Midseason report card
J.P. Crawford's defense is among the best things we've seen from this year's Mariners
July 9, 2021
Back in spring training, most observers pegged Your Seattle Mariners in 2021 to be yet another version of the hapless bottom-feeders we've grown accustomed to over the past many years. But here they are just a few days from the unofficial halfway point of the season, over .500 and within spitting distance of a Wild Card position in the standings. As we get ready to enjoy the All-Star break and its requisite festivities, let's take a beat and look at how the Mariners have performed in the first half of the season, breaking things down into a few groupings.
The starting rotation looked like it would be the Mariners' principal strength this year, but things haven't worked out that way. The team lost James Paxton for the year almost immediately; Marco Gonzales has struggled and dealt with injury, looking very unlike the master control artist he's been since coming to the M's; Justus Sheffield not only hasn't replicated his nice performance in 2020, he's regressed greatly and apparently played hurt for a time, ignoring an oblique strain until a brutal game in his last start forced the issue; Justin Dunn also got hurt and has only thrown 50 innings thus far; and depth pieces Nick Margevicius and Ljay Newsome joined Paxton in the lost-for-the-season category to complicate things further.
The bright spots have been Yusei Kikuchi, who made the All-Star team with a stretch of 11 fantastic starts in which he posted a 2.33 ERA and a batting line against of just .173/.242/.325; and rookie Logan Gilbert, who has adjusted quite nicely to the big leagues after a few rocky initial starts, capping his first half with a brilliant seven-inning shutout display against the New York Yankees. Chris Flexen has outperformed expectations after coming back from his year in Korea, turning in some surprisingly good games, a few brutal ones, and a number of perfectly acceptable middling starts to post really quite decent overall numbers.
Manager Scott Servais' plan to maintain a six-man starting rotation had some logic to it in the early part of the season, but after the injuries began to accumulate and an inexcusable number of "bullpen games" were pitched on a semi-regular basis it was well past time to abandon it. Yet it's only been in the last couple of weeks that Seattle starters have seen action every five games. Hopefully as the second half gets rolling the club will either consistently go with a traditional five-man setup or get a starter from outside the organization to stabilize that sixth slot.
Fortunately, the relief corps also failed to conform to preseason expectations; rather than deliver yet another parade of arsonists and gasoline-throwers, the Seattle bullpen has been astonishingly good. Mostly.
It took some time, of course. Servais insisted on using Rafael Montero as a closer for far too long and we had to try out the Brady Lails and Wyatt Millses of the organization before the key group of Drew Steckenrider, Paul Sewald, J.T. Chargois, and Anthony Misiewicz shook out to support rightful closer Kendall Graveman. Both Keynan Middleton and Erik Swanson spent large chunks of time on the injured list, but having them healthy for the second half will only bolster an already solid group. Veteran lefty Hector Santiago may yet have to serve a suspension for allegedly using a foreign substance on the ball (circumstances suggest he did not), but he's been excellent despite being misused; the M's would be better off with him serving as a spot starter when injuries have disrupted the starting rotation, but he's been strictly used in relief. Montero and Rule 5 draftee Will Vest are the problem options when the bullpen phone rings, but if Servais can just refrain from using either of them when the game is on the line from here on out the M's should be in fine shape.
There are too many bodies down there, though. The M's have had anywhere from nine to eleven relievers on hand this season, a ridiculous number that is only "necessary" due to the inordinate number of bullpen games Servais has opted for. It wasn't that long ago that the typical complement of a relief corps was six. We've seen creep to seven and eight by some clubs in recent years, particularly in the American League, but no team has overstaffed its ’pen (and thus weakened its bench) like the Mariners have.
Where would this club be without J.P. Crawford? Seattle's shortstop has staked a claim on the leadoff spot in the batting order and has earned a place on the All-Star team even if he's not yet been added to it (he should be, with Astro infielders Carlos Correa and José Altuve both skipping the game). J.P. anchors the infield defensively with his golden glove and until recently had an on-base mark close to .350 thanks to a monster month of June. He does have concerning splits in his stats, of course, hitting far worse at home than on the road (.236/.288/.339 at TMP, .325/.391/.448 elsewhere) and torching left-handed pitching while just adequately handling righties (.325/.362/.450 vs LHP, .251/.326/.357 vs. RHP). But the overall package has been essential to the Mariners' season.
The rest of the infield hasn't been great, though, at least not offensively. Third baseman Kyle Seager has been terrific in the clutch, batting over .300 with an on-base approaching .400 with runners aboard, but with the sacks empty he's basically been your average non-Shohei Ohtani pitcher at the plate. He still brings it defensively, of course, as does regular second baseman Dylan Moore; Moore has not been able to replicate his 2020 performance at all, though, reverting instead to the .200/.300/.360 type of hitter he was prior to last year. When Shed Long is at the keystone, the defense dips considerably and the club is better off with him in the outfield. And over at first base, unparalleled defender Evan White wasn't able to improve his hitting game from 2020 before landing on the injured list with a hip ailment that's kept him out of action for two months and counting; in his stead, Ty France has seen a lot of action at the position and handled it well, with recent acquisition Jake Bauers also getting time there. France has been very good at the plate, excepting when he's tried to play hurt; when healthy, there are few better to have at the dish when you need a hit. Bauers has been a nice pickup as well, a pleasant surprise off the waiver wire who has faded some from his initial burst on the Mariner scene but still offers a serviceable bat and competent glove.
Grade: B (A for defense, C for offense)
Mitch Haniger has been nearly as pivotal for the M's as Crawford has been; though his average hasn't been north of .270 since the first of May, he's put together a few hot streaks and the home-run power has been pretty solid (tied for 11th in the AL in total homers). Jake Fraley, finally getting the opportunity to play regularly, has been terrific with his .400 on-base mark and outstanding defense; "Eagle-Eye Jake" leads the team in walks despite having missed almost eight weeks with a hamstring injury (and despite some questionable umpiring that cost him a few more BBs) and is perhaps the club's best baserunner while utilityman Sam Haggerty is on the shelf with his own injury woes.
After those two, though, it gets ugly. Kyle Lewis has been out of action since the end of May and likely won't be back until September if at all this year, prospect phenom Jarred Kelenic was a bust in his first taste of Major League action, and through rookie Taylor Trammell has delivered some key hits here and there, he remains generally overmatched at the big-league level and could use some more time in Triple-A. Shed Long has become a decent defensive option in left field and he too has come through with a few clutch homers and hits, but remains a work in progress at the plate, struggling to maintain an average above the Mendoza Line; with only about half a season's worth of experience at the Triple-A level, demoting Long for a while to both build up his batting confidence and get him more comfortable being a full-time outfielder might be in order, if there were only someone to take his place on the big-league roster. Even though the Mariners' farm system is replete with outfield prospects, none are ready for the Majors; ten-year minor-league veteran Dillon Thomas might be the best option within the system right now to be a placeholder. If the M's are active at all in the late July trading season, getting an outfielder to solidify either left or center field (with Fraley playing the other) for the rest of the year might make sense to pursue.
Would the M's like to have Omar Narváez back about now? While the Brewers are enjoying his .300/.400/.500-type production, Seattle has been making do with Tom Murphy as their number-one backstop. Despite an OK month of June, Murph has only had three days all season when his batting average topped .200 and hasn't seen a .300 on-base since his fourth game of the year. He calls a decent game and pitchers seem to like throwing to him, but he's also the easiest catcher in the league to steal on and isn't likely to win any Gold Glove awards anytime soon. Luis Torrens, meanwhile, has played quite well after his month-long detour to Triple-A Tacoma; since coming back up, he's posted a very respectable .265/.368/.714 line with seven homers. Before his demotion and while he was away, though, he and José Godoy put up dreadfully bad numbers that made Murphy look like Johnny Bench. If Torrens' newfound skill is for real, he should give the M's a much-improved reliability behind the plate in the second half. If not, the position will continue to be a black hole and we'll watch Narváez from afar and wonder "what if."
Since White went down, Ty France hasn't spent much time as the DH and instead the slot has served as a way to rotate players in and give them a rest from playing the field for a day or two. Haniger has seen more DH at-bats than others, but on the whole it's not been a "position" worth quantifying by itself. As for the extra men on the bench, there have been precious few. For longish stretches, the Mariners have chosen to carry just two bench players, which flirts with disaster should anyone get hurt—and it's not like that hasn't happened plenty this season already—and the rest of the time has carried only three, severely limiting their options when it comes to mid-game substitutions. Those that are there don't tend to offer much in the way of pinch-hitting punch anyway unless it's a day off for one of the better-hitting regulars. Even more than catcher, the bench is the most problematic part of Seattle's makeup, but any improvements there have to stem from a change in philosophy rather than better performances.
Grade: D-. Saved from an F by virtue of adequate production by whomever occupies the DH spot on most days.
This one's a tough nut to crack. Scott Servais has his faults, to be sure—he doesn't like to deviate from his pregame plans no matter what happens in a game, he has a penchant for calling on the wrong relievers at the wrong times, and he is either the reason for or perfectly OK with the decision to carry essentially no bench. But he must be good at something. Perhaps when it comes to handling the egos of 26 comparatively wealthy young men and keeping morale good in the clubhouse he's a genius. We don't know. But in-game he's ranged from seeming smart enough not to sabotage himself to being effectively comatose to actively doing the wrong thing. Of late, though, he's made few overt mistakes, causing some of us to wonder if he's been possessed and is basically a pod-person now.
Meanwhile, general manager Jerry Dipoto has handled his end of things fairly well, with the notable exception of going along with/masterminding the minuscule-bench/overloaded-bullpen fiasco. He recognized, for example, that the Kelenic promotion was too much too soon before it got too far out of hand and rectified it; he tweaked the bullpen skillfully to remove the temptation for Servais to call on bad options by taking the ones he could off the roster (if he manages to trade Montero this month, that'll be another boon); and he's made adjustments when necessary to give Torrens a wake-up call in the minors, replace failed pieces like Jacob Nottingham and José Marmolejos, and pick up potential depth pieces for the minor leagues with waiver claims and minor-league free-agent pieces. He hasn't made any sort of big splash this year and isn't likely to, but as the trade deadline approaches it's going to be interesting to see what if anything he chooses to do.
Grade: C. Would be a higher mark if not for the choice to overload the bullpen.
Without much in the way of standout areas other than a shocking bullpen, it's incredible the M's are where they are. They've been more than the sum of their parts in 2021 and it's been fun to see. The second half should see stabilization from the club with starting pitching and, hopefully, at catcher, but unless a deal is struck somewhere that third outfield position is going to be a problem until Lewis returns and other than Road-Crawford the infield needs to step it up at the plate.
With so many moving parts, what kind of second half is in store? Will we see a run for a Wild Card? A fall into the sub-.500 dungeon? Or continued better-than-expected-but-not-contending play? Only one way to find out.