Moore as well as until-now-couldn't-hit-at-home J.P. Crawford. They did it not by relying on the longball (though they got a couple anyway), but by making things happen on the bases and taking advantage of Angel mistakes. It was a game very much in keeping with the identity the M's seemed to have been forging in the first couple weeks of the season, one of tenacity and, well, peskiness. Sunday afternoon, they relied on their excellent starting pitching and defense to shut the Angels out for the first time this year, scoring their two runs via a series of singles and small-ball tactics while bailing starting pitcher Justus Sheffield out of trouble with three double-plays.
These are the Mariner strengths, the means by which they should be approaching every game. Unfortunately, it's an approach that skews toward lower scoring games, so when instances like Saturday evening crop up, the team's weaknesses are not just exposed but mercilessly exploited.
Saturday's game still had traces of the tenacious, pesky M's battling back in the late innings, but it was too little too late thanks to immediate ineffectiveness by rushed-into-service emergency starter Ljay Newsome and absolutely zero forward thinking by manager Scott Servais. The Angels were ahead 3-0 before the echoes from the national anthem faded out and were a couple of millimeters on an Albert Pujols swing from being behind 5-0. It was clear almost immediately that Newsome was throwing grapefruits to the Angel batters, a lineup that ranks first in the league in batting average and second in homers. If Servais had any inclination to keep the score close, he should have had someone warming behind Newsome before the top of the second inning got underway in case he continued to groove meaty hit-me signs over the plate. Instead, the Angels plated five more in the second, no help to be found from the bullpen, and the game was for all intents and purposes out of reach at 8-0. From that point on, Seattle outscored LA 5-2 behind solid relief (still a weird concept to comprehend, a reliable Seattle bullpen, but there it is), but an eight-run hole is a lot to ask of even the peskiest of pesky teams and this Mariner club has too few weapons in its offensive arsenal to answer that call.
In the greater scheme of things, one might say Saturday's game can be written off. It can be thought of as one of the 54 games preordained for the loss column in the adage "a team will win 54 and lose 54, it's what they do with the other 54 that count." But boy does it magnify the weak spots: Too many guys batting sub-.200. No bench. The six-man starting rotation sucking all the depth out of the pitching staff. These are the things that will haunt the M's.
"No bench" is almost literal—for this series Seattle had a mere two non-pitchers in reserve. Talk about a gamble. Since the M's are in the American League, with its brain-draining designated hitter rule, they managed to get away with it. There were no injuries and there is enough defensive versatility on the roster to accommodate a single substitution no matter who it might be. But just one. There were no substitutions Friday, Saturday Kyle Seager was replaced by Sam Haggerty in mid-game since it was a blowout, and in Sunday's match Taylor Trammell came in for defense to replace José Marmolejos. Can't do anything else, no bench left except your backup catcher and who wants to be caught with no catcher if the one playing takes a foul ball off the finger or something? This was a self-inflicted weakness, as is the "normal" practice of carrying just three bench players, but it's compounded by the lack of offensive ability among them. Even with three on the bench, they're usually all .170 or so hitters. You'd almost be better off sending Marco Gonzales up to pinch hit, at least he has a career batting average above .250.
Coming into the season, the Mariners' starting rotation was a high point, and in a lot of ways it remains so, but with Servais' insistence on using the six-man rotation and with three starters or starting candidates on the injured list there is no buffer to work with at all. Once the Triple-A season gets going there may be some arms to call upon in emergency situations, but right now the lack of depth is critical. For tonight's game against the Orioles, there is no scheduled starter. It's Gonzales' turn in the rotation and since Servais won't go to a standard five-man rotation there is no one available to sub in. It's by necessity going to be a bullpen game—Johnny Wholestaff takes the hill, and even if all goes well you've depleted the availability of the relief corps for the next game or two.
Hopefully, the games with the solid starting pitching we expected out of spring camp will substantially outnumber the games with gaping holes on the mound, and if so the M's will still be in decent shape. But this is a weakness that can be addressed if Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto would make some effort. Find a starting pitcher to bring in from outside, someone to serve as a depth piece for times like right now and to provide options for when Nick Margevicius returns. Anibal Sánchez is looking for a team. Wade LeBlanc was cut by the Orioles. Tanner Roark was DFA'd by Toronto. Rick Porcello is a free agent, as is Jeff Samardzija. (So is ex-Mariner Mike Leake, though he reportedly turned down several offers prior to the season in favor of waiting out the end of the pandemic.) None of those names are perfect options or even necessarily actual suggestions—anyone to be of immediate help would have had to be at the very least working out and getting into game shape if they've not been on a team yet this year—just a glimpse into what might be available for a club shopping for a starter on the cheap. When that's taken care of expand the bench with a fourth player, hopefully one that can hit for average.
Meanwhile, let's keep on with the great defensive play and scrappy small-ball to support the starters we do have. Maybe it'll be enough to counter the glaring weak spots.