Around the Horn

Halfway through

Believe it or not, we are now halfway through the season. With a miniaturized 60-game schedule, 2020 was always going to feel weird, and it's been interesting to notice how both expectations and attitudes about the campaign have evolved as that weirdness settled in.

There's nothing about the pandemic that's good. We can look for silver linings all we want, but ultimately it's just bad. Even limiting our focus to as it pertains to baseball, the positives are only within the context of a giant negative. But the Mariners are making the best of it: They have opted to use the weirdness of 2020 differently than many teams are. Just speaking for myself, even though it was apparent from the get-go that the M's were not going to even try to contend, even in a scenario where over half the teams make the playoffs, it took a while to really adjust to the club's 2020 paradigm. I might have understood in an abstract fashion that the season would be played more as an elaborate spring training than as an actual championship season, but it's been hard to focus that understanding when actual games are being played.

But here we are, at the season's equinox, and I see the light. I can give manager Scott Servais a temporary reprieve from my continual (and under normal circumstances entirely justified) harping about his inability to manage a bullpen in-game. I can even admit some justification, however minor, to the practice of carrying the most minimal of benches in favor of an enormous complement of relief pitchers—this year. Servais has shown a predilection for this sort of thing even in normal seasons, so I still chafe at it overall, but for 2020 I can accept it.

Because, for the Mariners, 2020 is something between an elaborate tryout camp and an immersion skills seminar. It's a development and evaluation program that will form the basis for the remainder of the 2020s. Without any minor leagues, traditional developmental techniques are unavailable; that's bad for the most part, as lower-level prospects like Jarred Kelenic and George Kirby and all of their peers don't get to play any real games, just the intrasquad practices at the satellite operation, and the vast majority of minor-leaguers in the system get no action at all. But higher-level guys, they can be thrown right into the deep end. Hence we see the likes of Shed Long and Justin Dunn right away without any Triple-A time, not to mention the plethora of relievers that probably wouldn't make the cut for 20+ other squads.

So we get to have a better sense of what the M's really have going into 2021, we get to see a solid sample size of big-league at-bats and innings from players that would ordinarily go to Double-A and Triple-A. Real-world evidence of whether or not each of them is ready for prime time, and if not why not. The Kelenics and the Kirbys and the Cal Raleighs get the short end of it, and the rest of the minors get less than that, but they have time. They can, assuming we have minor leagues again next year, reestablish their timetables.

So what do we have? Halfway through this process, what have we learned? Where are the remaining trouble spots if the M's are to be consistent contenders for the rest of the 2020s?

Let's break it down.

Starting pitching

This should be a strength for years to come.

Staff ace Marco Gonzales is under contract through 2024 with an option for ’25, when he'll be all of 33 years old. As much as the Mariners have been known for truly horrible trades like Lowe-and-Varitek for Slocumb and Jones-et-al. for Bedard, they will forever be able to hold up O'Neill-for-Gonzales as a gem from the other extreme. Broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith has called Gonzales "boring" because you know what you'll get from him every time out—seven solid innings, very few walks, quality starts. Not necessarily flashy, just smart, effective controlled pitching that holds the opposition down. Marco has been brilliant and just gets better as time goes on.

Yusei Kikuchi is likewise under contract (including options) through ’25, and though Yusei remains more of a question mark than does Marco, his history and his performance thus far in 2020 bode well. One thing that's a concern with him is his health/stamina; last year was supposed to be a transitional year for him to adjust from an every-sixth-game rotation with the Seibu Lions to every fifth game, and now in this weird season Servais opted to use a six-man cycle. So...that's now screwed up, but really, everything about 2020 is screwing up pitchers' routines, hence the huge number of pitcher injuries this year. Yusei missed one start already this year, according to the M's due to neck spasms, and that followed a start against Colorado in which he looked to me like he was pitching through some pain; most recently, he took a loss to the Dodgers wherein he had one bad inning, but, come on, it was the Dodgers. Really, I need to see a few more healthy starts from Yusei to get an idea of how he's coming along in his adaptation to the Majors, but if he's healthy, you'd think he should be solid going into next year.

Rookie Justus Sheffield is coming along quite nicely, and though he's clearly got some growing yet to do, has proven his worth as, at worst, a mid-level starter. If you discount his first two games this year—which isn't really fair but considering the short preseason rampup they can be considered less important—his season ERA is an even 1.00. Servais seems averse to letting the rookies go more than six innings, so we may not get a sense of his ability to go deep into games, but this southpaw's ceiling seems pretty high.

Dunn is still pretty raw and needs to develop consistency, but has shown real talent and ability and figures to be a big part of the rotation for several years to come. He got hammered by the Dodgers—again, those guys are in a class by themselves—and took a liner off the ribs that cut that start short for him, but rebounded quite well with six brilliant innings against the Rangers next time out. Yeah, in a lot of ways the Rangers are the anti-Dodgers, but still. Dunn's pitches have effective movement and variety, he just needs some experience and maybe some fine-tuning in his control.

The fifth spot isn't a lock for anyone, but short-term pickups like Taijuan Walker, who could be extended past his one-year deal, can more than adequately hold the fort until Gilbert, Ljay Newsome, or a pleasant surprise from this year, Nick Margevicius, can stake a claim to it. Walker clearly has a lot of quality baseball left in him now that he's back from a successful TJ procedure and would be worth offering another year (or two) to. Margevicius could make that less of a factor, though; if his three starts so far are anything to judge by, he's plenty good enough to hold his own as a fourth or fifth guy, but that's a big "if." Let's see how the next few starts go.

Starting pitching is the most important area for the M's, so this group being as solid as it is makes for a lot of optimism.

Bullpen

Oy. As good as the starters have been, that's how bad the relievers are so far. Very little here offers hope for the long term, but there are some middle-term possibilities for, if not greatness, at least adequacy. And should Austin Adams ever return from injury, he could be a big part of next season. So far in 2020, though, we've seen 17—seventeen!—relievers pitch for Seattle, not counting Margevicius:

  • Dan Altavilla has the stuff to be dominant, but serves up so many fat ones that you can never rest easy if he's summoned from the ’pen in a tight game. At 27, he's running out of time to prove himself and frankly might be best used as a sweetener in a trade. His power and strikeout potential are enough to warrant interest from other teams, who might have better luck getting him to succeed than the Seattle's had. Besides, he's essentially an older, shorter version of another guy the Mariners have on the roster. He shouldn't be counted on for the Future M's.
  • Brandon Brennan has been on the injured list since the second game of the year—hitting the IL the day he turned 29 with an oblique strain for a fine happy birthday present—so he's not had an opportunity to make his case. He's not likely to pitch again this year and may not don a Seattle uniform again.
  • Nestor Cortes is likewise on the shelf, but may return in the second half. He was being largely ignored in Servais' overstaffed bullpen and was pressed into emergency service when Kikuchi couldn't go on August 14th; the Astros hammered him for eight runs in a third of an inning and he left with elbow pain. And ERA pain. He had decent minor-league numbers coming into the season, but we've seen so little of him it's hard to know if he'll be part of things going forward.
  • Carl Edwards is only signed through this year, but if he fully recovers from the forearm strain that has him on the injured list, he'd be worth another contract. With so much uncertainty in this group, a guy like Edwards is worth keeping around, and he's still arbitration-eligible and thus under team control for a couple more years.
  • Aaron Fletcher looks like a keeper, but he probably needs some time in Triple-A. He looked good in his debut game, but that one inning is his only appearance above Double-A, where he's had all of 19 innings worth of experience. Let's see some more of him in the next couple weeks to get a better idea.
  • Minor-league time is definitely in the cards for 23-year-old Joey Gerber, who was solid in 23 innings at Double-A last season, though my gut says he's less of a prospect than is Fletcher.
  • Zac Grotz figures to continue on his minor-league journeyman way when this season closes up.
  • Taylor "The Mullet" Guilbeau probably sticks with the M's next year and perhaps longer; the lefty has been one of the few productive options out of the ’pen in 2020 despite unspectacular stuff.
  • Yoshi Hirano has only had one appearance since recovering from the coronavirus and missed preseason camp entirely, but the 36-year-old veteran is already the most reliable reliever the M's have got. He's on just a one-year deal, but like Edwards is under control through the arbitration process should the M's want to hang onto him next year.
  • Brady Lail has had two scoreless appearances for the M's. Will he stick? Who knows, he could easily wind up back on the waiver wire at any moment. Best not to count on him.
  • Matt Magill is very good so long as he's not facing the Dodgers (them again!). In nine non-Dodger-facing innings this year, Magill is unscored upon. He's no kid at 30, but should be part of the mix for awhile if he's not traded.
  • Anthony Misiewicz will surely be around come 2021; a solid left-hander with a good pitching arsenal, he's better than his numbers would indicate thus far. He was a starter for most of his minor-league career, but fills a nice niche as a middle reliever with some zip.
  • Ljay Newsome has a future, and it's probably in a starting rotation, in Seattle or elsewhere. He did a nice job in longish relief in his only big-league appearance thus far, but with only one Triple-A game on his résumé, the 23-year-old could use a year in Tacoma before he tries to force his way into a starting five.
  • Yohan Ramírez lucked out with the coronavirus in that the weird season allows him to stick on the big-league roster all year with no anxiety. As a Rule 5 draftee, he'd likely have been shipped back to Houston if this had been a typical campaign, but this way he can remain in the Seattle system as long as he needs to to refine his very good but very wild arm in the minors next year. He likely only needs one season on the farm, he's shown some wicked stuff that seems to flummox batters; as he is now, though, once word gets around about him guys figure to take a lot more of his pitches and his walk total may skyrocket.
  • Bryan Shaw was a low-risk trial that failed badly. Good luck in your future non-Mariner endeavors.
  • Erik Swanson is currently out with a forearm strain, increasingly common in this 2020 mini-season thanks to the short preseason training camps, but assuming he returns at full health, he can be a solid—perhaps excellent—setup man or closer if he keeps up his arm strength. There's nothing fancy about him, Swanson's a here-it-is-hit-it-if-you-can type of guy much like Altavilla, a two-pitch pitcher that needs the high-octane fastball to succeed. If he doesn't have 97+ he's going to get lit up; his breaking pitch is a rather pedestrian slider that's usefulness is in disrupting timing more than inducing swings and misses on sharp drops. His last two appearances before landing on the injured list he was hit hard, and not coincidentally he wasn't lighting up the radar gun those days; he was likely already nursing a mild strain at that point and made things worse for himself.
  • Finally, there's Taylor Williams, a mystery wrapped in an enigma stuffed in a puzzle. He's been remarkably successful so far with pitches that seem to follow their own agendas; his control is, shall we say, fickle. But the wildness has gotten results as much as it's caused trouble, and every now and then he'll turn in an inning where he appears to be in complete control. Servais seems to be enamored with the guy, so no doubt we'll continue to see a lot of him from here on out, but next year and beyond? No clue yet. How Williams has gotten through eight professional years throwing that crazily without a ginormous walk rate has me scratching my head, and it's hard to believe that with a full (standard) season of work the league wouldn't figure out how to just wallop the guy when he's not putting batters on with walks and beanballs. At 29, he doesn't have a huge window of opportunity left, but maybe he'll stick now that he's apparently found his champion in Servais.

Catcher

Well, Tom Murphy was supposed to be the everyday guy this season but thanks to a broken foot we might not see him at all. Thankfully, Austin Nola has produced with the bat and is an enthusiastic catcher. His failing so far is in throwing out baserunners; so far the success rate for runners attempting to steal on him is 100%. But he'll be in the mix for the Future M's, at least as a backup; as for Murphy, there's no way to know. His 2019 performance might be as good as he gets and the M's might decide they need to improve things at the position next season.

Infield

Something of a mixed bag, the infield boasts a potential superstar in Evan White at first base and high hopes at shortstop in J.P. Crawford. Those two will be in the lineup for Your Seattle Mariners for a long time, and though White has started 2020 rather slowly, the weird 2020 works to his advantage—he can get his developmental adjustments in now, when it matters a whole lot less, in this abbreviated campaign. And the glove is out of this world; every game you're bound to see at least one terrific play to save an error or display remarkable range around the first-base bag. Crawford also has some growing to do, but he's already come a long way in becoming more consistent at the plate; and defensively, having White at first has freed JP to use his great range fearlessly, as long as he can get to a grounder and throw it in the general vicinity of first base he knows he's likely to get an out.

Where things are troubling is at second base, as the team has prematurely anointed Shed Long as the man of tomorrow at the keystone. I haven't seen anything from Long that says to me "everyday Major League player" so far, and though he hasn't been a liability with the glove like it was feared he might be, he continues to look overmatched at bat. His future might be limited to the bench as a utility guy or part-timer, or with some more developmental time he might one day be up to the everyday task. Right now, though, I would not be comfortable going into a contention window with Long as my regular second baseman. For the rest of this season, there is Dee Gordon, who despite also having a rough go of it in limited opportunities is a more reliable option. But the M's have already decided they aren't paying Dee's 2021 contract, so it seems we should be looking elsewhere for alternatives to Long. Dylan Moore? Maybe, but I'm not convinced Moore's 2020 performance is legit. If he returns from his IL stint and keeps hitting like he has been, maybe he'd be a solid alternative at second.

Then there's Kyle Seager, having himself a comeback-player-of-the-year type of season at third. He's got one more year on his deal plus an option for 2022, and assuming he isn't traded in some sort of Jerry Dipoto amazeballs blockbuster, he figures to at least be at the hot corner for 2021. After that, who knows. When you talk about impending free agents with volatile performance histories, it's hard to predict, but Seager is a Mariner favorite and if this mini-season's performance is for real and continues into ’21 it'll be tough to cut ties.

Outfield

The M's have apparently struck gold in Kyle Lewis, who defied my expectations in a big way by becoming a completely different hitter during the offseason/layoff from the guy that got a September callup from Double-A last year and set a club record for strikeouts per plate appearance. He's on his way to being the new face of the franchise, a superstar that could give Mike Trout a run for his considerable money. So, yeah, I think we're good there.

Otherwise, it's still murky. Until this week, the M's haven't even carried three true outfielders on the roster, playing utility infield types in the corners more often than not. Even before he was optioned out, Mallex Smith wasn't allowed to play every day to try and break his slump and the club waited until Game 29 to promote Jake Fraley to the squad. Those two figured to be the ones sharing the outfield with Lewis all season, but no. So at this point we know nothing about two-thirds of the outfield for ’21 and beyond. Mitch Haniger figures to return next year, which will complicate things if Fraley and Smith are ever allowed (and able) to prove themselves worthy. In that event, one of them would likely be trade bait. Meanwhile, we wait and see. Fraley has a huge upside and Smith a history that indicates he can do the job; the question is apparently whether either of them will do it here or for some other team.

If it were up to me—which it never is, dang it—I'd bring Mallex back to sink or swim in one corner, use Fraley in the other most days, and maybe platoon righty-swinging Braden Bishop with one of them to determine if Bishop has what it takes. My feeling right now is that Bishop, like Long, might have a bench-player ceiling and be best as a fourth outfielder/spot starter type.

Bench

Leaving aside for now the problem of Scott Servais' inclination to carry an insufficiently staffed complement of bench players, this is a surprisingly strong element of this year's team. Having jettisoned DH Daniel Vogelbach (who today was traded to Toronto for cash), at least one of these guys is going to get plenty of reps the rest of the way while the rest can rotate through the lineup to give the front-line guys the occasional rest.

Right now it's Tim Lopes that is getting the most time in Vogey's stead. Lopes had a nice first week of the season, but has fallen from those brief heights; over the last 20 games, he's hit just .207. Were he used in more of a platoon role, he'd probably pick that up some. Newly-promoted Sam Haggerty has been impressive, batting .300 with speed in five games so far; Gordon we mentioned already, sadly a short-timer with the M's; and Moore has put up numbers that defy anyone's expectations. All of them can play multiple positions. It's anyone's guess who sticks for the future, but Haggerty is my first choice on that score. His on-base numbers throughout his minor-league career are a good indicator and you gotta love his footspeed. The only positions he hasn't played as a pro are first base, catcher, and pitcher, with the most time at second base—now that I think about it, Haggerty might be the guy to usurp Long at second. I hope Servais will put him at 2B a few times as we move through the second half. Early on, we also saw José Marmolejos, but he doesn't have a place with the M's and should find another team; he might become a hitter, maybe, and can play first or DH, but isn't much better than ol' Mark Trumbo was in the outfield.

Haggerty has good promise. Lopes is a platoon-at-best bench player, but a decent one. Moore still has to convince me he's for real. All could be here next year, or not.

So, on balance...the M's should be really good for the next few years if—and it's a big one—they stock the bullpen with more reliable, better balanced relievers and keep some depth stashed in the minors. Continuing to comb the waiver wire for other teams' pitching rejects might work out once in a great while, but it's no way to go if you plan on contending. And though I'm not saying you give up on him right now, the club does need to see who else might be a better choice as the regular at second than Long. Try swapping Long and Haggerty's roles for a week or so, see what happens. After all, the whole season's just a developmental exercise.

Comments

  • Posted by Bill on August 24, 2020 (15 months ago)

    Wow, Vogey a Buffalo Blue Jay? They had/have Smoak, guess they love our 1B rejects. Where have you gone, Russell Branyon?

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